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As a follow up to this question: If large population of students in German universities are failing anyways, why not just require an entrance test for courses? Is there any reason Germany hasn't implemented this?

(Edit) I realize I should have elaborated why I recommended testing. In the place where I come from(India), well more like in 90% of Asian countries, testing is a critical part of process of getting into university. In the particular place I come from, one could argue that the emphasis on testing arises from an actual lack of university seats, but even if one talks of more developed Asian countries, for example, Korea and China, still you'd find the same. For example, the suneung or Gaokao in China.

And, I have an interest to study in Germany, and hence the questions arose as an interest to know why things are the way are in this country.

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  • 32
    A more realistic framing would be helpful: it's certainly not correct that "most people in Uni are failing" in Germany. May 13, 2023 at 16:33
  • 57
    Quite apart from the legal aspects highlighted in the answers so far: Is there a test that validly and reliably predicts success in studying math? I am not aware of one, and school grades in math IMO certainly are not sufficiently predictive - I see too many kids with the best possible grade in math, who would almost certainly fail the first semesters. Given that the two last years of Gymnasium have so little predictive power, I am skeptical that there would be a simple one-day test that does any better. Which kind of undercuts your proposal, no? May 13, 2023 at 19:27
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    @TrystwithFreedom Your question has an aggressive/arrogant tone. Remove the "just" and rephrase "large population .. is failing anyways" to "having a high fail rate", to make it more objective and calm.
    – usr1234567
    May 15, 2023 at 7:00
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    @TrystwithFreedom: You have asked several questions related to this topic, and repeatedly received answers and comments that ask you to specify your premises (e.g., what does it mean to fail) or address this question tangentially (e.g., on the very question you link). Due to this it is fair to expect that you take this into account in a new question, cover the basic background yourself (so the answers don’t need to start from scratch), elaborate your skepticism on the known arguments, and similar.
    – Wrzlprmft
    May 15, 2023 at 8:57
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    "I have an interest to study in Germany, and hence the questions arose as an interest to know why things are the way are in this country." Please read meta.stackexchange.com/questions/66377/what-is-the-xy-problem carefully and make sure you are not asking this type of question. Instead, ask about your actual problem you want to solve, otherwise you will not likely get answers that actually help with your problem. What is the problem here that you face? Is it that you are worried you will be accepted to study at a German institution and then fail?
    – Bryan Krause
    May 15, 2023 at 19:56

9 Answers 9

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There are a number of reasons, but the most important one is that the German constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees the freedom to chose one's profession as a fundamental right in Art. 12 (1.1).

Based on this provision, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court strictly limited the legal room for maneuver for restrictions on access to public universities in the famous Numerus Clausus Judgment of 1972 (BVerfGE 33, 303). Since then, the jurisprudence has evolved, but generally speaking, limitations such as minimum admission grades (sometimes not quite correctly referred to as Numerus Clausus) are only permitted when there is a demonstrable shortage of positions that cannot be fixed in the short term. In general, everybody with Abitur must be given the same access to a place to study.


Edit by @ccprog, as invited in the comments: I'd like to add a few details about the actual procedures.

  1. There are two seperate processes for admission to programs with restricted access: a central admission for all German universities by contract between the state governments, and local admission on proposal by individual universities and governed by state regulations.

  2. Both types are under the restriction to actually prove that the number of admissions are really exhausting the university's capacity to teach students. From my own time involved in these matters, I know that universities each year had to admit 10% or more above the initial numbers on court orders. (There are actually law firms that make a living on asserting admittance for refused applicants on these sort of grounds.)

  3. The Numerus Clausus might not be the sole basis of admittance. Most states have laws that allow additional criteria besides the Abitur grade. As an example, in Berlin universities first fill 20%–30% of the places with reseved quota like foreign students and applicants with a completed vocational training. Then, at most 60% of the places are filled by admittance criteria determined by the university and approved by the state administration. All other places are filled according to the Numerus Clausus and the number of semesters the applicant had to wait since his first petition ("waiting time").

    Mind you, most universities don't bother to design special admittance criteria and just use the Abitur grade for everyone. First, short of interviewing everyone individually the results probably won't differ, and second, it is just too costly to do all this testing.

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    @TrystwithFreedom Why should it? That would be stupid - making degrees passable by everyone would totally devalue them as they would need to be so basic that it is useless.
    – Sursula
    May 13, 2023 at 15:35
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    The right to chose one's profession doesn't extend to a right to graduate. It's only a right to study and take a shot at graduation. May 13, 2023 at 15:37
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    @TrystwithFreedom The law is basically there to give everyone the OPPORTUNITY to enroll in the course they want, not the GUARANTEE that they will earn a degree
    – Sursula
    May 13, 2023 at 15:37
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    @TrystwithFreedom the law is there to give everyone who has the capabilities to do a certain job the opportunity to do it. Yet, it doesn't want to give inept people a degree (e.g. a person who faints at the sight of blood shouldn't be a surgeon and will rightfully fail any practical exam), but it lets everyone TRY to be anything.
    – Sursula
    May 13, 2023 at 16:24
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    @AlexanderWoo the American interpretation probably wouldn't create an obligation on the state to provide a free service, though. :) May 13, 2023 at 16:33
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First: Most people don't fail university in Germany, it is very much dependent on the topic.

