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How Germany is helping international students amid COVID-19

Regina Brinkmann
July 3, 2020

Foreign students are now eligible for help as part of Germany's emergency coronavirus spending. They have a long lean run behind them, relying either on their own initiative or public solidarity.

Deeksha Sharma
Image: Deeksha Sharma

Deeksha Sharma needs a minimum of €500 (around $560) to cover her costs of living as a student in Oldenburg, not far from Germany's northern coast and border to the Netherlands.

Ideally, her plan was to do this without help from her parents in Nepal, by finding part-time work. She acquired the requisite work permit — but then the coronavirus struck.

Many of her fellow students started losing their jobs and had to start delving into their financial reserves. Physics student Sharma also started to struggle.

Read more: Coronavirus — Is the EU's Erasmus program under threat?

"I've had a real problem over the last three months. I still needed to pay for my rent and groceries, and I didn't want to ask my parents for money yet again," she said.

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Sharma's roommate stepped in to help her plug the gap at first. Eventually, she turned to the advice office for international students at her university and there she learned about the additional student loans currently on offer from Germany's KfW state development bank. These are now also available to students without German citizenship, part of the government package hoping to help struggling students.

"Such a broad package for students from an education ministry is unique in European terms, perhaps even in international terms," raved Education Minister Anja Karliczek when presenting the package at a press conference last month.

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Help, but not without strings

Sharma says she's not too worried about getting in over her head. The monthly installments of €650 she's eligible for from July until next March are interest-free at first.

As it stands, though, the comparatively low interest of around 4% will kick in from April. And 18 months after the first bank transfer, the first repayments will be due. But Sharma says the required minimum rate of around €20 per month is reassuringly low. She is also confident longer terms of finding a job and bringing her personal finances back into order.

Read more: Germany could benefit as foreign students ditch US, UK

The young physicist is one of around 8,000 international students to have applied for such assistance since May. The students applying come mainly from Iran, India, Bangladesh, Syria, and Tunisia. They all had to wait one month longer than the German students claiming similar assistance.

Free University Berlin, main building
The Free University in Berlin is the most popular with foreign students in GermanyImage: Peter Himsel

Philip Rauh from the KfW explained that the international loans were postponed by one month to July to be on the safe side, as it was not technically possible to guarantee the first installments by the beginning of June.

Many students are not eligible

However, many international students do not meet the strict requirements for eligibility. At least, not according to Kornelia von Kaisenberg, who advises those affected in Aachen on behalf of a Protestant students' association. To qualify, in the unusual German university system that allows students to progress at almost any pace they please, applicants must be in one of their first 10 semesters (or five years) of university education.

Read more: International students have to wait for months for a visa

"Many of the international students are past their tenth semester simply because many of them had to work during their studies, which can often mean extending them," von Kaisenberg said.

Aachen's Protestant students' associations do not just advise students, they also offer financial support — for instance, a monthly stipend for students approaching graduation. Joel Mekiedje is benefitting from that scheme. He studies at a technical university in Aachen and is currently writing his master's thesis in electrical engineering.

Jöel Mekiedje
Joel Mekiedje is using the loan to finish his Master's thesis at Aachen UniversityImage: Privat

The Cameroonian citizen knows a lot of students who aren't applying for KfZ loans for fear of getting in too much debt. They have their eye especially on the interest payments kicking in next year. He says they are still borrowing money, but from friends and family instead.

Solidarity among the international student community

Mekiedje said that mutual support like this is common among Cameroonian but also international students in general.

"Naturally, you pay it back once you have money again," he said.

The students have also come up with other alternative fundraising ideas. When a recent study among 40 students from Cameroon showed that around 90% of them were struggling to foot their rent and health insurance bills, he and fellow students raised around €3,500 in charitable donations.

You can read more Germany-related stories here