Degree of certainty

Foreign students flocking to German universities

german universities international students
Still room for more. Source: DPA

Germany is attracting increasing numbers of foreign students to its universities, a trend that will surely be welcomed by business leaders lamenting the country’s chronic shortage of skilled labor.

Five years ago, the government set a goal of having at least 350,000 foreign students enrolled at German universities and colleges by 2020. It has already exceeded that, reaching 359,000 in 2017, according to official figures presented this week. “It shows we’re highly attractive internationally as a location for science,” Education Minister Anja Karliczek said.

Germany now ranks fifth among the countries with the most foreign enrollment, behind the US, Britain, Australia and France. The main draws for Germany include delightfully low tuition fees and the fact that about 1,500 of its 10,000 master’s degree programs are available in English.

Unlike in the US and Australia, where almost half of all foreign students come from China and India, Germany attracts a wider range of nationalities, although the Chinese form the biggest single group and mainly focus on engineering. Margret Wintermantel, the president of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), said that’s a sign of the highly esteemed reputation of German engineers.

But the government is worried about the high proportion of foreign students who abandon their studies — it was 45 percent for undergraduates in the 2012/2013 school year, 17 points above the dropout rate for German students. That’s unacceptably high, especially given the need for skilled workers, Ms. Karliczek said. The DAAD is investigating possible causes and countermeasures.

german universities, international students

In addition to universities, research institutes and corporate research departments are also recruiting more foreign talent. Non-German researchers currently contribute to almost six out of 10 scientific publications in Germany, and 46,000 foreign scientists were employed in Germany in 2016. That’s almost twice as many as 10 years ago. Germany now ranks third in a long-term comparison of countries attracting foreign scientists, behind the US and Britain but ahead of China.

The figure of 46,000 doesn’t include 10,600 foreign researchers who work at Germany’s four big nonprofit research institutes — the Max Planck Society, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the Helmholtz Association and the Leibniz Association. In addition, there are some 32,000 guest scientists on temporary programs. Chinese researchers are the biggest single category here for the first time, reflecting deepening research ties between Germany and China.

It’s striking that the number of German scientists spending time at research bodies abroad is only half as high. And the number of Germans studying abroad — 138,000 in 2015 — has been stagnant for years. Their preferred destinations are Austria, the Netherlands, Britain, Switzerland, the US and China. Germany is still far from its goal of having 50 percent of German students experience learning abroad.

Frank Specht writes about the German labor market. To contact the author: 

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