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50th Anniversary of German Fachhochschule – University of Applied Sciences: A Success Story?

50th Anniversary of German Fachhochschule – University of Applied Sciences

A Success Story?

Does it surprise you if I say “Yes and No” or do you interpret this as “a way out”, not having an opinion? However, having been teaching at a Fachhochschule (FH) for 47 years myself, I dare to have a distinct view as an oldie. But, why “in the middle of the road” and not an outright answer?

Let us first start with the present shortcomings, not about the history of significant developments and achievements, e.g. as regards:

Equal Opportunities – Question Mark?
Degrees: Thanks to the Bologna process, Bachelor- and Master-degrees awarded by Fachhochschulen are quality assured to be coherent with the European Qualification Framework of Higher Education. However, a Bachelor achieved at a FH is not on the same level playing field everywhere as regards its academic and sometimes even professional recognition. There are glass-ceilings, i.e. when respective graduates apply for a Master programme at some German universities, but also open barriers when trying the same even at some EU institutions in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). Also, not many FH have the right to award a doctoral degree on their own behalf, and some areas are exclusively taught at universities.

Research: Yes, all FH are legally obliged to include research into their academic activities – institutionally. However, to perform well teaching staff has to overcome barriers, such as:

  • high teaching load of 18 hours per week;
  • hardly any research assistants;
  • lack of non-academic support staff; and,
  • quite often the overall infrastructure needs to be improved.

But - Exclamation Mark!
Creativity: FH have found ways and means to overcome these disadvantages – to a large extent! In particular by networking with national and international partners, be it universities in Germany or abroad, similar institutions in other countries, not having these barriers, or industry in its widest sense. To be more concrete, FH staff has been innovative and inventive in its academic performance to finance staff, through third party monies, in order to compensate for the shortcomings referred to above, to free themselves from their teaching load. The ultimate goal is following its mission: applied research.

Attractiveness: At the beginning, studies at FH were regarded as second chance - in particular for school-leavers without Abitur (i.e. diploma) but with practical experience - or as a second choice, since a numerus-clausus - a strict restriction on the basis of the grade of the school-certificate - regulated the admission to many study-programmes at universities. Today, FH and universities compete for the best brains in many areas. Employability, which often has a negative meaning at universities, is interpreted as an opportunity by FH. FH are indeed much more flexible in designing study-programmes for future demand of labour, for example in the engineering but also in the international business fields. As the teacher/student-ratio is in general much more favourable, FH tend to boost 'Learning and Teaching'. And the labour-market? It depends on the professional field, on the regulations of public services and, sometimes, on some legal requirements. But basically: opportunity knocks!

Nevertheless, there is one major danger: when it comes to prestige, a university appears to have a higher reputation in people´s mind. This leads some FH representatives to aim at transforming the FH into a university – putting some essential characteristics of an FH at risk! Please, FH, go your own way! Exploit your strengths; overcome your weaknesses. Prestige follows achievements; makeup may be brushed away, inroads cannot.

Volker Gehmlich - Professor of Business Management at the Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences, Germany