Nations such as the UK, Australia and Canada compete fiercely to attract foreign students – and the ability of universities to attract overseas students is an increasingly important factor in immigration policy debates in those countries.
Now, Germany’s new coalition government wants to raise the number of overseas students in the country to 350,000 by 2020 – up from the present 280,000. Simultaneously, it aims to enable 50 per cent of German higher education students to undertake some study abroad.
The coalition treaty says the government will achieve this by making increased use of resources through the state-funded German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which promotes international collaborations among German higher education institutions.
The treaty was finalised in late December after three months of negotiations between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, and the centre-left Social Democratic Union. In it, the government pledges to internationalise higher education, by attracting more students from outside the European Union to German universities and by sending German students to study abroad.
The number of foreign students in Germany has doubled since 1995, from 140,000 to 280,000 at the start of the 2013 academic year. Of these, about 95,000 are of non-EU origin, according to the DAAD. Now, Merkel’s government, with the help of the DAAD and the German National Association for Student Affairs (DSW), intends to boost recruitment of foreign students by 25 per cent to reach 350,000 by the end of the decade.
“Our aim is to attract the international academic elite to Germany – to study, complete their doctorates or engage in academic research,” says Margret Wintermantel, the DAAD’s president. “At the same time, we have to send our students to the world’s best universities to get global qualifications and international experience.”
At present, about a third of Germany’s students go abroad for language courses, internships or university exchanges (400,000 German students start courses each year and 133,800 spend part of their studies abroad, according to the latest figures from 2011). Wintermantel wants the government to allocate more funds for bursaries and scholarships abroad.
Yet many German students baulk at studying abroad, fearing that it will not be recognised as part of their degrees because some German institutions are still reluctant to accredit courses from other universities under the European Credit Transfer System. “It is true there are still some problems of recognition for students who have been abroad,” says Wintermantel, adding that many choose to study abroad after finishing their bachelor’s degree, before embarking on their master’s studies.
Nonetheless, although the US and the UK are still the two top destinations for foreign students heading abroad, Germany now ranks third, according to the latest Education at a Glance report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, ahead of Australia.
Another attraction of studying in Germany is the low or non-existent tuition fees. Many German states had phased them out by October last year. However, there are growing demands from some institutions to charge tuition fees to overseas students to provide more funding.
Wintermantel is firm on this issue. “This is not the answer,” she says. “The solution is to amend our Constitution so that the [federal] government can provide sustained funding for higher education in Germany.” The German Constitution, or Basic Law, currently bars the federal government from financial or political involvement in school or higher education policy.
For foreign students, the US and the UK as English-speaking countries have obvious international advantages, but German universities are trying to offer an alternative. The DAAD, for instance, is pushing hard for more internationally oriented degree courses as well as MA degrees taught in English.
Meanwhile, whereas overseas students in the UK struggle to overcome the immigration obstacles that universities believe have been placed in their path by government policy, Germany encourages overseas graduates to come and seek work via the jobseeker’s visa. Introduced in August 2012, it allows graduates with a German degree, or a recognised university or foreign degree that compares to German qualifications, to enter the country and stay for up to six months while looking for work. Applicants have to provide proof of their degree as well as evidence that they can support themselves during their stay.
Once they have found a job and can show that they will earn at least €46,000 (£38,000) a year, they can stay. And Germany needs them, as it has a rapidly ageing population and a low birth rate, despite government policies in recent years to increase family allowances and expand post-natal parental leave.
In spite of the need for highly qualified young people, tales of bureaucratic bungling abound. Take Enio Alburez, a young engineer from Guatemala who applied for a jobseeker’s visa at the German Embassy in Guatemala City in April last year. Embassy staff said they had never heard of the visa but would check and get back to him. After six weeks with no word from the embassy, Alburez boarded a flight for Germany on a tourist visa. No sooner had he arrived in Berlin than the embassy notified him that his jobseeker’s visa had been approved. The only drawback was that he would have to return to get it stamped in his passport so that he could re-enter Germany and get a work and residence permit.
“It was pretty bizarre,” Alburez told Der Spiegel. “I was the one to tell the embassy what visa they should issue me.” Happily, it all worked out in the end and he got a job, found a flat and traded in his visa for a long-term German work permit.
Conditions of acceptance
Others who come to Germany to study are subject to other kinds of conditions, especially those individuals from South America, Africa or the Arab countries who leave to seek better education opportunities. They must demonstrate that they have accommodation, a place at a German university and about €8,000 in supporting funds.
Some are obliged to attend pre-study classes because school-leaving certificates from their home countries are not recognised. Despite a Professional Qualifications Assessment Act introduced in April 2012 to fast-track the recognition of foreign academic qualifications, only 30,000 out of some 300,000 professionally qualified non-EU nationals – 10 per cent – have sought such approval. This is largely the fault of the regional states, few of which have procedures to enable foreign applicants to have their qualifications assessed.
To address the question of recognising foreign qualifications and other issues connected to the Bologna Process, Holger Burckhart, vice-president of the German Rectors’ Conference – the national association of state universities – has drawn up a list of recommendations with the help of Bologna experts from the DAAD and the DSW.
“Bologna is a process that is constantly changing,” Burckhart says. “It is the appropriate answer to the questions posed by all aspects of further education in modern industrial and economic societies. We must learn from our mistakes so far and take advantage of the challenges and opportunities that Bologna continues to offer.”
Tackling this problem will be vital if Germany is to meet its goal of internationalising its campuses.