Germany focuses on quality after hitting foreign student target

Country faces dilemmas over language of instruction and how to tackle dropout rate

July 30, 2018
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Germany is expected to shift its international recruitment focus from quantity to quality, after hitting its overseas enrolment target three years early.

There were about 359,000 foreign students in Germany in 2017, according to a recently released report, beating a 2020 target of 350,000 set in 2013. Minimal fee levels and a strong job market are credited with driving this growth.

But the country now faces the challenge of cutting still sizeable dropout rates, and faces a dilemma over whether to teach in German or English.

International student numbers were up 5 per cent in 2017 alone, propelled in part by a surge in recruitment of Indian learners, the vast majority of whom are on master’s courses.

Julia Hillmann, one of the report’s authors from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), said that Indian student numbers have quadrupled in number over the past 10 years.

Christian Schäfer, a co-author based at DAAD, said that “for Germany it’s quite an advance to reach out to this Indian student population when there are no ties historically”, and followed a special effort by German universities to recruit from the country.

Foreign students have been particularly drawn to German engineering courses: in universities, one in three studies the subject, while, in universities of applied sciences, the proportion is one in two.

Germany joins Canada and China in hitting national recruitment targets early, according to Wissenschaft weltoffen 2018.

Now the target has been hit, and there are no new ones to replace it, the aim is to improve outcomes for international students. “The focus is now on making the system more efficient,” said Dr Schäfer.

One major problem is the dropout rate, which remains high despite falling over the last decade. In 2005, nearly two-thirds of international students dropped out, although by 2014 this had fallen to 41 per cent at bachelor’s level and 28 per cent at master’s.

While the reasons for such a high attrition rate have not been extensively studied, it could be that students are overwhelmed by culture shock, bureaucracy or a different learning culture, said Ms Hillmann. A three-year study is currently under way to delve into the problem more deeply, although Dr Schäfer argued that the rate was not much higher than for other countries.

It is also unclear if these “dropouts” are enrolling in other universities, in Germany or abroad, cautioned Monika Jungbauer-Gans, scientific director of the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies, which helped to produce the report.

There are also questions about the language of teaching. At bachelor’s level, nearly two-thirds of foreign students study in German, with only 11 per cent learning entirely in English, according to a DAAD survey in 2015. But at master’s level, English was more common: 44 per cent of students had classes purely in English, compared with 34 per cent in German.

To slot in to Germany’s small and medium-sized companies, which often struggle to fill vacancies in the context of a nationwide labour shortage, international graduates often needed to speak German; those simply coming to do an English-language master’s might struggle, pointed out Dr Schäfer.

However, “more and more” companies – particularly in engineering – were switching to work in English, said Professor Jungbauer-Gans, meaning that learning in the language might not be such a drawback for those wishing to stay on in Germany.

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