Concerning your suggestion of an entrance exam: education is a state-level competence in the federal system of Germany, that is each of the 16 Bundesländer can decide on how primary and secondary education is organized in their state (of course not completely but to a certain extent). As a result the levels of knowledge in certain subjects at Abitur level varies considerably between the Bundesländer. As an example, when I started studying, my Abitur math level from southern Germany was such that almost all of the first semester Analysis 1 course I already knew from school while some of my co-students from other Bundesländer hadn't heard any of it before.

Due to this federal education system, implementing generalized entrance exams would be very unfair and would skew the admittance in favor of those that were more "lucky" in where they grew up.

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    @TrystwithFreedom - that, of course, assumes the entrance exams are meaningful in predicting how one might do in university in some particular area. And also assumes a uniform quality of instruction across the whole country. Both are unlikely.
    – Jon Custer
    May 14, 2023 at 0:08
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    To add to this: Even if everybody received the same math education in high school, this would strongly differ from what university mathematics requires. Any test on high-school maths (including high-school grades) are a flawed predictor for the capability to study maths. And this becomes even worse for fields like law, pedagogics, economics, geology, or engineering, which have no high-school equivalent (at least at most high schools).
    – Wrzlprmft
    May 15, 2023 at 9:10
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    the current system is also unfair because people with the same capabilities have different grades based on where they grew up, aka equally viable candidates are treated differently
    – Hobbamok
    May 15, 2023 at 14:20
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    @Hobbamok That is true, but unless people are thought by robots, there is no completely fair system as even with the exact same curriculum, teacher quality etc. will vary
    – Sursula
    May 15, 2023 at 14:30
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    The British system relies heavily on grades and occasionally (which is even worse, as it mainly tests for big egos) interviews. I work at what is nominally one of the best universities in the UK and the number of students we drag through that had the grades at school, but not really an ability for the corresponding university course is astounding. The German system (which has very low fees, so it's not like you lose $10000 if you start over again after a year) really works much better to filter out the people that will actually succeed at university. May 16, 2023 at 12:54
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henning has already given the most important answer why nobody bothers to take the legal hurdles.

A few other practical or political hurdles include:

  • The top-tier high school diploma (Abitur) is generally regarded as a sufficient selection criterion to avoid an overflow of students. That being said, you can also enroll at a university if you complete a vocational training, with details left to the states and universities.

  • Implementing another countrywide admission test would meet political opposition: it costs money, it would be considered too bureaucratic, and meet opposition by angry middle class parents. And if any politician dares messing with their kids' Abitur, they get very, very angry.

  • That being said, the Abitur isn't a perfect selection criterion either. It's considerably easier to get in some parts of the country due to uneven educational policies in each state. A national college entry exam (similar to SAT in the US) would meet with opposition by the lower-ranking states. The pressure isn't that high since most students don't move too far away from their home area, typically staying within their state.

  • In that sense, the college entrance exam is basically deferred to the individual university. It's not uncommon to switch programs after a semester or two, and I know people who enrolled in several programs for the purpose of checking them out.

  • Another important difference to the US, India, or China: the quality of the universities is much more even. There are a few top-tier universities but generally speaking the variability in quality of the programs is not nearly as huge as in other countries. The reasons are probably political/historical. Generally speaking, a 'university' in Germany compares to an R1 college/university in the US.

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  • Thank you for that edit.
    – Ambicion
    May 17, 2023 at 14:05
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Why should they?

Your base assumption in that question is that a) many people failing early on is bad and b) a universal entry exam would somehow change this.

Regarding a) : A lot of courses (usually those with ease of providing high capacity because no practical stuff is necessary) intentionally have a low barrier of admittance (because they have capacity this is constitutionally required), but make up for that by challenging the students intensely in the first couple of semesters (causing many to fail). This is not a bad thing. It doesn't judge people on the performance on a singular day & test but instead on their ability to (and implied likelihood of) finish the course. This also allows for students with bad school performance to get their act together and ignores failure in fields irrelevant to the actual studies. If you CAN admit a lot of people (because the first few semesters allow for mass processing of students), why wouldn't you?

b) a universal entrance exam (completely universal like the Chinese one or per-subject?) wouldn't change this without exorbitant cost in terms of students that would have made the course but failed the exam. If the bar for this test is set too high, it is unconstitutional may fail people because of irrelevant subjects (a math-focused student might fail the German part for example) or for poor performance years past. It also prevents people from checking out a subject and deciding for themselves that they either dislike it, or have to work harder for it than previously. Especially the latter is impossible with a test you likely can take once as a teenager when you didn't really care for education (or for a specific field that in the end motivates them to try hard enough).

