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The differences between German and Chinese degrees in engineering

by Reinhart Poprawe

The training of engineers at German universities enjoys high regard internationally. In comparison with engineering training in China, it is far more hands-on. Do the differences in the degree systems also lead to better qualified or less well-qualified engineers?

The differences between German and Chinese degrees in engineering© Forschung & LehreReinhart Poprawe, Professor for Laser Technology and China commissioner for the RWTH Aachen on the differences between engineering degrees in Germany and China
Forschung & Lehre: Chairman of Festo AG, Dr. Eberhard Veit, recently stated that a German engineer is still better than a Chinese one. Chinese engineers are "crammed with theory at the universities. There are lectures in the truest sense of the word there - questions are not permitted. Practical experience and lab work are often lacking". Do you share this belief? Are German engineers better trained?

Reinhart Poprawe: Yes, there are differences, though I cannot agree with this across the board. Our students, who participated in the double Master's programme at the RWTH Aachen and Tsinghua University, reported that they were able to make few friends, for example. The social cohesion among students is obviously far greater here despite the growing competitive pressure. The training in Germany is also undoubtedly more hands-on. Engineers experience and learn of the social relevance early on through the more or less strategic integration of training and research.

F&L: How great are the differences between the engineering training really? What are the most important differences?

Reinhart Poprawe: Germany earns more than one quarter of its gross national product with the production of goods. This corporate culture of fostering young academic talent with a practical approach from the universities has long dominated. The research topics whose fundamental publishable findings are then literally integrated into the current training are often oriented towards these questions. The state tender-based funding of research on state and national levels works in complement as a catalyst for industry-defined research projects. Hence a circle of implementation and innovation-oriented research links with the current training. China is not (yet) familiar with this. But even if it turns out the same with Humboldt as it did with Karl Marx that the Chinese adaptation of German thinkers leads to sustainable benefits in the country, this will not be a disadvantage of us. The esteem for the initiator would open a great many doors here and create opportunities.

F&L: What value does the training have at Chinese universities?

Reinhart Poprawe: Few differences are discernible. Training - and thereby the highest quality training in the country - is and remains a prominent primary task of the universities. In the past few decades, research has increasingly been added to this though. Where the technical-natural science Nobel Prizes were once often earned in the research labs of major industry (e.g. Bell Labs), the focus today has shifted. And particularly the integration of demanding, practical research into the training leads to innovation-capable young academics. The Fraunhofer Society's principle is today considered a benchmark in this around the globe, and we can be pleased and proud of our forefathers, who already recognised this principle and its relevance for innovation over 60 years ago in Germany.

F&L: Is the German diploma recognised and acknowledged as a brand in China?

Reinhart Poprawe: It certainly is.

F&L: To what extend must a German professor teaching at a Chinese university adapt to the Chinese system of study? Can they bring their teaching methods with them, so to speak?

Reinhart Poprawe: This question doesn't actually come up. They can and will use their curricula as they have developed them. They also cannot change their methods overnight. Interesting is the question of how Chinese students react to it. The answer - the quote here would be "private communication" - is simple: the young people react accordingly, i.e. they see the 'other', adapt unprompted, and ask question after question after question ... - in an entirely un-Chinese fashion.

F&L: Do German engineers tend to be recruited by German companies in China as they are better trained, or are Chinese applicants preferred as they are more familiar with the Chinese market and prepared to work for less?

Reinhart Poprawe:You will have to put that question to Chinese and German companies, but what we heard from both categories is not clear. There are smaller branch offices in China that are 100 per cent foreign-owned and have 100 per cent Chinese engineers and employees, and other, larger companies that favour German engineers. But the tendency is currently more towards Chinese employees with the argument that they understand the clients better - not only in terms of culture but also in terms of language, as barely any medium-sized companies speak English. It seems important to me here that the German companies are currently undergoing a paradigm change: not many months ago, there was an economic bogeyman image of China; the fear of loss by the training Chinese competition dominated. Today the picture is a different one: the absolute majority of our partners and customers in the field of research see a market and potential partnership in Chinese companies. Win-win is the order of the day.

From Forschung & Lehre :: May 2012