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What Germany is doing right to edge past the competition

When someone says Germany, what are the first things that come to mind? Cars, machines and brands that are known for their top-notch quality, punctuality and a strong economy. People might not know that it is also comfortably poised among the top five education destinations worldwide.

International students at Alexanderplatz, Berlin, GermanyStudents at the Alexanderplatz public square in Berlin. Photo: GLS.

The engineering degree is Germany’s strength and cutting edge, but efforts are being made to lure a more diverse pool of students

Germany is the fourth largest economy in the world, with a GDP of €3.86tn ($4.41tn) in 2014. With research, development and education among the country’s top priorities, expenditure on education rose by €4.6bn between 2010 and 2012, the equivalent of 9.3% of GDP.

“Germany’s higher education system has something to offer for everyone”

This is according to the Education in Germany 2014 report, drafted under the leadership of the German Institute for International Educational Research. If an educated society is a stronger society, then Germany’s money is definitely well spent.

Germany’s science and research reputation continues to stand strong, making the country a target for students who primarily want to study science-based subjects or research-related degrees.

According to the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, which helps promote the country’s academic offer overseas, the German engineering degree still attracts most international students. They are “especially overrepresented in engineering programmes”, says Jan Kercher, senior research officer at DAAD’s Research and Studies division.

While this will remain to be Germany’s strength and cutting edge, efforts are being made to lure a more diverse pool of students. “Germany’s higher education system has something to offer for everyone,” says Stefan Hase-Bergen, head of DAAD’s higher education marketing division. He nods to 450 state-accredited universities and around 18,817 degree programmes, with a developed network of German language teaching schools in the private sector too.

Extensive range and English-medium

German universities offer degrees in every possible subject and academic discipline. The diversity in courses on offer has not led to a skyrocketing increase in international students, but a sound 6.6% increase has been recorded over the past three years. In the winter semester of 2015/16, 340,305 international students were enrolled in Germany, only a few thousand shy of its 2020 target of 350,000.

Soon, the contingent enrolled in postgraduate studies will be the largest. “The number of international master’s students is increasing much quicker, which means that the majority of international students will be enrolled in master’s programs very soon,” explains Hase-Bergen.

“The majority of international students will be enrolled in master’s programs very soon”

This is primarily because there are more English-taught master’s programs, around 1,032, versus only 198 bachelor’s programmes in Germany, according to the Higher Education Compass, a portal offered by the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) that details degree programs offered in Germany. Although this amounts to less than 10% of total courses taught in Germany, there is a pledge to steadily increase that number.

According to the German Federal Statistics Office, the US is one market that is showing a strong appetite for study in the country: 3,304 US students studied a full degree programme in Germany in 2015/16, an increase of 18% on the previous year.

However, the majority of students in Germany hail from China, with 32,268 students recorded in the academic year 2015/16. There have also been notable increases from countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan.
A steady intake from India is also evident, with Indian students reaching 13,537 in the same year. According to a market research report from Delhi-based M.M Advisory Services, Indian enrolments in the country increased more than the national average of 24%, overtaking Russia as the second largest source market. This is while comparative Indian enrolments in the UK dropped by 44% between 2011/12 and 2015/16.

Low or no fees

Cost, as well as reputation, is a factor. The federal state of Lower Saxony finally gave into the mainstream in the 2014/15 winter term and joined the other 15 states in the country offering free education to all.

“Germany has 16 states and each state has its own education law. Just a fraction of states did actually charge tuition fees and if so they were very low, around €500 per semester,” Jérôme Rickmann, director of international talent acquisition at EBC Hochschule, explains.

“Just a fraction of states did actually charge tuition fees and if so they were very low, around €500 per semester”

As far as fees are concerned, changes are afoot. The state of Baden-Württemberg announced it will start to charge international students from non-EU countries around €1,500 per semester from winter 2017. Nevertheless, this amount is still much less than in the UK, where non-EU university students can pay up to £18,000 a year, or around $24,000 per year for a four-year degree in the US, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

While still considerably cheaper than other countries, introducing fees across the rest of the country could be the only solution in coming years. The Ministry of Science and Culture in Baden-Württemberg, for example, is facing a €48m consolidation requirement, as by law all federal states have to plan to ensure they’re not running a budget deficit by 2020.

Demographic dimensions

The outcome of this year’s election will surely define the coming period in terms of allocated budgets and aspects like the ease of entrance for foreign nationals. “Currently attaining student visas does not include general complications,” says Nicole Berners, head of DAAD’s scholarship policies section, “with the most complicated process being proof of sufficient financial resources for students without scholarships.”

The success of the right-wing populist AfD (Alternative for Germany) party has not been helping the country’s reputation. But according to Rickmann, the discourse in Germany is more focused on how the country deals with the refugee crisis. “International students are not a focus of public political discourse,” he says.

On the contrary, arguments that international students could find difficulties in getting visas or staying after completing their courses are far-fetched at this point. The aim is to grow incoming numbers and recruit international talent, given the nature of its demographics.

According to the UN’s 2015 statistics, the population is expected to decline from 82 million to 74.5 million by 2050. An anticipated 13% fall in Germans aged under 15 is predicted, and those over 60 are expected to rise from 27% to 39%. If Germany wants to maintain its role as a global innovator and the EU’s largest economy, it cannot afford to lose international talent.

German language pathways

Despite the increase in English-taught courses, “language often is an issue and the dropout rate among international students is rather high”, claims Rickmann.

“Language often is an issue and the dropout rate among international students is rather high”

But the language teaching sector has indeed started to respond to the need for more English-based services to ease the transition of international students into Germany. There are now an increasing number of language courses that are tailored for students seeking degrees. Georg Tietze, educational consultant at the German language school GLS in Berlin, says: “There are more students who learn the language not for fun, but in order to be prepared for university.”

GLS mainly deals with international students applying for a bachelor’s degree, and most enquiries it receives are about engineering, medicine and business-related courses.

Staying on after study

Germany’s efforts to integrate international students into society stem from the need to keep them in the country longer. International graduates from non-EU countries are permitted to look for employment for 18 months and a high proportion take advantage of this policy. According to DAAD, half of the foreign students getting a degree in Germany decide to stay, and around 40% plan to remain for at least 10 years.

As a comparison, in the US, just 12% of international students decide to stay even for one year after completing their studies. Students from India, Germany’s second largest student source market, are highly driven by “future employment and future immigration options,” underlines Mathai at M.M Advisory.

Nevertheless, there is still the difficulty of transition to the labour market if the student has not managed to learn German. “That is one of the main issues currently for English-taught programmes,” confirms Rickmann.

So although the country’s internationalisation efforts are working, to build on current success and attract more students to Germany, especially those with long-term intent, there are still some challenges to overcome.

But Germany has a proactive approach and commitment to long-term migration ambition that is in contrast to some other major destinations in Europe such as the UK, for example.

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