German university rectors are speaking out against increased controls on foreign students despite revelations that at least three of the suspected hijackers in the recent terrorist attacks on the US studied at German universities and polytechnics.
The rector of the University of Saarland, Margret Wintermantel, who is vice-president of the Association of German Rectors (HRK), said that there must be a "climate of openness and a readiness for dialogue". She expressed shock that the alleged suicide bombers studied in Germany, but said that the country "wants foreign students at its universities".
"We should also take care of those people who we recognise perhaps do not agree with our values and speak to them about it."
Christian Nedess, president of the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, where two of the suspects studied and where 20 per cent of the students are from overseas, said: "We are shocked and dismayed." But he added that the university did not want to restrict its enrolment measures.
There are about 160,000 foreign students at German universities and polytechnics and, like their German counterparts, they are entitled to study free of charge.
An HRK spokesman said: "The number of foreign students is on the increase, and there are efforts under way to make these numbers even larger... If someone from abroad wants to study in Germany, the educational institute only controls the academic qualifications and achievements."
The HRK is yet to make an official comment on tighter controls on foreign students.
Staff and students at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg were deeply shocked to learn that some of the hijackers identified by the FBI had been students there. Professor Nedess said they had handed over all relevant documents relating to the students to prosecutors and police. "We are deeply upset and shaken that the tracks of the criminals reach to our university in Hamburg. They didn't have the word 'terrorists' written on their foreheads."
Mohammed Atta, 33, the man the FBI believes steered the first plane into the World Trade Center, was known to staff and fellow students at the university as Mohammed El-Amir. Between 1992 and May 1999 he studied for a masters degree in town planning there, and was described by those who know him as a model student, far from the stereotype of a violent fanatic.
Dittmar Machule, who supervised El-Amir's thesis on the renewal of part of the old town of Aleppo in Syria, told Der Spiegel he was a "likeable person" who regularly took part in seminars, lectures and time-consuming projects. Professor Machule, dean of the faculty of construction engineering and a specialist in the Arab world, said El-Amir was devout, prayed regularly, but did not seem fanatical. "He had a critical mind and always based his arguments on thought."
Professor Machule said that El-Amir sometimes disappeared for months on end, claiming he had to help his family in Cairo. But that was not unusual for Arab students, he said. El-Amir lived at the same Harburg address as another student, Marwan Al-Shehhi, 23, who was on the second plane to hit the WTC.
Al-Shehhi had enrolled at the university in the winter semester of 1999. Federal chief prosecutor Kay Nehm also said Ziad Samir Jarrah, 26, who was on board the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, had studied aircraft engineering and civil engineering in Hamburg, although he did not confirm it was at the Technical University.
With around 4,000 students, Hamburg-Harburg is a model German university on a greenfield campus. It has a high teacher-student ratio and is proud of its record on internationalising the curriculum.
Professor Nedess said: "We consider ourselves an international and cosmopolitan university which, above all, aims to support the peaceful cohabitation of people throughout the world by disseminating knowledge. This makes us all the more stunned by these events."
Students at the university hope this will not lead to a backlash against international students.
"We deeply regret that among the suspects were former international students of the TUHH," said Jack Samuel Koftikian and Agung Wicaksono of the International Masters Students at the TUHH.
"We believe that this is just a tragic coincidence. We are sure that the public will not extend from the incident any kind of unjustified prejudice towards any international students in Germany."