On 1 October 2014a new reform of the NRW Higher Education Law came into effect. One of the main changes concerns mandatory attendances of classes. Unfortunately degrees with “Staatsexamen” (especially medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy) are not affected by these changes because they are subject to federal law. Relevant for the legal situation concerning mandatory attendance is § 64 paragraph 2a of the higher education law.
“Mandatory attendance of seminars and lectures is not allowed as a prerequisite for passing the class. An exception are classes like excursions, language courses, internships, practical exercises or similar classes.”
In consequence, it is prohibited to tie successful completion of a course to physical attendance. This also means, that the prohibition of mandatory attendance applies to “Studienleistungen” (ungraded assignments) which are prerequisites for “Prüfungsleistungen”. However, simply having an attendance list will not be prohibited. It is misinformation, should a teacher enforce the attendance list in order to award credits and thus, considered problematic.
The prohibition of mandatory attendance is all-encompassing, however, enforcing attendance during excursions, language courses, internships and practical exercises is still permitted. What is important is, that aforementioned activities are legitimate and are not just labled as such. Furthermore, the exception applies to actual practical exercises, which are to be clearly distinguished from theoretical exercises. Examples for practical exercises would be dissection courses or software internships. Simply revising course material does not fall under the exception.
The law does not define what constitutes a comparable course. This means that the law must be interpreted, but it can be said with confidence that seminars as a whole cannot be considered comparable. Otherwise they would have been mentioned under the cases for exceptions. Grounds for this law (which can be used for interpretation) are specified as follows:
“The seminar does not constitute a comparable course as described in paragraph 2a clause 2. The only exception with application of a strict standard are seminars that are meant for less than 20 to 30 students, are only able to practice academic discourse in consideration of this fact, and if their objective cannot be reached, or only be reached with considerable additional effort, without attendance.”
In this respect, mandatory attendance can be required in a few seminars. However, we can assume that the practice of mandatory attendance in all seminars of a course of studies is not possible since this would make a rule out of an exception. Furthermore, to answer the question of what a “comparable course” is, it is essential to establish what excursions, language courses, internships, and practical exercises have in common. The common factor might be practical skills that cannot be learned autodidactically. The explanation reads as follows: “The academic objective of such courses can be obtained by various means, especially in consideration of today’s media. It cannot solely be obtained by attendance.” Accordingly, the courses that require mandatory attendance are methodology seminars or something similar. The regular literature seminars or seminars which focus on presenting a paper do not allow mandatory attendance.
With the change of government in North Rhine-Westphalia, mandatory attendance might be reintroduced in all courses. You can find more information on AStA’s campaign website.