Poor German pushing international students towards dropping out

Eager recruiters, lenient testers and delusional students must all share the blame for dire retention, studies suggest

February 7, 2022
German language lesson on a smartphone illustrating a story about language proficiency in Germany universities
Source: iStock

Germany’s international student numbers have swollen despite the pandemic, but two recent studies suggest German-language policies may need a dose of realism to reduce damaging dropout rates.

A survey of more than 4,500 international students at 125 universities by Germany’s academic exchange service, Daad, found that many lack the German-language skills needed, with some students only realising mid-course that their skills were insufficient to write a thesis. 

Dropouts are a major problem among international students in Germany. Data from 2015 found rates are especially high in bachelor’s programmes: 49 per cent, compared with 27 per cent for German students. 

The Daad survey findings suggest poor language may be a major contributor, with international bachelor’s students with good everyday language skills reporting lower dropout intentions.

Only about a third of international bachelor’s or master’s students on German-language courses said they joined class discussions or asked questions, compared with over a half of those on English-language courses at German institutions.

“Overall, there is a better fit between language skills and the language of instruction in English-taught programmes than in German-taught programmes,” said Jan Kercher, who led the Daad survey. 

But switching to English-language tuition was a poor solution, the findings show, as only around two-thirds of students on English-language courses said their German was good enough for everyday life. “We have a kind of mirror-image finding for coping with study and everyday life in relation to the language of instruction,” said Dr Kercher.  

The Daad report says clear expectations and more rigorous testing can push up the pleasure and participation of international students learning in German. 

Course leaders cannot leave language requirements to the international office, and should give requirements using the common European reference framework, Dr Kercher said.

Applicants must also be made aware of the wild variations in quality between language-testing providers, as generous grading may help entry but will see students caught short mid-course.

Dr Kercher also warned admissions teams not to fall back on self-assessed skills, as recent research has shown a tendency for international students to over-estimate their abilities.

A study of 340 international undergraduate students at two German universities, led by Katrin Wisniewski at the University of Bamberg, found that while proficiency and self-assessment were related, they did not match. While 80 per cent of the students studied thought they had hit a required language level, only around 20 per cent had done so.

The study also considered students’ cognitive strategies, social and academic integration, and financial issues, as well as testing their German proficiency over the three years.

Modelling suggested that proficiency was the most important predictor of academic success, with about 20 per cent of first-year academic performance explained by it alone, with reading playing a particularly important role.

“It is possible that some universities tend to enrol students with insufficient language proficiency in order to ‘boost’ their internationalisation records,” said Professor Wisniewski.

“When preparing students for their studies in Germany, teachers should focus on the full breadth of language skills,” she said, adding that training must match the authentic language challenges of a German-speaking seminar or lecture hall.


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