Nina Burger spent time as a high school student in the United States and wanted a similar, multicultural experience, when she went to university. Robert Eckoff was looking for a close relationship with his professors. Andreas Kolling wanted to finish his degree in three years. Until recently, these young Germans would likely have headed overseas for higher education, escaping the bloated, slow-moving German public system. Instead, they are taking advantage of a new option in Germany: private universities that charge tuition. "At state universities, time doesn't matter," says Kolling, 19. "Here you can have a degree after three years. If you take longer you have to pay more."
All three students are enrolled in the first freshman class at the International University Bremen, a private institution set up by Rice University in Houston and the city government of Bremen. The city donated a former military barracks as a campus, plus $100 million in start-up capital. "Our approach is to educate students more broadly than at the public universities," said Fritz Schaumann, IUB's president. "Our mission is to be an international portal for experience and change."
The rise of private universities in Germany can be traced to the declining fortunes of their public counterparts, the envy of the world in the 19th century. German universities, free of charge to all students, now feature huge classes with little access to professors. Incentives to finish course work are so weak that the average student doesn't graduate until age 26. (While enrolled, students are not counted in unemployment statistics, an inducement for the government to maintain the current system.) Professors can work as little as eight hours a week, including an hour of office time. Little wonder only 16% of Germans have a university degree, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, compared to 33.2% of Americans and 36.8% of Britons. "Public universities are basically stuck in a bureaucratic environment and cannot really develop," says Heide Ziegler, president of the International University in Germany, a private school in the southern city of Bruchsal. "There is absolutely no entrepreneurship to be found."
One attraction of private universities is small class size. At public schools, seminars with 60 people are common. At Bremen, there are only five students for every professor, while in Bruchsal there are fewer than seven. "That means students can always go and see their instructor, or get advice by e-mail," says Ziegler, formerly president of the University of Stuttgart. "They feel integrated."
The new private universities teach exclusively in English, largely because they are trying hard to recruit paying students from overseas. In this year's IUB class of 130 students, 27% are from Germany while the rest come from Eastern Europe, Africa and North America. At the International University in Bruchsal, which opened in 1998, there are 200 students, about half of them German. At the newly launched European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin, only about 25% of students are from Germany.
The programs of these private universities are organized along American lines, too. At ECLA, students are taught a "Great Books" liberal-arts program modeled on similar offerings at the University of Chicago. "We are appealing to a very ambitious, very motivated student who wants more from a university than a track to a job," says Stephan Gutzeit, ECLA's chairman. "Every year more students go to the U.S. to get a quality education. We said, 'Well, let's do it ourselves.'" At Bruchsal, students follow the American system of bachelor's and master's degrees. The school specializes in two very American subjects: business administration and information technology. Although all the private universities charge tuition, their fees are well below those at private universities in the U.S. Bruchsal costs students about $8,700 a year, not including housing, while Bremen charges $13,000 and ECLA $10,500. "Students seem to be getting something [from the experience], because there are public universities nearby in Heidelberg and Karlsruhe where they could go for free," says Bruchsal's Ziegler. While parents have to dig deeper in their pockets initially to pay for private education, officials at the new schools say they may be getting a long-term bargain: a child ready for the international job market in only three years.