Why do German students choose to study in the UK?

A German student at the University of Oxford analyses why German students love to study at British universities – and how Brexit might change this
November 2 2016

British universities are undoubtedly among the most expensive in Europe. The same goes for the costs of living as a student in the UK. The situation in Germany, on the other hand, could not be more different. Freed of exorbitant university fees, German students enjoy higher education of a comparably high standard that usually does not see them graduate with a huge pile of debt that then has to be paid off. 

Still, a large number of German students decide to leave the “land of poets and thinkers” to pursue degrees at universities in the UK. Despite the costs and the tough application process, about 7,500 Germans head to the UK every year to take up their studies at universities in Oxford, London or Edinburgh, among other destinations.

Even though a recent report from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) found that their number had declined for the first time since 2007, most likely because of the sharp increase in tuition fees, Germans still represent the largest group of students from European Union countries in the UK. 

Kirstin MacLeod is one of them. After graduating with a BSc in politics from the Free University of Berlin she applied to the London School of Economics where she recently completed a master’s degree in politics and communications.

For students like Kirstin, studying at a British university is the next logical step in their career. Asked about what influenced her decision to apply for the LSE, Kristin names the school’s excellent reputation. Yet prestige is only one reason why many Germans prefer top British universities.

The crucial factors are tuition quality and the staff-to-student ratio, which many Germans who have spent time studying in the UK say is excellent. With an average ratio of 1:66, German universities have a hard time standing their ground in this regard against rivals in the UK. 

For comparison, Bishop Grosseteste University in England, considered one of the “worst” universities with respect to its staff per student number, has an average ratio of 1:25, a point Kristin stresses as well: “I really like the close teaching relationship between students and academic staff, as well as the often in-depth debates with fellow students in seminars,” she says. 

“In the UK, staff and students usually interact on a more equal and respectful level than in Germany, and in my experience UK professors are a lot more approachable than their German colleagues.”

Distance matters as well. While being closer to home than, for example, universities in the US, and often considerably cheaper, British universities still boast an international flair – another feature many students are after.

For Martha Dudzinski, a politics graduate from the University of Edinburgh who is now working at the press and information office of the German federal government, this was a crucial factor when making her decision to go abroad. For her, a degree from a British university was above all a demonstration of an international mindset.

She explained: “I wanted to spend more time studying abroad, so instead of planning a master’s with an Erasmus semester, I decided to get the whole degree abroad.

“Since I wanted to stay within the EU, the UK was my top choice – I speak the language, and the universities are excellent and popular with like-minded people who have international mindsets.”

Furthermore, as an EU-member state (for now, at least), the bureaucratic hurdles typically involved in studying abroad such as getting a visa are comparably low in the UK – a fact that makes the country attractive to many students. However, while all these qualities often act as main motivators for heading over the channel, they are only part of the answer.

Quite often it is also the prestige of British universities that German students are after. Only a handful of the best German counterparts – among them LMU Munich, Heidelberg University and the Humboldt University of Berlin – are within top spots in most rankings, with the rest lagging far behind.

While the majority of students do not mind this circumstance, the so-called Leistungsträger – the top 10 per cent of students – think twice before applying back at home. In times of increasingly fierce competition for positions and jobs, coupled with the fact that outstanding grades and a long list of internships are seemingly no longer enough to stand out against others, British universities are seen as a valuable asset for one’s CV, significantly enhancing chances on the labour market – and the more prestigious the university, the better. 

In particular, those who can secure a spot at Oxbridge or other renowned universities often decidedly bet on the reputation factor. Their hope is that a degree from one of these universities will give them a significant headstart in the scramble for high salaries and prestigious positions; a hope that is strong enough to make them (or their parents) happily pay fees many times higher than those at even the most expensive German universities. (For comparison, for the price of a one-year master’s in economics at the University of Cambridge, a student could fund 80 years of graduate study in an equivalent course in Heidelberg.) 

Are these convictions justified? Experts such as Dorothea Rüland, general secretary of the DAAD, paint a mixed picture. According to Rüland, both the international experience and the language skills students gain while studying in the UK can have a beneficial effect on their career. She says: “Especially degrees from Cambridge, Oxford and the LSE are held in high esteem, both within academia and by employers.” 

Yet Rüland cautions not to generalise this observation: “I am a bit reluctant to say that a degree from a British university generally has a positive impact on students’ career opportunities in Germany, as the diversity and the qualitative range of British universities are large.”

Rüland’s view is shared by employers. According to Christa Stienen, vice-president of the Federal Association of German Human Resources Managers, a degree from a British university does not really have an influence on one’s chances of being employed, at least not with German companies: “Chances of getting employed mainly depend on whether the candidates have been abroad in some way.”

Stienen notes that while a degree from a top university can make a difference, criteria such as the time actually spent abroad are of greater importance for many employers.

At least for now, it seems that British universities are still a favourite for German students going abroad. What remains to be seen is the impact that Brexit will have on Britain’s attractiveness as a destination for students. Whether the UK then will still be a dreamland for Germans is far from certain.

Felix Simon, 23, is a journalist and student from a small town south of Frankfurt. He studied film and media science and English studies at the Goethe University Frankfurt, before moving to England where he currently pursues an MSc in Social Science of the Internet at the University of Oxford.

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