Germany′s School of Hard Knocks | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.10.2004
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Germany's School of Hard Knocks

Germany has long sought to bring the world's best students to the country's universities. But unfortunately most foreigners leave without receiving a degree. Even worse, many never even manage to enroll in classes.


Foreign students often need extra help in Germany

Studying abroad isn't easy. Besides attempting to do well at university, a foreigner often has to master a new language while trying to fit into a strange culture. Those are challenges similar around the world. But there is growing criticism that the educational system in Germany is failing to properly select and prepare prospective students from abroad.

According to a recent study by the non-profit HIS higher education organization, only a quarter of all foreign students manage to graduate from German university. Those lucky enough to get a degree normally take an average of eight years to do so. Countless more fail to even enroll, unable to pass the university's entry exams.

"We really need to develop another system for picking students," Dr. Jochen Hellmann, director of the University of Hamburg's international programs, told DW-WORLD. "We need to focus less on the qualifications someone may have on paper and instead determine what they are really capable of doing."

Much of the demand for reform has focused on Germany's so-called Studienkollegs, preparatory institutions that are supposed to help foreigners qualify for study at universities. Besides offering language instruction, they also help students improve their academic deficiencies in specific subjects.

Not enough

Students who are unable to enter the German university system directly are often redirected to the Studienkollegs for extra help. However, that assistance often isn't enough. Sadly, there are countless tales of would-be students that spend a year in preparatory classes only to be forced to leave Germany after they fail to qualify for university.

Though they are not charged fees above what a normally enrolled university student would have to pay, those attending a Studienkolleg still need to cover their cost of living in Germany. And that can often be quite expensive for prospective students from China, Indonesia or other developing countries.

Studentin bei einer Pruefung

"After half a year or a year at the Studienkolleg they find out it's all been for nothing. It's not a very efficient way of doing things. It's almost haphazard," said Hellmann.

Accordingly, there growing calls from both inside and outside the Studienkollegs for reform. One of the most important suggestions is to give the Studienkollegs more discretion and input on the selection process. Instead of simply concentrating on those students that can't garner a university spot straight away, they could then focus on choosing those people best suited to succeed in the German higher education system. Currently, a central office sets the criteria for non-EU students who want to study in Germany.

"In my experience it's extremely difficult to compare the diplomas of different countries," Harald Klingel, head of the University of Cologne's Studienkolleg, told DW-WORLD. "Being more involved in the selection could help weed out those that maybe don't really belong here, but it could also improve how we help others that do."

Testing abroad

Hörsaal der Düsseldorfer Universität

One option being discussed is increasing the number of students that are tested before they even leave their home countries. Currently there is one privately funded institution abroad that offers recognized instruction and testing. Associated with the University of Hanover, the German International School in Jakarta, Indonesia just graduated its second class of Studienkolleg participants.

Dr Ekkehard Zeeb, the school's director, said the program was started on the private initiative of Indonesians after they learned how many of their students were failing to qualify for spots at German universities. The Indonesian embassy in Berlin has estimated that around two thirds of all Indonesians that come to Germany to study leave without managing to enroll at a university.

Zeeb said although the 12 prospective students in Indonesia had to pay an estimated €3,600 ($4,456) to cover tuition costs, the program often worked out to be cheaper than spending time at a Studienkolleg in Germany. "That may sound like a lot, but not if you compare the cost of living in Indonesia to what it is in Germany," Zeeb told DW-WORLD in a telephone interview from Jakarta.

Klingel, who is also the chairman of the national Studienkolleg directorate, said he saw advantages to increasing the level of overseas testing and training, but he also cautioned that approach had disadvantages as well.

"Besides preparing students linguistically and academically, the Studienkollegs are also supposed to help them integrate into German society," he said. "That can clearly only be done here."

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