Numerus clausus

From Academic Kids

Numerus Clausus ("closed number" in Latin) is one of many methods used to limit the number of students who may study at a university. It can be similar to a quota, both in form and motivation.


Modern use

Numerus clausus is currently used in countries and universities where the amount of applicants greatly exceeds the number of available places for students. This is the case in many countries of continental Europe.

With successful completion of the academically-oriented and state-approved secondary school (usually a Gymnasium) a student passes the so-called Abitur or Matura exams. After this is completed, they receive a document that confirms their passage and lists their grades. This is then used to obtain either an implicit or an explicit permission to study at a university.

Students in Germany and much of Europe specialize by field when they begin university study, unlike students in the U.S. which specialize later. Unfortunately for prospective students, fields such as medicine, biology, dentistry, pharmacology, psychology and business administration are particularly desirable and harder to gain admittance to study.

Selection of students for universities depends on the field of study, the specific university they apply to, and the grade point average from Abitur/Matura.

Numerus clausus in Germany

Numerus clausus is currently used in Germany to address overcrowding, as the number of students has doubled (to two million) since 1980, but the number of professors has only increased by a quarter in the same time period.

The German state in which an Abitur was granted must honor permits to study at a university.

The numerus clausus is a way to select among competing applicants in particularly popular fields at particular universities, by limiting the pool of qualifying applicants. Currently, the selection depends primarily on the field of study, the respective German state, and the Abitur grade point average.

As an illustration, if you wanted to study medicine in 2003, then the qualifying Abitur grade you would need would depend partially on the state in which you applied: If you wanted to secure a place at a university in Baden-Württemberg, you would need a score at least as good as 1.8 on a scale of 1 (best) to 5 (worst), but if you were in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, 2.4 could be a qualifying score. About a quarter of those admitted, however, come off of a waiting list of unsuccessful applicants from previous years.

The numerus clausus is limited to particular universities for many fields, but for the most popular (such as medicine or biology), it is nationwide, with enrolment handled centrally by the Zentralstelle für die Vergabe von Studienplätzen (ZVS) (

Use of Numerus clausus as a prejudiced rule

Before the Second World War, the limitations in eastern European countries were usually based on the religion of the student, as the number of students of Jewish origin was limited.

After World War II, converse regulations that promoted positive discrimination based on racial or social criteria (e.g. peasants, Africans), were introduced in many countries, including Poland and United States (affirmative action).

In recent years several major American universities in the western states have been investigated for following a discriminatory policy similar to numerus clausus in order to restrict the number of Asian student admissions.

Jewish quota

Main article: Jewish quota

This limitation took the form of total prohibition of Jewish students, or of limiting the number of Jewish students so that their share in the students' population would not be larger than their share in the general population (Jewish quota). It was motivated by contemporary view of the balancing chances for education for ethnic groups.

The numerus clausus policies affected a limited number of people, since the number of university students before WW2 was very small.

Jews who wanted education used various ways to handle this obstacle: bribing the authorities, changing their religion, or traveling to countries without such limitations. In Hungary, for example, 5,000 Jewish youngsters (including Edward Teller) left the country after the introduction of Numerus Clausus.

Countries legislating limitations on the admission of Jewish students, at various times, included:

Numerus clausus in Poland

Poland tried to introduce a formal Numerus Clausus law in 1923, but faced objections from the League of Nations. However Numerus Clausus was introduced unofficially in the 1937 by some universities and the share of Jewish students was limited to 10%, that was more or less the proportion of Jews in the population of Poland (compared to 20%-40% before regulation).

Paradoxically, the numerus clausus caused many Jewish students to emigrate from Poland, and therefore saved their lives during German Holocaust (see Alfred Tarski). It must be underlined, that the numerus clausus was introduced at the level of universities, which in those times didn't educate many students (several thousands at best). However, the introduction of the policy must have had immense influence on the level of the average student.

The official reason of the policy was that during Russian Tsar's rule, Poles were discriminated in area of education. They were denied education in Polish, and the schools were badly funded in the countryside. The advocates of the solution pointed out that the limit would balance the chances of all nationalities that had populated Poland to access education.

The other reason given by the supporters of the idea was that it was an attempt to equal the chances of children from countryside families, that had very limited access to education, with the access of Jewish families living in the towns and cities. Nevertheless, Polish intelligentsia of Jewish origins formed at least 40-50% of the whole Polish educated class. The genocide of Jewish intelligentsia and genocide of Polish intelligentsia during WW2 (see Holocaust, AB Action, Katyn massacre) badly affected development of Polish economy and society after the war.

Similar policies, but based on positive discrimination of peasant children, were introduced after WW2, but with little effect. Another form of positive discrimination in Poland was the law enforcing an equal number of Medicine students of both genders, despite the fact that female students usually performed better on exams. All forms of discrimination were abolished in Poland after 1989.

External links

he:נומרוס קלאוזוס pl:Numerus clausus


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