Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on German universities – Latest information and news

In mid-March 2020, the German Rectors' Conference (HRK) set up a special page on its website with selected information and news regarding the situation of German universities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its current effects on studying, teaching and research. The page is continually updated (current status: 13/8/2021).

HRK statements on the COVID-19 pandemic

The latest HRK press releases dated 13/3, 24/3, 7/4, 8/4, 20/4, 27/4, 30/4, 7/5, 22/5, 28/5, 2/7 and 18/8/2020 as well as 26/1, 28/1, 5/3, 18/3, 16/4, 20/4, 28/5, 10/6, 16/7 and 11/8/2021 are available for download in PDF format in the right-hand column of this page and in the overview.

Current interviews, panel participations and guest articles (mostly in German) by HRK president Peter-André Alt. (more)

Joint statement by the presidents of DAAD, DFG and HRK calling for improvements for education and research funding to the new EU budget; dated 24/7/2020. (more)

Joint Press release with the KMK (i.e. the Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder) on the central application and admission procedure for the 2020/21 winter semester; dated 28/5/2020. (more)

Press release from the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany, in which the HRK was the lead organization in 2020; dated 7/5/2020. (more)

Effects on the HRK’s work

In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the HRK has taken the following measures, which were introduced in mid-March 2020 and will provisionally apply until 14 January 2022, in the interest of public health care and in due consideration of the current risk assessment of the competent authorities and specialist institutes.

All planned public events and conferences of the HRK that require the physical attendance of participants have been cancelled up until the end of May 2020. Since then, such events have been organized in digital form or will be held on a later date. Where physical attendance is necessary, events with smaller groups may be organized in accordance with the present rules of physical distancing and the required hygiene requirements.

The working capacity of the HRK's secretariat has been safeguarded at all locations. The team at the secretariat is working from home where possible. The switchboard and the reception in Bonn will be staffed between 8.30 am and 1.00 pm until further notice. There may be capacity issues in the telephone system due to call forwarding. If necessary, please try again or send an e-mail to the desired contact partner.

The HRK’s library is closed to the public until further notice, but is available for all inquiries and research via bibliothek[at]hrk.de.

Requirements and regulations of the federal states for university teaching and examinations in the COVID-19 pandemic

In mid-March 2020, the federal states in Germany, in consultation with the federal government and universities, imposed and recommended numerous requirements and regulations aimed at preventing the further spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 in order to support the nationwide measures taken against the current coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). Contact restrictions and hygiene requirements based on frequently adapted state regulations have been ordered for higher education – including substantial suspension of face-to-face teaching in favour of digital online formats in the 2020 summer semester, in the 2020/21 winter semester and in the 2021 summer semester.

For the winter semester 2021/22, the universities and the Länder are striving to make face-to-face study possible again, as far as the pandemic conditions allow. The constantly changing coronavirus situation remains the central factor in planning. Health protection must be guaranteed. The universities will use the experience of the past three semesters to assess local risks and responsibly plan and give access to face-to-face courses. All options must be used to strengthen and support students in their everyday studies.

As things stand, universities are gearing up for different scenarios, largely based on the 3G rule (Geimpft, genesen oder getestet - admission only for vaccinated, recovered or tested persons), as the Federal Government and the Länder also based their "Measures for Coping with the Corona Pandemic" on in August 2021. The following are some possible scenarios:
- Exercises and seminars can be conducted with a mask and in compliance with the distance and ventilation rules for face-to-face teaching; larger lectures should be conducted digitally.
- Hybrid formats with the option of participating digitally or in person are offered if this makes didactic sense, provided that it is technically possible and can be financed. Given the complex requirements here, hybrid formats cannot be the rule.
In the event of worsening of the pandemic, a nationwide return to purely digital formats will be necessary.

The universities have acted in a differentiated and efficient manner since the beginning of the pandemic. In this way, they have sustainably reduced the risk of infection in their area of responsibility and at the same time continuously enabled students to complete their studies and graduate successfully.

