Language barrier holds back international academics in Germany

Xenophobia and complex career paths also dissuade researchers from pursuing professorships, study finds

December 1, 2023
German police guards secure an access road to illustrate Language barrier holds back international academics in Germany
Source: Getty images

Insufficient German language skills are the primary hurdle for international academics targeting long-term careers in Germany, a new study has found.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) interviewed international postdocs, new professors and members of university management for the study, concluding that while research funding opportunities and early career promotions attract academics to Germany, international researchers have less confidence in their long-term career prospects.

Study respondents also cited the complexity of career paths in Germany, experiences of xenophobia and exclusion and issues with the visa system as obstacles dissuading them from pursuing professorships in the country.

Jan Kercher, a senior researcher at DAAD, noted that while international researchers comprise almost 14 per cent of academic staff in Germany, they make up about 7 per cent of professors. “There is a kind of ‘leaky pipeline’ on the path of international researchers from doctorate to professorship in Germany,” he told Times Higher Education.

Of the academics surveyed, almost 70 per cent said German language skills were relevant or highly relevant for their careers. A lack of fluency inhibited their daily collaboration with colleagues, their inclusion in faculty meetings and their teaching capacity, they said.

Study participants were also worried about “unclear” career paths. “From the perspective of international academics, academic career paths in Germany are not only lengthy, but often also complicated and opaque,” Dr Kercher said, citing “deficits in the information infrastructure” alongside “qualification paths that deviate from international standards and unknown or inaccessible career opportunities outside the universities”.

Several respondents shared experiences of xenophobia and racism in Germany, with one describing a sense of “hostility” from the general public and another citing a “closed” German culture. Others discussed expensive, competitive housing markets, with one sharing a belief that they paid more for accommodation than their German counterparts.

German visa laws, which link residence permits to employment, concerned study participants from outside the European Union. “In addition, the international academics and researchers surveyed reported a lack of multilingualism and service orientation in the immigration authorities,” Dr Kercher said.

DAAD president Joybrato Mukherjee stressed the importance of plugging the “leaky pipeline”. “Germany is a highly attractive host country for international academics and researchers,” said Professor Mukherjee, president of the University of Giessen. “On this basis, we should be even more successful in the future in supporting international talent on their path to a professorship.”

To retain international talent, DAAD suggests, universities should alleviate language barriers by offering German language courses tailored to academia. “It is also desirable to increase the multilingualism and intercultural competence of employees in the immigration authorities and to expand digitalisation,” Dr Kercher said.

Universities should provide more information and advice on the paths to professorship, while “the qualification paths and career opportunities in the German higher education and science system could also be adapted more closely to international standards, for example through tenure-track options and a more flexible teaching load”, he added.

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Reader's comments (1)

“To retain international talent, DAAD suggests, universities should alleviate language barriers by offering German language courses tailored to academia.” There’s already plenty of support for this. Also, as a very busy person, do you really want to sink 1000 hours to become fluent (and you still will have great difficulty understanding many emails and administrative texts since the German style is to write with formal, obtuse language in those) just to increase your chances in a country with a minuscule number of open professorship positions, and double the teaching load than in counties like the US? Additionally everything is understaffed so everything takes forever to get done and the staff is very unpleasant to work with (potentially, because they are very stressed out). Top that all off with the fact that foreigners generally find life very depressing in Germany: Some of the other points from DAAD are sensical but the cultural inertia Germany is unreal (“this is just how we’ve always done it”) so it will take a long time for anything to change. For example, was a software subscription that many academics in my field use and is not very expensive. Virtually everyone in my dept expressed a desire for it, but it still takes 2 years for the dept to formalize paying for the 100€ / year dept liscence.