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You are here: Home Education Higher Education Berlin's sturdiest ivory tower (page 1)
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18/06/2004Berlin's sturdiest ivory tower

Berlin's sturdiest ivory tower At a time when many German public universities are fighting for their very survival, one private English-medium college is doing better than ever. We visit the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin.

An exclusive community of scholars living, eating, and working together far from the bustle of the city, debating esoteric questions in a rarefied atmosphere of the mind: it sounds more like a medieval monastery than a contemporary university.

Students come to ECLA from over 20 different countries

It seems almost unbelievable that such an institution can exist in the modern world, even more so that it is located in Germany — land of overcrowded, under-funded universities.

But exist it does. Located in the leafy Berlin district of Pankow, the English-medium European College of Liberal Arts (ECLA) is pursuing a model of education radically different from that of a German public university.

Arriving at ECLA on a sunny spring afternoon, I am met in the spotless main building by the assistant to the ECLA provost, Tomaz Cebasek, a personable, well-groomed man in his late 30s. Having grown up in Slovenia and worked in business and education on both sides of the Atlantic, he is the perfect spokesman for internationally-oriented ECLA.

Speaking in measured, professional, tones, he explains ECLA’s approach to me. The private college was founded in 1999 by Stephan Gutzeit, who was inspired by his experiences studying at the prestigious American university Stanford to set up an institution offering a similar model of personal, high quality education in the humanities. Accordingly, the institution places an emphasis on small classes, individual tuition, and high academic standards.

ECLA currently has around 65 students, approximately three quarters of which are non-Germans, from countries as far-flung as Egypt, Pakistan, and Belarus. The college is especially popular with students from eastern Europe planning to use ECLA as a springboard to elite universities in the US and UK, and the impressive track record of ECLA alumni shows that such hopes are not unrealistic.

However Cebasek is adamant that ECLA itself is not an “elite” institution: “We don’t use the word [elite] because, with its connotations of social status, it is often misunderstood,” says Cebasek. “But we are selective, we care about academic standards, so in that sense we are elite.”

When I ask if students are from wealthy backgrounds, Cebasek is quick to emphasise that selection is made on the basis of academic ability, not ability to pay.

“Grades and motivation are more important than background,” he says. More than 50 percent of students get funding, based on needs, with some students receiving 100 percent scholarships.

ECLA currently offers three different study programmes, which have been introduced step by step over the years.

The six-week summer school was the first programme to be introduced, in 2000. Described rather grandly by ECLA’s marketing material as “a permanent feast of the mind”, the summer school encourages students to discuss canonical texts of European intellectual history, with the aim of addressing eternal questions of the human condition; in the fifth summer school this year, around 50 intrepid students will be tackling such thorny questions as “Why is there evil in the world?” and “Does God exist?”

Thomas Norgaard conducts a tutorial with a student

In a similar vein the first-year programme, known as the Academy Year, combines lectures, seminars, language classes and tutorials in an interdisciplinary, problem-based, approach to the humanities. In the separate second year programme, students work independently on individually arranged research projects, tackling issues which lend themselves to an interdisciplinary approach.

At this point Thomas Norgaard, the 32-year-old Danish director of the second year programme and one of seven full-time faculty, appears. An Oxford philosophy graduate, Norgaard is clearly passionately committed to the ECLA project.

“What is happening here is totally unique,” he says. “The people who study here are not only students at an institution, they are members of an intellectual community.”

He explains how relationships between faculty and students are completely different at ECLA from a normal university. “You get to know students on an entirely different level. They talk to you about all sorts of things,” he says.

Like the other professors, Norgaard teaches in his own room. With no office hours and an open-door policy, he is accustomed to having students drop by for advice for even just a chat.

“Students are used to coming to your office. They feel totally at home there,” he says.

ECLA professors hold seminars in their own offices

When I ask how large a role ECLA plays in their lives, the two men laugh. “Ideally I should have a life outside ECLA,” says Norgaard. “It doesn’t always happen.”

He talks enthusiastically about ECLA’s plans for the future, which include an eventual degree programme. “We’re still finding our feet. But what we’re doing here is totally exciting. I think we’re going to have a very good institution in five to ten years’ time.”

Cebasek shows me around the student residences, located in Bauhaus-style buildings originally constructed for the Egyptian and Angolan embassies to the former GDR. The student houses resemble typical halls of residence at British universities, except cleaner, more spacious and better-equipped.

A buffet is set out in the small dining room, ready for the students’ evening meal; the bored German dining lady sits doing a crossword, ready to serve. Elsewhere I see the guitar music for Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower lying on a table and feel reassured that students are the same everywhere.

Cebasek bids me farewell, and gets on his bike to go home. Walking down the peaceful tree-lined street to my tram stop, I can almost believe I am on an American Ivy League campus. Then I am brought rudely down to earth by the sound of belligerent voices: outside a cut-price supermarket, four German winos are sitting drinking beer in the street. No monastery can completely escape the barbarians.

For further information on ECLA, see

June 2004

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: Germany, higher education

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