Behnam, an Iranian student at Cologne's University of Applied Sciences, always knew that he wanted to pursue a degree in Germany.
However, since he'd completed his secondary education abroad, he found himself facing the German university Feststellungsprüfung, a mandatory entrance exam for foreigners not holding an equivalent to Germany's rigorous Abitur high school diploma.
Normally, students such as Behnam could apply to their German university of choice and then attend a state-run Studienkolleg, free institutions offering preparatory courses geared towards the Feststellungsprüfung.
But five years ago, the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) decided to close all seven Studienkollegs in a move to save money. In order to study in Cologne, Behnam started preparing privately for the Feststellungsprüfung when he stumbled upon something new: the Cologne Prep Class (CPC).
“The decision for Cologne Prep Class happened very unexpectedly and relatively quickly for me; it was known that the state-run Studienkollegs in NRW were closed,” he told The Local recently via email.
The CPC was founded in 2009 as a replacement for the Cologne's closing Studienkolleg. However, unlike the now defunct prep courses, the CPC requires a significant financial investment: €5,000 for programme fees plus a recommended €7,000 for 10 months of living costs. Next week, 34 students will start the new semester.
Upon successful completion – including passing the Feststellungsprüfung – students can apply to the German university of choice, but there is a tangible incentive for staying: a guaranteed spot at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences. With this year expected to see record student enrolment due to the abolition of Germany's military conscription, the guarantee offers an extra incentive to pay for such prep classes.
Still free elsewhere
International students can still study at 31 Studienkollegs in 14 German states (Brandenburg's only preparatory institution in Potsdam also closed following the 2009/2010 winter semester) free of charge. Two, in Glaucau and Dresden, have extra fees, but nothing close to the cost of courses in NRW.
Another upstart, the Freshman Institute at Aachen University of Applied Science charges an all-inclusive fee of €16,000.
The price tag shouldn't turn off potential students, though, according to director Hermann-Josef Buchkremer.
“Because we also offer courses in the English-language, the students applying are probably familiar with the costs for a similar education in other English-speaking countries, such as the USA or Great Britain,” Buchkremer told The Local.
The Freshman Institute, established in 2006, will start its sixth round of courses in September with around 280 students. Of course, after the upfront payment for the preparation course, international students accepted to a degree programme will study for almost nothing, since NRW is phasing out its tuition fees of €500 per semester. In end effect, said Buchkremer, the complete degree – Freshman Institute included – is less expensive than other comparable options worldwide.
According to Buchkremer, the Freshman Institute “is not a money-printing machine for the university.” Rather, the independently run programme is meant to bolster the university's image by helping maintain a sought-after international population on campus.
“Part of our national aim is to internationalize the universities,” said Ulrike Koch, spokeswoman for Germany's Higher Education Consortium (GATE). “International students usually bring different kinds of ideas and perspectives into the university, and this enriches the whole institutional appearance.”
Indeed, Germany is currently the fourth most popular study abroad country for international students, after the United States, Britain and Australia, according to data published in Wissenschaft Weltoffen 2011, a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) publication pertaining to international study and research in Germany. In 2010, the number of international students in Germany increased by approximately 5,600 to 244,775.
Marketing campaigns have played a large part in attracting foreign students to Germany, according to Dr. Christian Thimme of the DAAD, especially since the late nineties. Despite the marked increase in German students vying for university spots, Thimme said the country still wants to increase its number of international students.
“We say we want to be international. We want to attract the best heads to Germany. There's the education market, where we want to play a strong role,” he said.
The question is whether Germany will continue to subsidize the education for foreigners on a wide-scale basis.
“Everybody is of the opinion that the Studienkollegs have an important function, but in the time of tight budgets, (they're) looking to see where money can be saved,“ said Wiebke Koch-Gimpel, director of the Studienkolleg Hamburg and board member of a national committee for Studienkollegs.
According to Koch-Gimpel, many would-be international students face significant financial challenges, and the Wissenschaft Weltoffen data reported that 37 percent of international students said they chose to study in Germany because it was within their financial means.
Dr. Mattheus Wollert, director of the Frankfurt Studienkolleg said a small percentage of students attend the free preparation courses in Hesse, although they actually want to attend university in NRW. He's also uncertain whether the Studienkollegs will continue to be able to operate without charging students.
“This is a question that haunts us all,” he wrote in an email. “I assume that the state-run Studienkollegs in their current form will not charge fees. However, it could be that at some point they are cut back because of financial reasons. And then, they would either close or continue with a fee-based model.“
Although many German universities are wielding the trendy term internationalisation in efforts to welcome foreign students on campus, the public support pool for Studienkollegs may be drying up.
“We still think that what we're doing is meaningful work,” said Koch-Gimpel. “Whether the politicians also think so in the long run is still in question.”