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The Number of Students in Germany is on the Rise Again

Student numbers increase, although less people go to university in Germany than in other industrialized countries.


A quarter of a million new students are starting at German universities in the coming days

The number of students in Germany has been on the rise again over the last few years. More than 1.8 million people are now studying in the country’s 350 universities and colleges of further education. But, as student numbers go, Germany still lags far behind other industrialized countries such as Britain, the United States or Canada.

In spite of intensive recruitment campaigns, only a third of school-leavers still actually go on to further education. Brigitte Göbbels, a member of the umbrella Association of Universities and Other Higher Education Institutions in Germany, says that only 28 percent of people of the same age study at German universities - whereas in some countries, the figure can be as high as 40 percent.

Class does make a difference

Not all German children have the same opportunities to study. The German Students’ Association says one of its surveys shows that children from poorer families are much less likely to go to university. In the case of civil servants’ and academics’ children, on the other hand, the situation is the reverse.

It is less a question of brains than money. Although student fees are the exception in Germany, most students still have to pay for their living expenses themselves, and only a quarter of them receive any sort of state grant towards them.

As this year’s winter semester gets underway, accommodation is a particular problem. Dieter Schäferbarthold, General Secretary of the German Students’ Association, says that some students are even being put up in emergency accommodation just to allow them to start their courses.

“Most of them have to rely on private accommodation, and there you can see the problem,” he says. “When accommodation is tight - in the big cities, and especially in Munich – then students are the first people to suffer.”

The cost of living and housing in Germany varies widely from place to place. What a student can get for just 500 euros a month in Dresden will cost him or her 814 euros in Munich. Without a state grant or parental support, a student will have to work as a waiter or babysitter or give remedial school lessons after the lectures are over.

The gender balance

One area which has seen an improvement is the number of women taking up study places. As many women are now studying at universities and colleges as men, and women now make up the majority in some subjects. But Brigitte Göbbels still thinks it will be a long time before they manage to break into top academic positions.

“It doesn’t look at all bad at present. 54 percent of students starting in higher education are women and more women than men are registered for advanced degrees. But, when you get to the upper levels - as far as lecturers and especially professors are concerned - then you see that this trend is gradually reversed.”

The need to attract more foreign students

Only eight percent of students in German universities come from abroad, and this is another area where more needs to be done. Two proposals to make German universities more attractive to foreign students are to offer courses taught in English and to promote the international recognition of academic degrees.

Dieter Schäferbarthold thinks that foreign students are not only ambassadors of their own countries but will also develop a deeper understanding of Germany. “I believe it’s also interesting for us Germans when foreign students tell us what, from their point of view, they think we can do better,” he says. “Both sides profit when foreigners are here as our guests.”

A new law should do a lot to improve the lot of overseas students in Germany: they will now be able to work 180 half-days per year without having to apply for a work permit - because studying in Germany requires money as well as brains.