Some 70,000 German students study abroad each year, but most of them don't go far. Last year, 14,000 went just next door, to the Netherlands, with Maastricht the destination of choice.
Dutch universities offer mainly small seminars instead of big lectures
It was rush hour in the cafe at the University of Maastricht as dozens of students waited in an endless line for their coffee. It's no wonder, as this place serves the best cappuccino in town -- at least according to Julia Langenohl.
The 19-year-old is originally from Wuppertal in western Germany, but came to Maastricht last fall to study business. She was looking for a degree program offered in English with an international focus when the University of Maastricht caught her eye.
"Everything is very international here," she said. "The education system is better than in Germany. When you look at the universities, you can see that they've been invested in."
She's not the only one to appreciate the city's university: 50 percent of students in Maastricht are foreign, and 30 percent of these come from Germany.
"That's an important part of our strategy," said Jo Ritzen, president of the university and a former Dutch minister of education. The goal is to prepare students for the international job market, he added, and the biggest challenge is to reverse the brain drain by bringing in students from abroad.
Fighting the brain-drain
Courses are offered in English to avoid language barriers
"In the rest of the world, the number of university students will increase, but here it would decrease," said Ritzen.
As education minister in the 1990s, Ritzen encouraged colleges and universities to further open their doors to foreign students -- and with success. Today, in addition to the many German students, 5,000 Chinese and 2,500 Belgian students live in Maastricht, as do many Poles, Indonesians and Americans.
One point that foreign school-seekers often find attractive in Maastricht is that many courses are offered in English and in very small groups.
There are very few lecture halls. Mainly, students are given assignments and expected to work independently with their fellow students -- an approach that goes over well with the Germans, said Arjan Vlaskamp, who has studied in Maastricht for two years.
Langenohl said that when she first came to Maastricht she was amazed at the resources available to students.
"As far as the facilities go, the University of Maastricht is comparable to a private university in Germany," she said.
The group rooms are renovated and there are projectors and computers everywhere. Each group is assigned a tutor to provide assistance. All of these perks played a role in Julia's decision to go to Maastricht.
Keeping the foreign students coming
Other Germans go to the Netherlands to get around final exams that are required in some subjects in Germany, but not in the neighboring country -- psychology, for example. That's why more than 350 German psychology students have made their way to Maastricht.
Maastricht in southernmost Holland has a charming old town
While Dutch universities may offer a few advantages that are particularly attractive to foreign students, they also actively recruit in other European countries. In Germany, for example, they regularly hold informational seminars and have set up a special Web site for German students in Holland.
Financial motivation also plays a role in recruitment.
"Every dean knows that he gets more money, when he has more students and more graduates," Ritzen said.
Universities in the Netherlands are paid according to the number of students and graduates they have, which Ritzen says means between 10,000 and 20,000 euros ($15,800-31,500) per degree per year.
Expanding horizons, erasing borders
For Langenohl and Vlaskamp, studying abroad isn't only about getting a high quality education, but also learning about a new culture.
While seminars at the university are in English, Vlaskamp's friends are mainly German and Dutch. Sometimes he even uses all three languages in the same sentence.
"I'm from Goch, which is pretty close to the German-Dutch border," he said. "There's practically no border there anymore; it gets more blurred every year."