Requirements and regulations for the 2021 summer semester

Requirements and regulations for the 2021 summer semester

In view of the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic with a very dynamic infection situation, partly due to viral mutations, study programmes for the 2021 summer semester took place to a limited extent at the universities themselves. The German states and higher education institutions predominantly relied on digital distance teaching  – whereby, in accordance with the legal framework conditions, in compliance with the necessary protective and hygiene measures and, if necessary, supported by local test strategies, this was to be combined with face-to-face teaching wherever justifiable, especially for practical and experimental training (e.g. for laboratory activities, practical training sections, artistic exercises and examinations). In principle, access to the holdings of the university libraries was also made possible. This procedure took into account the specific needs of the universities, the subjects and the teaching and learning formats required in each case, while safeguarding health protection depending on the situation. The universities have acted in a differentiated and efficient manner since the beginning of the pandemic. In this way, they have sustainably reduced the risk of infection in their area of responsibility and at the same time continuously enabled students to complete their studies and graduate successfully.

In the course of extended contact restrictions in force since December 16, 2020, higher education institutions in the Federal Republic of Germany were ordered back to minimum operation: i.e. only the administrative work that is absolutely necessary for operation was carried out on site; refectories and libraries were closed (including options to take away food or borrow literature); face-to-face teaching and examinations were reduced to the absolute minimum or were held digitally (examinations may also be postponed); the premises are not open to the public. These regulations are still in force at the beginning of the summer semester. Moreover, on April 24, 2021, an amendment to the Federal Infection Protection Act came into force, which demands extensive contact restrictions linked to certain incidence thresholds. On May 20, 2021, the Bundestag passed a second law amending this Act providing adjustments and clarifications to individual regulations, including those concerning universities; the Bundesrat approved these amendments on May 28, 2021.

On May 7, 2021, the Federal Government and the Länder had already stated in a joint declaration on the situation at higher education institutions that studying, teaching and research requires an increase of face-to-face events, but that an intensification of contacts will have to be organised responsibly and with a view to the dynamic infectious situation.

Requirements and regulations for the 2020/21 winter semester

Requirements and regulations for the 2020/21 winter semester

In late May 2020, the application and admission procedure through the Stiftung für Hochschulzulassung (HfS) (Trust for Higher Education Admissions) has been facilitated for the 2020/21 winter semester thanks to the joint efforts of the universities, the Stiftung für Hochschulzulassung (HfS) and the federal states. The following dates have been established:

  • On 1 July 2020, the Stiftung für Hochschulzulassung (HfS) will open its application portals. The final application date for new school leavers with the Abitur for the centralised procedure is 20 August 2020 for the 2020/2021 winter semester. This date is also valid for other study programmes for which the allocation of study places is coordinated by the Stiftung für Hochschulzulassung (HfS).
  • In spite of final examinations being postponed due to the coronavirus, this will enable those leaving school this year with the Abitur to apply for the winter semester. 2 November 2020 is the target start date for lectures for new students in these study programmes.
  • The federal states, the universities and the Stiftung für Hochschulzulassung (HfS) are working flat out to clarify the final details. As of 2 June 2020, applicants who acquired their higher education entrance qualification in previous years (those who left school with the Abitur in previous years) can find out about the amended dates for the centralised allocation process on the website of the Stiftung für Hochschulzulassung (HfS) at www.hochschulstart.de.

In view of the rules of physical distancing and the hygiene regulations that still apply in autumn and winter, courses in the 2020/21 winter semester – again – only take place to a limited extent as physical meetings at the universities. The German states and universities  prepared for a mixture of digital and classroom teaching; with a clear priority on digital, online teaching. This has been done by taking into account the specific needs of the universities, of the subjects and the respective teaching and learning formats, while respecting the priorities of health protection.

