Earlier this summer I had the pleasure of participating in a study tour sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to learn about the German higher education landscape. It was a particularly exciting time to visit the country. The European soccer championship was underway, and German universities were awaiting the announcement of the results of the second phase of the Excellence Initiative.
Over the past decade, Germany has adopted the Bologna Process, a higher education agenda across the European Higher Education Area intended to facilitate student mobility and create more compatible higher education structures across Europe. A significant outcome of the Bologna Process is that German higher education institutions now have bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs, which give international students the flexibility to enter the higher education system at a level that best suits them. (Most international students study at the graduate level, often in English-taught programs. For more information, please see IIE’s recent briefing paper, English-Taught Master's Programs in Europe.)
Currently, total student enrollment in German higher education is at an all-time high, with more than 2.1 million students. But by 2020, enrollment rates are expected to shrink, owing to declining demographics and the pull of overseas opportunities for top German students. Owning up to this looming future, Germany has begun to implement policies that will remedy a declining pool of German graduates: significant inroads in implementing the Bologna reforms, offering subsidized or free education—with hundreds of programs in English—for international students, and liberalizing immigration policies for students with a German degree. As Germany begins to confront the challenge of declining domestic enrollment, attracting top students from around the world will become even more important.
In 2010, Germany hosted more than 244,000 international students, who represented nearly 12 percent of total higher education enrollment in the country. What is it that attracts so many students to Germany? Low tuition fees will do it. But Germany also has an array of national and institutional policies that make the country such an attractive destination.
The Excellence Initiative promotes world-class research with millions of euros invested in dozens of university-based research projects. This initiative supports cutting-edge scientific research, has created more spots for academics and scientists in German universities, and allows universities to develop new research centers, positioning Germany as a global research hub and ensuring that Germany continues to be a top player in scientific research.
At the institutional level, German universities have focused on expanding research capacity through collaboration with their global counterparts. The University of Giessen, for example, works with more than 70 universities around the world and supports student mobility at all academic levels. The Center for Metropolitan Studies at the Technical University of Berlin works with 10 research universities and encourages students to study at partner campuses in the United States and Canada as part of their master’s program. Internationalization is a high priority for German universities and the country offers plenty of examples of national and institutional policies for how to be a world leader in research and attract top students from around the world.
My main takeaway from the study tour? If you build strong research programs and make the education environment welcoming and transparent, the students will come.