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29 September 2004

Relishing New Vistas

A British biology student on university life in Cambridge and Heidelberg — Philine zu Ermgassen is in Heidelberg for a year on a Baden-Württemberg scholarship from the Landesstiftung Baden-Württemberg

Cambridge. Hardly any other university has such a prestigious reputation. Founded in 1209, it has produced 80 Nobel Prize laureates and its graduates include kings and prime ministers, Oliver Cromwell, Prince Charles, Charles Darwin and Douglas Adams. To get in, applicants have to go through a demanding and time-consuming selection process. Only 25 percent are successful. One of them is Philine zu Ermgassen. She studies biology and geography in Cambridge, but at present she is spending a year at the University of Heidelberg on a Baden-Württemberg scholarship from the Landesstiftung Baden-Württemberg. And she is contemplating doing her final thesis here.

"I just wanted to get a different perspective on things," says 25-year-old Philine in response to the question about what made her decide to switch from one venerable alma mater to another, at least temporarily. "And Heidelberg has an excellent reputation in biology." But the credits she collects in Heidelberg will not do her any good back in Cambridge. "The course there is not modular in structure, it gets more and more specific from year to year. We sit exams at the end of each year and this time I'll be missing out on them." But she is philosophical about losing a year. "The new experiences are more than a compensation for that."

Looking in from outside

One of those experiences is the German language, for although her father is German Philine has had little contact with it so far. "My mother is Danish, at home we speak either Danish or English. I took a German course in Freiburg a few years back, then I did a diploma in German in Cambridge and before term started I took another course here in Heidelberg." With this kind of preparation she has been able to concentrate fully on her studies from the outset. Other things she has focussed on are the differences between the course systems and in the way people relate to each other.

Those differences are huge, she finds. Cambridge has a special status as one of Britain's elite universities. There, studies begin with a relatively broad introduction to four subjects. Philine's two main subjects are biology and geography, her subsidiary subjects are mathematics and geology. In the second year the main subjects are split up into individual disciplines such as botany, zoology and ecology. A year later students specialise, for example in ecological biology. "That means you get a thorough introduction to the subject and don't lose sight of where your going," Philine says. But there are drawbacks too. "The approach is very narrow, there's little time to look right and left." And it is this widening of horizons that she appreciates in the German system. "The subsidiary subjects available and the opportunities of getting a different take on things are much better in Germany," she insists.

Exhausting 90 minutes

But it was not all plain sailing for Philine. She had problems with the way classes are structured. "A 90-minute lecture is exhausting, both for the professor and for the students, particularly those sitting on the steps of the hall in an overcrowded lecture." In Cambridge lectures are over in 50 minutes, "so it's easier to concentrate." Back home, she has to write an essay every week, in each of her subjects. In addition there are the supervision sessions: every week, two or three students meet "their" professor for a tutorial, discuss the topics on the timetable and get feedback on their essays and any other questions that may arise. "You're in the firing line all the time and you can't get away with writing just one paper a term. Each and every day calls for immense concentration and there's a constant process of communication on all your subjects." This is one of the differences Philine has noted over and against the German system. "It makes studying a very intense business."

What she finds better in Heidelberg is the organisation of practical lab work. "Here you get six weeks practical work and it gives you a real insight into how lab work and the professional scenario actually function." Cambridge students only spend an hour a week in the lab or doing practical work and their experience in this area is correspondingly meagre.

"German newspapers write about interesting things"

And there are other aspects of German life that Philine zu Ermgassen finds preferable in comparison with the UK. "In Germany people take much more of an interest in society as a whole; they steep themselves in the relevant topics and are much more willing to look beyond the borders of their own country," she finds. "German newspapers at least write about interesting things. The tabloids in Britain are mainly concerned about who's getting married or not, even if something really important is happening somewhere else in the world. The Germans discuss significant topics, they're not only interested in actors and pop stars."

Final thesis in Heidelberg?

For Philine one of those significant topics is the environment. Compared with the UK, she finds that environmental awareness in Germany is broad and well-founded, as expressed in such things as the separation of household waste and tips on how to save petrol. "Alongside an appreciation of significant topics, these are two of the things I'll miss when I go back to Britain," she feels. "And this stronger feeling for the concerns of society is one of the positive impressions I'll be taking with me when I leave." As yet she does not know when that will be. At present, Cambridge biology student Philine zu Ermgassen is looking for an internship in Germany and seriously considering the possibility of doing her final thesis in Heidelberg.

For more information please contact
Landesstiftung Baden-Württemberg
Dr. Andreas Weber
phone: 0711/24847621, fax: 24847655

ACOM*WGS Communications
Dr. Sebastian Schulz
phone : 0711/72724435, fax : 72724472

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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