Ulrich Stadtmüller, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Ulm in Baden-Württemberg, is concerned about overcrowded lecture halls and overwhelmed professors.
Instead of the typical 700 to 800 new students starting their studies this autumn, he's expecting about 1,300.
“It's many more students than we've had in the past,” he told The Local recently. “We have a lot of challenges, from space in the cafeteria to finding places for them to live.”
The University of Ulm, with about 8,000 students, is far from alone. Across Germany, public universities are bracing for a never-before-seen onslaught of students for this semester.
Not only is interest in higher education is at an all-time high, but changes in the country's secondary education system mean an unusual number of people are graduating with the Abitur, Germany's university-track high school diploma, this year. To make matters worse, the abolishment of mandatory military conscription is sending a glut of young men into universities, when in previous years they would have been busy doing army drills or an alternative community service.
This autumn roughly 500,000 new students are expected to register at German universities – a 60,000-person increase over the same period last year, according to CHE Consult, which studies higher education trends.
The expected influx is sending universities scrambling to hire new professors and improve facilities, although the consultancy estimates 50,000 prospective students may still be unable to find spots this year.
Christopher Berthold, a CHE Consult managing partner, said Germany's problems have been magnified by inadequate funding and planning. The government has underestimated the number of students who will enter higher education in the next few years by hundreds of thousands, meaning too little money has been funnelled to the university system, he added.
And because universities are simultaneously unsure about future funding while still having to find a way to educate students, they're being forced to hire temporary professors and lecturers, something that could hurt quality standards, he said.
“This is something we've never seen before,” he said. “This next semester is going to be a very challenging one for both universities and students.”
Private unis profit?
But at least one group is happy about the higher educational system's problems: private institutions.
Wolfram Hahn, the secretary general of the German Association of Private Colleges (VPH), told The Local he expects more students to begin studying at the roughly 50 private schools that make up VPH.
“We can truly profit from this situation,” he said, explaining that only about 100,000 Germans currently study at private universities and colleges. “The system has major problems but we can help fill the gap.”
That's of little comfort to Stadtmüller. Although he says the university has planned carefully for the influx, there are still many unknowns.
This year roughly 7,000 people applied for about 423 spots in the university's most competitive fields – disciplines like psychology or economics.
Some fields have seen an increase in applications of some 40 percent from just last year. But Stadtmüller suspects some students are applying at up to 20 universities because they know spots are at a particular premium this year.
So how to know who really wants to go to Ulm? There's really no way, he said.
“Last year we managed enrolments accurately, but this year we're really not quite sure,” he said.
At the University of Duisburg-Essen, administrators struggle with similar problems, while trying to look on the bright side.
“We're happy that a lot more people want to study. It's just that there's fear when we don't have enough funding,” said spokeswoman Ulrike Bohnsack.