A wave of attacks on foreigners in Germany by right-wing extremists is hindering efforts by the German Academic Exchange Service (Daad) to attract overseas students to the country, experts report.
Daad representatives promoting German universities in information centres in foreign universities have said that potential students are afraid they will not be safe in Germany.
Silke Rodenberg, a representative at a Daad centre in Malaysia, said:
"Students read newspaper reports about hostility to foreigners in Germany. They ask if they have anything to fear. I cannot play down the facts."
At their summer meeting in Bonn, Daad representatives said German universities must send a clear signal that foreign students were positively sought and would be protected.
Foreign students' fears have been fuelled by a surge of right-wing violence this year, particularly in former East Germany. In April, five skinheads were sentenced for a serious attack on two Vietnamese men. In June, a man from Mozambique was murdered by skinheads in Dessau. In July, a bomb attack at a city railway station in Dusseldorf, western Germany, seriously injured ten immigrants, five of them Jewish. No one claimed responsibility. A visiting academic from India was chased and beaten up by skinheads in Leipzig.
Statistics suggest that attacks on immigrants are just as high in Britain as in Germany. But the rise in attacks this summer has prompted Chancellor Gerhard Schroder to announce a crackdown on the far right.
Daad information and advice centres are an important part of German universities' international marketing efforts. There are 12 centres, mostly in countries where the Daad does not have an office. Five more will be set up this year - in Melbourne, Singapore, Seoul, Hong Kong and Prague. There are plans for 35 in total to help students find first degree and PhD courses in Germany.
As well as fears of racism, Daad representatives have to tackle other disadvantages. German is considered a difficult language to learn, German degree qualifications are not universally recognised, the personal tutoring system is inadequate and graduates from non-European Union countries are not offered work permits after finishing their studies as they are in the United States.
But there are some plus points for German higher education.
Susanne Scharnowski, a Daad representative in Taipeh, said: "Germany is known for its high academic standards and as a country without student fees, and it is located in the centre of Europe, a region of great interest to Asians for its cultural diversity."
The fast growing numbers of BA and MA degrees taught in English at German universities are also increasingly attractive to foreign students.