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The other answers do not explicitely mention this, but in some fields it has actually been common for decades to have some rather strict secondary school grade requirements. E.g. in medicine, veterinary medicine, psychology, architecture etc. That is the numerus clausus mentioned in henning's answer.

For several years it has also been common to supplement this requirement for good Abitur grades with entrance tests, at least in medicine (source in German, though arguably in the arts some kind of entrance testing has been common for decades).

Most STEM fields except biology do not have such requirements because demand for student positions is not so high most of the time. A high rate of failure then usually means that the field is inherently very difficult. However, it is sometimes alleged that exams are made more difficult if the number of first-term students is much higher then expected, in order to have fewer students in the later terms.

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    "it is sometimes alleged that exams are made more difficult" Hmm, made more difficult by whom? Due to the legal, organizational and cultural structure of German universities it is unlikely that this occurs at an organized level. Professors have a very high degree of freedom in designing and grading exams, so a department cannot simply enforce that a specific exam is made more difficult in a certain year. So while it might sometimes happen that a misguided individual instructor raises the difficulty of an exam due to a higher number of students, this in unlikely to occur systematically. May 14, 2023 at 10:40
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    Re "A high rate of failure then usually means that the field is inherently very difficult" I'm not completely convinced. Sometimes I'm under the impression that the difficulties of many first year students in mathematics are not so much due to some inherent difficulty of the topic but rather due to a large discrepency what is required (in terms of work effort, learning strategies, and motivation for the topic) to succeed in maths and what many students believe were required. May 14, 2023 at 10:47
  • @JochenGlueck this might even be done by individual professors, without any organization – they themselves are the ones to have to deal with a larger or smaller group later. May 15, 2023 at 0:06
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    @JochenGlueck During my time at university, there were always rumors that one professor or the other was trying to use a certain exam (General mechanics for engineers, for example) to unfairly weed out the student body. It was also alleged this was with tacit approval by the faculty.
    – ccprog
    May 15, 2023 at 17:28
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There are some subjects that have restrictions like this, mostly those with limited capacity like medicine. For those your final high school grade (Abitur) are typically used, which likely results in a selection similar to the one some aptitude test would create.

My impression is that this is simply not seen as a problem. It is arguably a more fair system than the alternatives. Your ability to succeed in the subject is measured by the actual courses and not by a proxy like some general aptitude test or by some subjective and potentially biased manual selection of candidates.

Difficult subjects also tend to put some of the difficult parts into the first semester, so you will usually know pretty quickly whether you're doing well or not. It does waste some time for students that pick a subject they don't succeed in, but usually not too much of it. And university is free in Germany, so the financial consequences are limited.

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Western vs Eastern State Sponsored Education

What you are describing is a very common phenomenon in Western style public education as a whole, not just Germany. Despite socialized college education, Germany is still by-in-large a capitalist country in the way that it manages its public services. In most Western school systems, the government pays for tuition and grants, not directly for the operating costs. When the government only pays for tuition, it means that the schools still need to compete for funding, and the most important metric for determining funding is how many students you serve.

For example, if you have the facilities and staff for 5000 students, but only 3000 pass the entrance exams because they are so difficult, then the school is still stuck paying for thier larger facility but with less income; so, it is in the best interest of the school to always fill every available seat. So, to balance the budget, state sponsored universities set thier entrance requirement to the minimum it takes to guarantee 100% enrollment, not based on what it takes to complete the coursework. In the inverse case where a school has the facilities and staff for 3000 students, but they get 5000 who pass the entrance exams, then there is a financial incentive to accept over thier capacity, and use some of the extra funding to expand thier facilities until they can host 5000 students. In this way, there is a supply-demand function in the way Western schools operate that encourages them to always accept the maximums number of students that they can and to grow to the capacity of the market.

In contrast, Eastern states operate based on the Communists economic model in which schools are given a fixed budget and are required to function within it. So, if an Eastern school is budgeted to serve 3000 but has 5000 applicants that should be able to complete the coursework, then they are not able to collect 5000 tuitions from the State and use the money to expand the school system. Instead, they can only accept the best 3000 until the government chooses to expand thier funding. On the inverse, where they have 5000 seats and only get 3000 applicants that can pass the entrance exam, there is typically no penality for only accepting those 3000 applicants because they are still doing thier jobs within the budget allotted.