On October 28, 2020, the Prime Ministers of the German states, together with the Federal Chancellor, decided on new measures in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, it was agreed on to provide online teaching as the general rule for the higher education sector in November and December. Classroom teaching has been reduced to the epidemiologically justifiable and absolutely necessary minimumn (e.g. for practical exercise and laboratories).

In the course of extended contact restrictions in force since December 16, 2020, higher education institutions in the Federal Republic of Germany were ordered back to minimum operation: i.e. only the administrative work that is absolutely necessary for operation was carried out on site; refectories and libraries were closed (including options to take away food or borrow literature); face-to-face teaching and examinations were reduced to the absolute minimum or were held digitally (examinations may also be postponed); the premises are not open to the public. On 5.1., 19.1., 10.2., 3.3. and 22.3.2021, theses agreements were prolonged, in part tightened and, hence, in force for the remaining lecture period of the winter semester. The specific implementation of the relevant provisions based on respective state regulation was the responsibility of the individual universities.

Requirements and regulations for the 2020 summer semester

Requirements and regulations for the 2020 summer semester

In mid-March 2020, the federal states, in consultation with the federal government and universities, imposed or recommended numerous requirements and regulations aimed at preventing the further spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 in order to support the nationwide measures taken against the current coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). The fundamental measure was to immediately suspend ongoing lectures or postpone upcoming lectures in the form of face-to-face teaching in the 2020 summer semester until at least after Easter (i.e. until 20/4/2020 in most federal states; until 4/5/2020 in Saarland, Saxony and Thuringia); later on, face-to-face teaching was suspended for the whole summer semester and replaced by digital, online formats.

On 2/4/2020, the federal states agreed on the following key points at a meeting of the leaders of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder (KMK):

  • The dates of the 2020 summer semester will not be postponed.
  • The lecture timetables for the 2020 summer semester can be arranged flexibly.
  • Deadlines for the application and admission procedure for undergraduate degree programmes will be adjusted for the 2020/2021 winter semester.
  • Lectures at universities and universities of applied sciences are to begin uniformly on 1/11/2020 in the 2020/2021 winter semester.

Moreover, it was agreed on that the 2020 summer semester would “be an unusual semester, but it will not be lost”. The objective was to create the necessary framework conditions for universities so that teaching and research can run as smoothly as possible in the 2020 summer semester. (more)

On 15/4/2020, the Prime Ministers of the Federal States, together with the Federal Chancellor and members of the federal government, decided on the initial easing of the previously applicable contact restrictions. The following was agreed for the universities:

  • “In university teaching, practice-oriented events requiring special laboratories or working areas at universities can be resumed in compliance with special hygiene and protective measures, in addition to the organisation of examinations. Libraries and archives may be opened subject to requirements to maintain hygiene, manage access and prevent queues.”
  • Major events played a significant role in the spread of the infection, “which is why they remain prohibited until at least 31 August 2020”.
  • The following was also noted: “In addition to vaccine development, research will make other important contributions towards overcoming the pandemic. With the support of the research institutions at the federal and state level, a SARS-CoV-2 database is being created to document and analyse hospital treatments. In conjunction with studies on various medications, this will help to identify the best strategies for preventing and treating serious cases of the disease.”

For the period ahead, the principle guiding the actions of the federal and state governments is to protect everyone in Germany from infection as far as possible. “This is why infection prevention and hygiene measures are a priority everywhere and particularly in places where contact is necessary, such as in certain work environments.” (more)

Therefore, it was agreed on that lectures at German universities will predominantly be held in a digital, online format in the 2020 summer semester until further notice. The lecture period could be extended into August; the summer semester was stated to end on 30 September, as usual.

Following the easing of pandemic-related contact restrictions initiated by the federal and state governments at the beginning of May 2020, regulations for examinations and lectures requiring the physical attendance of participants were drawn up at the federal state level or within the framework of university autonomy. They could take place in accordance with the special hygiene requirements and infection prevention guidelines; universities developed suitable concepts for this. Nevertheless, lectures and most seminar in class teaching continued to be held digitally during the entire summer semester.