German Studies

Author: Roger Woods


This overview of German Studies in UKHE reviews the changing nature of the subject, student recruitment patterns, the teaching of German language, culture and Area Studies, and the role of the year abroad.

Table of contents

1. The changing subject and patterns of student recruitment

Over the last four decades German at UKHE level has developed from being the study of the language and literature of the German-speaking countries (but originally often excluding the GDR) into a very broad range of degree programmes under the heading of German Studies. In the early years of the subject the view that one learned the language in order to get to grips with German literature was reflected in degree programmes that did not attach great importance to the speaking of German. This view has given way to a consensus that the German language is a gateway to all aspects of the German-speaking world.

Single honours programmes at more traditional universities still prioritise language and literature, but many of these universities have embraced the innovations going on elsewhere, offering the study of the German press, film, and elements of German history and politics. Some departments also offer undergraduate degrees with an emphasis on translation and interpreting or individual modules in interpreting skills as part of a broader programme. The dominant trend, however, has been a move away from the single honours programme (for which student numbers declined by 28% between 1994 and 2001) and towards joint and combined honours programmes in which German may account for half, a third or less of the degree as a whole. Within these programmes students may combine the study of German with one or more other languages (including English), or with a non-language subject, among which Business, Law, Economics, and European Studies are the most popular. One indicator of this shift in recruitment is the fact that entrants to joint and combined honours programmes consistently have a higher average GCE A-Level points score than entrants to single honours programmes (QAA 1996).

Yet recent statistics indicate that the number of students taking German within a joint or combined honours programme is also falling. (On student numbers generally, in LLAS, see Good Practice Guide: General introduction to modern languages in today's UK universities.) One disturbing development within the popular European Studies programmes is that only half of these now contain a language component: the subject has shifted toward the social sciences (Kelly & Jones 2003). These trends have required HE departments offering German at degree level to innovate in order to ensure healthy recruitment levels and to develop a rationale for German Studies degree programmes that are often multi- or inter-disciplinary.

Numbers of students taking languages degrees have fallen by about 19% over the last four years, and there has been a concentration of languages into a smaller number of institutions, generally the Russell Group universities: Kelly & Jones note that in 1997-8 the twenty largest providers of languages accounted for 55% of undergraduates studying a language as part of their degree. In 2000-1 the proportion taught by the twenty largest had risen to 63%. The same pattern is found in all individual languages. Kelly & Jones predict that this pattern will be accentuated over the next few years, now that the government cap on student numbers has been lifted: “Already, anecdotal evidence points to more popular universities enjoying a bumper intake in October 2002, while less favoured institutions are left struggling for students” (ibid).

2. Defining the subject

What forms the intellectual core of German Studies and what skills do we regard as essential for our students to develop? In general one can say that the most successful German programmes demonstrate coherence both in their focus on particular aspects of the German-speaking world and in their methodological and conceptual focus.

A survey of the types of course on offer today suggests that the German language itself is the only common denominator in German degree programmes. Very few universities have stuck to the traditional degree format of the language plus the major periods of German literature. Some have forged a specific identity for themselves by concentrating on an Area Studies approach which combines language learning with an integrated study of the social, economic and political institutions and history of the German-speaking world ( e.g. Aston). Most German programmes have adopted a middle position, combining the language with elements of history, politics, society, literature and the media.

Integration becomes an issue in joint and combined honours programmes involving German: to what extent should the German component mesh with the other subject(s)? Programmes currently on offer show a wide range of answers to this question: there may be little or no integration because a common German core is regarded as essential whatever the other subject(s) of study, or because the number of students taking any given combination is too small to justify the specialist teaching necessary for meaningful integration, or because the required expertise is not available. Integration is generally greater where the German department is part of a larger, non-language unit, eg a business school. There is no right answer to the question of integration but bridging modules that establish a link between the subjects of study are often regarded as a useful middle way.

The debate about the nature of the subject has been encouraged by two developments. Firstly, the switch to modularisation at most universities has given rise to the concern that the subject may become increasingly fragmented as the teaching of German within multidisciplinary degree programmes is offered in individual units. German departments have responded by placing greater emphasis within each module on the methodological tools and background required for successful learning. Secondly, the QAA benchmark group for languages and related studies has recently set out the academic qualities and competencies that could be expected of honours graduates in the subject area. In its conclusions the group tended to be upbeat about the “multidisciplinary learning process, allowing access to a broad range of enquiries, whether these be literary, cultural, social, historical, political or of some other nature” (QAA 2002). This and other very general formulations represent a commendable attempt to embrace the whole range of German Studies, but these formulations also left the responsibility for ensuring programme coherence firmly in the hands of German departments. The QAA Subject Overview Report for German and related languages has generally approved the current state of affairs, commending German curricula “which are coherently structured, yet which offer considerable flexibility and choice” (QAA 1996).

