Half of the foreign students in Germany fail to complete their studies and more and more graduates are leaving the country. Experts are calling for change to the education system and visa regulations.
Foreign students face a rough ride in Germany
As German universities prepare themselves for the start of the new academic year, foreign students can expect an especially rough ride.
Free language courses have been phased out of the majority of universities in the last few years. And now the state-run preparatory schools which help foreign students to prepare for the mandatory entrance exam have been closed in Germany's largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), as a cost-cutting measure.
The seven free-of-charge preparatory schools have been replaced by two private colleges - the Cologne Prep Class, which charges fees of 5,000 euros ($6,900) per academic year, and the Freshman Institute at Aachen University of Applied Sciences, which charges 16,000 euros including accommodation.
Brandenburg's only preparatory school has also closed. The fear is that all state-run preparatory schools in Germany will eventually be closed in favor of fee-charging colleges, blocking access to German universities for all but the wealthiest foreign students.
German universties are seeking to internationalize
German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared last year that the country's integration policy had failed, but German universities have long been seeking to internationalize themselves in order to attract the best foreign students. 11.5 percent of all students enrolled in German universities come from abroad and Germany is the fourth most popular country for foreign students after the US, Great Britain and Australia.
The quality of teaching, security and the low tuition costs continue to be the most important factors for foreign students when deciding to study in Germany - alongside the attractiveness of European culture and history.
According to recent statistics from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the number of foreign students enrolled in German universities increased by 5,600 to 244,775 in 2010.
But figures from the Higher Education Information System in Germany show that a shocking 50 percent of foreign students fail to successfully complete their studies in Germany - throwing into doubt the credibility of the university entrance exam and the effectiveness of preparatory schools, which many see as an unfair hurdle for foreign students.
The President of the National Association of Foreign Students Johannes Glembeck believes that the current system is discriminatory - the result of an arrogant world view that a German education is the best. He said he would like the preparatory schools to be closed and the teachers working there transferred to run integration programs at German universities.
"We do not want to see foreign students ghettoized in preparatory schools," he told Deutsche Welle. "Integration is a two-way street. There should be free prep classes offered at every German university so that foreign students have as much contact as possible with their German counterparts."
Only 50 percent of foreign students complete their studies
Glembeck predicts that the future of the preparatory schools will be decided by finance ministers looking to save money, but the Chairman of the German Association of Preparatory Schools Michael Aulbach is more positive.
"Politically, nobody is striving to close preparatory schools. There is no support for such a move," explained Aulbach. "In NRW it was a decision taken at the administrative level with no democratic foundation," he said.
Aulbach stressed the importance of the preparatory schools in enabling foreign students to adapt to the German educational system, a view shared by the general secretary of the German National Association for Student Affairs, Achim Meyer auf der Heyde. He said that foreign students struggle to integrate into the German educational system, citing the German culture of learning and the language barrier as two major issues.
Financial restraints are also a problem. The majority of foreign students in Germany come from China, Russia, Poland, Bulgaria and Turkey - countries with a lower per capita income rate. Figures released by the German National Association for Student Affairs show that the average foreign, unmarried bachelor's degree student survives on 725 euros ($995) per month in comparison to 812 euros for German students. Foreign students are also restricted in the amount they are able to work, due to visa stipulations - a maximum of 90 days per year.
"Germany needs foreign students in order to enrich the intellectual culture at our universities," Meyer auf der Heyde said. He also called for measures to help those foreign students who successfully complete their studies stay in the country in order to address the current shortage of skilled labor.
The head of the Federal Employment Agency, Frank-Jürgen Weise, said that Germany requires 200,000 specialists from abroad to cover the skills shortage in Germany. But strict visa regulations force many highly skilled foreign graduates to leave the country.
Non-EU citizens must find a job with a minimum salary of 60,000 euros ($82,600) within one year of graduating in order to qualify for a visa to live and work in Germany. The German Minister for Education, Annette Schavan wants to see this reduced to 40,000 euros.
German Education Minister Annette Schavan
Experts such as Christian Thimme, head of the group for the Internationalization of German Universities at the German Academic Exchange Service, have long been campaigning against the high levels of bureaucracy affecting non-EU students.
"It makes no economic sense for Germany to invest money in attracting and then educating foreign students who would otherwise stay if it weren't for the bureaucratic quagmire," he said.
Schavan was responsible for changes introduced last month to the German law assessing the validity of qualifications gained abroad. Those who have worked as qualified electricians, nurses and engineers in their home countries are often forced into low paid jobs as cleaners or taxi drivers or to sign on for unemployment benefits because their qualifications are not recognized in Germany. New changes will make it easier for foreigners to have their qualifications recognized.
Johannes Glembeck welcomed the move as a positive first step, but said it does not go far enough: "In Germany we say that a high school with 50 percent foreigners is a problem school, while a university with 50 percent foreign students is a success! We need to learn to have more respect for other cultures and develop a much better integration policy - German universities could be role models for that."
Author: Helen Whittle
Editor: Kate Bowen