From Where I Sit - The English are coming

July 19, 2012

Until recently, English students were something of a rarity at German universities. Indeed, one German administrator commented that "a few years ago, you were more likely to meet a Mongolian student than an English one".

However, of late there has been a remarkable reversal of this trend. In fact, many English students cannot believe they can study here for free when back home tuition costs are spiralling upwards.

At the University of Birmingham Careers Fair earlier this year, the throng of students at continental competitors' stands was conspicuous. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is banging the drum and the response has been impressive. On some days the administrative load at the fair was barely manageable, but for the DAAD it was worth it: it expects a 100 per cent rise in the number of applications from the UK this autumn.

The language barrier can be a major problem for Britons visiting Germany, and this is the most common question raised by prospective students. However, an increasing number of German master's courses are being offered in English, especially in the natural sciences: in fact, no other European country outside the UK offers as many in the tongue (roughly 10 per cent of postgraduate courses). Although not necessarily the Queen's English, it is understandable enough.

However, undergraduate courses are still predominantly in German. And even for postgraduates, the general sentiment is that students from abroad need to learn at least some German during their stay.

Of course, those who really aren't interested in German or Germany are advised not to come here just to save on fees. There is a lot more to university life than money, and living here is not cheap either (for example, there is an horrendous shortage of affordable student accommodation at the moment).

Also, some online commentators warn that English students coming to Germany need to prepare for a culture shock. Student supervision is less personal and universities are not always well set up for overseas students. Websites and other documents are often poorly translated, and much remains in German only.

Bureaucrats in the country can be rather stand-offish, too, especially when forced to speak English. Thus, one commentator advises foreign students that for the first six months or so, "a thick skin is highly advisable".

In Germany, opinion is mixed on the possible English "onslaught". Some locals do not like the idea of foreign students coming to study for free and then leaving, thus "putting nothing back into the economy".

But others point to the improved international understanding that could result from the trend.

"This is a great PR opportunity for Germany," proclaims one online enthusiast commenting on a Unispiegel article, who continues that "perhaps the occasional young Brit might even realise that the War is over and that there is no longer any goose-stepping in Germany".

Equally, this process may enable the German academy to regain some of its former international prominence and glory. After all, before the two world wars Germany had a uniquely powerful presence intellectually and much of the world's cutting-edge research was published in German.

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