This puts the financial incentive for many Eastern Schools to operate by accepting as few students as the government will allow them to whereas Western Schools operate by accepting as many as are allowed.

A second major difference is the contrast between Populist Socialism and Communist Socialism. Communism Socialism which is most popular in East Asia is based on the original Marxist view that "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". This means that Communist Socialists have no expectation that all people have the same abilities, opportunities, and needs which leads to a strong cultural bias toward only uplifting those who show merit. In contrast, Populist Socialism which is the primary form of Socialism found in Western Nations, is based on the view that the government is responsible for making sure that all people have the same opportunities regardless of thier current ability and background. This fundamental difference has influenced the goals and laws of the Western vs Eastern systems.

Germany Specifically

There is also a more recent cultural element to German education that they try to make it as non-competitive as possible. Competitive learning environments are experimentally shown to reduce the effectiveness of education, and Germany is among the top nations when it comes to applying this principle. In Germany, there is a much greater belief that a person can fail one test, and still move on to achieve great success down the road, even when compared to other Western cultures. So, while East Asian countries have built thier public education system around minimizing how much they need to invest, Germany has built thier system around maximizing the possible return on thier investment.

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  • All the universities I know, not just the German ones, got their most of their financial support from the state based on the number of students, and it is nothing to do with capitalism.
    – Greg
    Sep 27, 2023 at 11:47
  • @Greg Western school systems create availability in hopes of attracting students which brings in the federal/state funding; so, the school system theoretically grows until it reaches the capacity of demand, and schools cut back or fail when they exceed it. This is basic supply and demand. Communist school systems are first funded, and then students are allocated to them. No matter how many people want to go to college in a Communist Country, the capacity is dictated by the State which they typically set much lower than the demand to prevent waste.
    – Nosajimiki
    Sep 27, 2023 at 14:09
  • You are struggling with several misconceptions: 1) the world is not like Western Capitalists vs. everyone else Communists. 2) Unconditional state funding to meet everyone's needs is a core of communism, so in that sense, the education system in most EU countries is far closer to communist/socialist ideas than to capitalists 3) Higher education doesn't just grow and shrink according to demand even in EU. Simply the state cares enough to build enough space for everyone, not just for the rich kids who had enough money to do all the special preparation schools.
    – Greg
    Sep 28, 2023 at 8:24
  • @Greg 1) Since the OP established East Asia as a cultural zone for reference, that is the level of division my answer is based off of. Yes, each country is unique, but there are also cultural normatives that happen at the larger scale based on shared history and values. 2) THAT the state funds education in Germany is Socialist, HOW the state allocates its resources is based on Capitalism, and WHO it aims to educate is Populist. Communism in no way demands that all people be educated or have access to everything.
    – Nosajimiki
    Sep 28, 2023 at 14:20
  • Karl Marx famously described his system as "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" such that not everyone is expected to have the same abilities and needs in a Communist State. 3) The overall budget may be set, but where the budget goes is based on enrollment, not based on how a Central Authority has allocated it. I'm not talking about the German school system as a whole, but the individual choices made by German admissions personnel based on the framework that they must operate within.
    – Nosajimiki
    Sep 28, 2023 at 14:20
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Actually a study by the German Academic exchange service made a similar conclusion on reducing the drop out rates:

Die Phase vor der Ankunft in Deutschland sowie die individuellen Erwartungen und Motive der internationalen Studierenden werden bislang zu wenig beachtet pg -58

The phase before the arrival in Germany and the individual motives and expectations of international students are not considered yet.

Eine Verschärfung der Zulassungskriterien wäre ein einfacher, aber nicht unproblematischer Weg zur Senkung der Abbruchquoten bei internationalen Studierenden. pg-60

Enforcing stricter acceptance criteria would be an easy, yet not unproblematic way of lowering the drop-out quota of international students.

Furthermore, they have made later in the document a classification of the type of students who fail in their studies after coming to Germany with a detailed analysis.

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Germany has its own culture and cultural preferences, so comparing it to examples from different continents makes not much sense. Irrespective what Germans think the general benefits can be:

  • Above a certain level, tough entrance examinations just moderately correlate with the ability of students to be productive professionals.
  • Strict entrance rules often tie down students to a certain education path, while many prefers course during to uni years, taking up new majors etc.
  • Strict entrance exams often create wrong incentives to students, favors rich kids with private tutors, and there are a lot of other social consequences.
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  • Might not bring out the intended point or focus of the 'well-intended' answer ... so comparing it to examples from different continents makes not much sense. PS: I'll be glad to upvote without this contentious part. My view though Sep 28, 2023 at 7:09
  • @semmyk-research I can say in other ways, too, that the values of Germany/ the EU are different from other countries, but it will make people more upset.
    – Greg
    Sep 28, 2023 at 8:25

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