On Universities and Universities of Applied Sciences

A quick disclaimer that I deem necessary: Most of the following is based on my own experiences as a student of psychology in the German-speaking parts of Europe. It is not meant to be strictly factual or representative, but more of a summary of observations and anecdotes, occasionally connected to information from other sources. It is also for this reason that I’d be very interested to hear about your personal experiences of studying at universities in other disciplines, educational systems and/or countries!

In autumn of 2018, I began studying applied psychology at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften, ZHAW). For my fifth and current semester — despite the current situation — I was fortunate enough to go on exchange to the Humboldt University of Berlin (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, HUB). While planning my exchange, I became very curious about how the experience in studying might differ between these two “types” of universities.

You’ve probably already noticed something just by reading the two names, location aside: The former is referred to as a “University of Applied Sciences” or Fachhochschule, while the latter is simply referred to as “university” or Universität. Why could that be?

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The main building of HU Berlin. Photo by Heike Zappe | HU
The Toni-Areal campus of the ZHAW and ZhdK. Photo from zhaw.ch

Coincidentally, their campuses also differ quite a bit––it almost seems like a matter of “modern versus traditional”. Might that have to do with it? Or what exactly differentiates the two “types”? Let’s have a look.

What are the differences?

If you’re not European, you might never have heard of Universities of Applied Sciences before. In fact, they were first founded in Germany and later adopted in just a few other countries, namely Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Cyprus, Greece and Finland.

There seem to be many more similar constructs around the world, such as Hochfachschulen, Institutes of Science & Technology and various Vocational Universities. You can find examples of those in countries such as the Netherlands, Iran, or even China. However, it is not quite clear to me how those compare––some seem to exclusively offer technical studies while others do vocational training for specific professions. Some just hold on to a former name despite now being referred to as “university”, like the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. So for the sake of this article, I will limit myself to talking about Universities of Applied Sciences in the sense of the German-speaking parts of Europe.

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The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). Photo from studyinsweden.se

Generally, I think it’s fair to say that Universities of Applied Sciences have more of a practical focus than “regular” universities. This is probably also what you’ve heard before, as it is usually mentioned in brochures or told by many local career/study guidance services. But that does not really tell you much, does it? What does a “practical focus” mean?

Going by my own observations, it translates to spending more time on acquiring knowledge and skills that are of obvious and direct use to your later job. Sticking with the example of psychology, a large amount of my courses at the ZHAW revolved around practicing professional conduct of conversation, i.e. how one might structure the first session with a client. Or: You are shown what steps one usually has to go through in the process all the way to making a diagnosis and how it’s all done. Besides the Clinical Psychology-related content, some of the exams we were administered in Organizational Psychology also demonstrate my point well: Cases of fictional businesses that report struggles within their teams were handed out to us students in groups, and then we had to propose pragmatic solutions based on established methods and theories. I think this “practical focus” is further underlined by the much larger proportion of University of Applied Science students joining the workforce just after a Bachelor’s degree — “regular” university students tend to follow their Bachelor’s up with a Master’s degree (based on Switzerland’s numbers).

When contrasting the curricula of the two types, it seems to me that “regular” universities would generally go a tad more in-depth, as I for example noticed in courses on Biological and Neurocognitive Psychology. In most cases, you would probably spend more credits (respectively time) on learning how to conduct research and data analyses accordingly. Needless to say, Statistics and Methodology are also taught at Universities of Applied Sciences, but probably to a lesser extent (also depending on the institution). Considering that “regular” universities are primarily meant to be research institutions, that does make sense.

On a similar note, when looking at what studies are offered for each of the two types, you’ll notice that some degree programmes are exclusive to either one of them: While Medicine and Law are typically “regular” university-exclusive, studies like Aviation and Timber Construction are often only offered by Universities of Applied Sciences.

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Photo by Oskar Kadaksoo on Unsplash

And: Universities of Applied Sciences do conduct their own research! What’s interesting and revealing is their focus––you might find research groups investigating phenomena in Traffic Psychology, Media Psychology or Child Guidance. These are all areas very closely tied to industry and/or people’s daily lives. On the other hand, when you take a glance at what “regular” universities’ fields of research are, you might first of all notice that there are many more professorships held. Second of all, you might notice a number of research groups that collaborate with other departments of the same university, resulting in intriguing research in Neurocognitive Psychology, Computational Psychiatry, Experimental Clinical Psychology, Methodology and Statistics, and so forth––this reflects their often strong quantitative focus and large(r) funding.

Some of these points such as the number of professorships can also be lead back to the difference in size: In Switzerland, the largest University of Applied Sciences counts roughly 15'000 students, while for “regular” universities numbers go as high as 27'000. Larger countries such as Germany have universities with as many as 75'000 students!

Another point worth mentioning is that while both award legally equivalent Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in accordance with the Bologna process, typically only “regular” universities award doctoral degrees themselves. However, doctoral programs may be offered by Universities of Applied Sciences if in collaboration with a partner institution (a “regular” university) which eventually awards the degree. Some effort has been put towards getting this changed, but as this is more of a legal issue, I won’t cover that in detail here.

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Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash

Lastly, there’s often discussion around which option is the better one. I have personally encountered the stereotype of Universities of Applied Sciences being somewhat easier or straight up worse than “regular” universities a number of times, but I believe that has died down a little over the past few years. Since the path leading up to possible admission for each type of university is different, and the orientation and focus of both types is different, you might already have predicted what my opinion on this matter is: It depends! If you’re enthusiastic about research and like diving into theory, “regular” universities are probably a good place to start. If you’re interested in psychology in order to become a counsellor or psychotherapist, it might be nice to have more of a practical focus from the get-go. Custom pre-written curricula for part-time studies are also often provided by Universities of Applied Sciences, so for some that’s a deciding factor. For others, the freedom of being able to choose from a broad range of minors and majors and switching them as often as you like might be one of the crucial pros for “regular” universities.

As always, there are many more interesting points to be picked up on, especially the history of universities and their ideals––I might get to that in a subsequent writing. If there’s something essential you think I missed, feel free to let me know!

If you’re a student, enjoy the upcoming two university-free weeks––thanks for reading, happy holidays, and until next time!

Written by

Psychology student from Zurich, Switzerland with interests in STEM and various other things | Website: https://www.adaniabutto.com

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