3. Teaching German culture and Area Studies

The culture component of German degrees has broadened over the decades from German literature in all its major periods and genres to include prose, drama, poetry, essays, painting and architecture, the press, television and film. If one also includes the historical, political and economic environment that is a feature of many degree programmes, it is clear that German Studies have participated in the shift towards the notion of culture as a “whole way of life”, the “entire mental and material habitat of a distinct people or other social group” (Burns 1995:1). Many courses focus on the relationship between culture and society and consider the role of cultural products within a social and political context. Aspects of German social, political and economic history may be taught either as part of a broadly defined culture or as the context of culture. A popular development is the thematic approach (e.g. Vergangenheitsbewältigung, women's equality, sexuality and feminism, ethnicity and a multicultural society; urban and youth culture; the divided Germany and unification) within an inter- or multi-disciplinary context which includes German politics, historical debate, literature, and film. An increasing interest in theory has also given rise to degree programmes which offer the study of critical theory as a methodological core and as an introduction to the study of the culture.

4. Teaching the German language

Kelly & Jones (2003) point out that German is now increasingly only available in degree combinations, and this usually means the provision is concentrated more around the core activity of language learning. Getting this core activity right presents its own challenges: in recent years GCSE and A level syllabuses have tended to focus on communicative ability in German. This means that the teaching of grammar takes up a smaller proportion of GCSE and A level courses and many students therefore enter university language departments with good A level grades but often with an uncertain grasp of how the German language works. University departments of German have tried a range of remedial approaches to this problem, and generally concentrate on developing students’ grammatical competence in the first year. Achieving this goal at an early stage in the degree programme is one of the major challenges for German departments today, and available evidence suggests that small group work is a particularly effective way of tackling the problem. German departments have gradually embraced computer-assisted language learning, although the QAA subject report concludes that the majority of German departments do not yet have an obvious strategy for embedding IT in their programmes.

In the mid-nineties HEFCE and its Welsh and Scottish counterparts oversaw an assessment of the quality of teaching and learning in all German departments. Just over a quarter of the individual Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) reports recommended a review of the content of language programmes in order to improve levels of final achievement in linguistic skills. In their overview report on the teaching of the subject as a whole the assessors considered that “there is much to be learned from institution-wide language provision which, of necessity, has developed structured programmes with clearly defined and progressive targets for achievement.” Although in 70 per cent of institutions students were attaining most stated objectives in terms of linguistic skills, the TQA reports expressed reservations in the remaining cases, particularly in relation to grammatical competence (QAA 1996). Some German departments have responded to the great range of linguistic ability in the student intake by organising their German language teaching as a series of language stages which operate independently from the students’ year of study. The trend across the subject is for more elements of the programme to be taught in German, but it is interesting to note that only around 20 per cent of institutions teach entirely in German (ibid).

5. The year abroad

A period abroad is a requirement of virtually every degree programme involving German. Here too, however, there have been significant changes: the traditional placement as a language assistant at a secondary school in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, organised by the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, has declined in popularity - 20 % of students take this type of placement - as undergraduates move away from the idea of a career in teaching. Exchange placements at universities are still popular (accounting for 50% of students) and they are generally much more tightly structured than in the past: good practice involves a Socrates/Erasmus exchange with the universities, preparatory sessions for students in their second year, debriefing sessions for returning finalists, formal learning agreements with the students, and some degree of integration of the period of study abroad into the home university’s assessment scheme. This integration is both important and problematic, and practice varies considerably from one department to another, with some requiring successful completion of the year abroad as a precondition for admission into the final year of study, and others including the marks obtained by students from exchange universities in the final degree result. The type of placement which is increasingly popular among undergraduates is the work placement which is taken up by over 20% of students. Students regard work experience as a valuable addition to their CVs (and this perception is confirmed by studies of language graduate employment rates). In times of increasing student debt a work placement is also a way of reducing the cost of the year abroad.

A series of DfES-funded year abroad projects has produced Rapport, an extremely valuable survey of best practice in preparing students for the year abroad, ensuring they obtain the greatest possible benefit from their placements and monitoring their progress. The project outcomes are deal with elsewhere in this Guide (Year Abroad).

6. Conclusion

On balance one can say that German Studies has been obliged to broaden its remit and to adapt in order to flourish. Colleagues have shown considerable energy and imagination in this process, but there remain external factors which pose further challenges: government pronouncements on reductions in research funding for all but the top rated departments will hit the subject hard in some of its most innovative areas.

7. Associations

The main organisation for German Studies in the UK is The Conference of University Teachers of German (CUTG) which holds an annual conference on all areas of German Studies and publishes selected papers. In addition the Association for the Study of German Politics (ASGP) promote the study and teaching of German politics and society by holding conferences and producing the journal German Politics. At the international level the Internationale Vereinigung für Germanistik (IVG) holds a conference every five years to encourage contact and discussion among Germanists throughout the world.


Burns, R. (ed.) (1995). German Cultural Studies: an Introduction. Oxford: OUP

Related links

Association for the Study of German Politics. Available at:

Conference of University Teachers of German (professional association for all members of German departments). Available at:

Nathan Hudson, RAPPORT - UK Residence Abroad website, Portsmouth University, 2000. Available at:

Internationale Vereinigung für Germanistik. Available at:

Kelly, M & D. Jones (2003). A New Landscape for Languages. A Report Commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation. Available at:

QAA (2002). Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education benchmark group for languages and related studies. Available at:

QAA (1996). Subject Overview Report for German and Related Languages. Available at:

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