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German universities struggle to keep foreign students

AFP · 3 May 2008, 10:03

Published: 03 May 2008 10:03 GMT+02:00

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German universities have drawn some of the 20th century's greatest minds, but efforts to woo a new generation of international scholars are faltering because foreign students find it difficult to integrate.

A new report from the Education Ministry ranks Germany third on the list of top destinations for students studying outside of their home country - only the United States and Britain have more foreign students.

But Germany is struggling to keep this ranking. After growing rapidly since 1997, the number of foreign students - Chinese form the biggest group - has barely budged since 2003.

More worrisome, research funded by the German Academic Exchange Service shows that only half of those enrolled in the country's institutions of higher learning successfully complete their degree programmes.

"German students aren't hostile to foreigners - but they don't feel the need to approach foreigners and offer help," said researcher Ulrich Heublein.

A project manager with the University Information Systems consulting firm, Heublein said contact with German students is essential to foreign students' success.

"Those who do have contact with German students feel welcome, but that's not often the case," he said.

Nearly 190,000 foreign students studied in Germany in 2006, according to the ministry report. By comparison, the United States was the destination of choice for over 590,000 foreign students in 2005, while 318,000 went to Britain in the same year.

The largest contingent in Germany by far come from China, which sent over 26,000 students in 2006.

Eastern European countries sent the next largest groups of students. Over 12,000 Bulgarian and Polish students and nearly 10,000 Russian students went to Germany in 2006.

Culture shock and a failure to acclimatise to German academic life are two key reasons so many foreign students leave before completing their degrees, according to Heublein.

Some German universities have recognized the problem. Berlin's Humboldt University organises events to help foreign students find German conversation partners, but many foreign students say they feel isolated.

"My problem is that I've tried to find German students to talk to, but it's really hard," Jun Yang, a Chinese law student who has already been at Humboldt for a year, told AFP. "Many German students aren't very open to talking."

'German universities demand self-sufficiency'

Housing often plays an important role. There is little tradition of living on-campus and many German students either live at home or in group apartments.

Most foreign students, meanwhile, live in on-campus housing populated almost exclusively by foreign students.

Yang said he had heard of a programme in Frankfurt that placed foreign students with German families, but that nothing similar existed in Berlin.

German academic culture, which gives students a great deal of independence and relatively minimal supervision, also poses a challenge for foreign students who are used to structured curricula.

"The structure is very different from Chinese universities because here we have to come up with our own course of study," Gu Xia, an exchange student from Shanghai said.

"German universities demand a lot of self-sufficiency," Ulrike Spangenberg of Humboldt University's international office said. "Those who can't handle that have trouble. And the same is true for German students."

Spangenberg and her colleagues at Humboldt offer programmes to help foreign students on topics ranging from visa help to trips around Berlin, but she said that with 5,000 foreign students, the university is stretched thin.

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"We can't take unlimited numbers of (foreign) students anymore," Spangenberg said. "Our faculty and administration haven't grown and we're reaching our limits."

But internationalizing German universities by increasing foreign enrollment is a major goal in educational reforms spearheaded by the federal government which, along with state governments, funds the university system.

The Free University of Berlin, for example, plans to double its foreign student population to about a quarter of the 34,000-strong student body, according to its president Dieter Lenzen.

Funding formulas based on enrollment numbers may make things worse for foreign students, Dieter Dohmen of the Berlin-based Research Institute for Education and Social Economics said.

"There is an incentive for universities to enroll foreign students because there is a so-called performance related pay, which is tied to the number of foreign students -- but only to the number," Dohmen said.

But once the foreign students arrive, universities have few incentives to care for students, which means, "there is no real support system to give (students) advice and guidance," Dohmen said.

With two more years to go in Germany, Chinese law student Jun Yang said he would keep attending events sponsored by Humboldt - unless he finally makes some German friends.

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