Wissenschaft weltoffen: “Germany is one of the top host countries in the world”

Why is Germany so popular among international students as a location for science and research? Dr Jan Kercher, DAAD, has the answers.

Warum ist der Wissenschaftsstandort Deutschland so beliebt bei internationalen Studierenden?
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Dr Kercher, how attractive is Germany to international students?

Germany has been one of the top host countries for many years. And more and more people want to study or conduct research in Germany – this figure has risen by six per cent compared to the previous year. This means Germany has now overtaken France as a host country for international students. Currently there are more than 280,000 international students in Germany, which puts it in fourth place internationally – as the first non-English speaking country behind the USA, the UK and Australia.

Are there any countries of origin that are particularly well represented?

Germany is notable for the wide variety of backgrounds among its international student population. Most international students in Germany come from China: there were 37,000 in 2018. However, Chinese students account for only 13 per cent of all international students. In countries such as the USA or Australia, this figure is much higher. The second-largest group is from India, where 17,000 students come from. A trend can be identified here which is further confirmed by the numbers from other countries of origin: it is mainly students from countries outside Europe who are coming to Germany.

What proportion exactly?

Around three quarters. And of course that’s quite astonishing when you consider that the European neighbouring countries are pretty much on our doorstep, the Erasmus programme represents a low-threshold offering for intra-European mobility and we have also established a standardised European Higher Education Area with the introduction of the bachelor’s and master's system. On the other hand, it is obviously very good news that Germany clearly has an excellent reputation as a study location in more distant parts of the world. More and more people are even coming from the USA to study in Germany.

Are you also seeing this level of internationalisation in research?

Yes, although European countries are more strongly represented here in terms of country of origin. If we’re talking about researchers generally as a group, Italy is in first place; if we specifically mean professors, then Austria and Switzerland are at the top of the list, probably because we share a language. Another issue has also emerged in recent years, namely the limitation of academic freedom in some countries, such as Turkey. For this reason, an increasing number of researchers are coming to Germany instead. We are observing similar motives among academics and researchers from the United Kingdom, who are drawn to Germany because they still want to be able to participate in open research exchanges within Europe even after Brexit.

What are the key motives that inspire young people from abroad to choose Germany as a place to study?

For many, the crucial factors are the excellent reputation of German universities, especially in the engineering field, and the relatively low study and living costs. Compared to other countries, this combination is almost unique. In the USA, for example, tuition fees are huge and the top universities are accessible only to a very small number of students. German universities now offer a wide range of degree programmes in English. These also attract students who can’t speak German very well at the beginning of their stay abroad.

It is interesting that there may also be a whole series of motives that aren’t directly connected to the actual academic studies.

That’s right. Many international students are attracted to the good quality of life and the high technological standards in Germany. The prospects of finding a good job after graduation are promising, be it in Germany or in the student’s home country. These returning students are ambassadors for Germany throughout the world, not just in economic terms but even politically. We know of quite a few DAAD alumni who have gone on to work in the governments of their home countries.

That is also likely to depend heavily on how satisfied the students were during their time in Germany, of course, and whether they were able to complete their academic studies successfully. Are there any figures relating to this?

Yes, that is an area in which Germany definitely can and must improve further. The current drop-out rates for international students are 45 per cent for bachelor’s programmes and 29 per cent for master’s programmes. The DAAD takes this very seriously. In the SeSaBa research project, which is being conducted over several years, we are working with two external research partners, Hagen distance university (FernUniversität) and the Bavarian State Institute for Higher Education Research and Planning, to identify the causes of this.

Are any findings available yet?

An important factor that has perhaps been somewhat ignored up to now seems to be the introductory phase. We must provide even better support for international students during this phase. It is clear that many international students are coming to Germany with false expectations, for example regarding the level of German language proficiency they actually need. Even those students who have chosen an English-language degree programme need to have a certain level of German language skills so that they can communicate with non-English speaking university administrative staff, for example, or – even more importantly – connect with fellow students and local people. Just because English is spoken everywhere in Berlin nowadays doesn’t automatically mean that the same is true for other, smaller places. Another factor is our very independent way of studying, which is different from many other countries. Lots of students struggle with this, at least at the beginning.

How could universities support students?

There are some interesting approaches to this – one example is a pilot project at the University of Cologne. Here, foreign students can complete a “nulltes” semester, which is a preparation phase for the German higher education system. But there are many other options, such as online offerings. One example of good practice is the Open Distributed Campus at the FU Berlin, which helps international students prepare for their stay in Germany while they are still in their home country. Another newly launched initiative is the online orientation course offered by the IUBH University of Applied Sciences, which allows students to study a programme of their choice online for up to twelve months and even take examinations. With all of these initiatives, the crucial factor is to ensure that students’ expectations better match the real-life conditions at the universities. As a result, the drop-out risk can be significantly reduced.

This article was first published on the German Alumniportal.