The Rise of Chinese Students at German Universities

As the merits and means of reducing student debt are debated from Capitol Hill to Whitehall, the most recent cohort of the world’s secondary school graduates is getting ready for the start of the new academic year. An ever-growing number of these students will enroll at foreign universities as international student mobility increases. Germany is now the third-most-popular host country for international students, after the U.S. and the U.K.: more than 300,000 foreign students were enrolled at German universities in 2014. International students represent almost 10 percent of the total student population in Germany, and almost 10 percent of these foreign students are Chinese nationals, making China the most significant country of origin for foreign students at German universities. Conversely, more than 6,000 German nationals were enrolled at Chinese universities in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.

International mobility benefits institutions and students alike

In addition to the benefits of cultural exchange, the ever-increasing number of foreign university students expands the pool of applicants to popular academic programs, thereby providing the potential to raise academic standards. There is also the question of revenue: international students undoubtedly represent an important source of income for universities worldwide, many of which charge higher fees for international students.

Similarly, access to a larger pool of universities can be advantageous to students, particularly as the degree of specialization increases at graduate level. And foreign study can have professional as well as personal benefits for students. A 2015 study [1] by McKinsey and Germany’s Stifterverband research association showed that up to 73 percent of employers rate international experience as an important factor in the hiring process.

Foreign exchange: a win for both host countries and sending countries

Both the host country and the country of origin stand to profit from the increase in international student mobility, too. Governments recognize the value of retaining the most highly qualified foreign graduates in the local economy through programs such as Optional Practical Training in the U.S. and the “high value migrant” scheme in the U.K. For countries with ageing populations such as Germany, a steady supply of young, skilled immigrants already familiar with the local language and culture is a boon. The foreign students’ countries of origin also benefit as they eventually reabsorb a large proportion of the highly educated, internationally connected graduates into their economies and education systems. The global networks and intercultural communication established by foreign-educated graduates are of particular significance to China, the world’s leading exporter of goods, the recent slump in both exports and imports notwithstanding.

Chinese students look to Germany

Today, hundreds of private universities and colleges in China compete with more established public institutions for over 31 million Chinese students, or approximately 30 percent of all high school graduates. Competition for programs at China’s top universities is fierce, however, and is only becoming more so as the proportion of university applicants, and graduates, rises. Foreign study provides an attractive alternative. As underemployment among graduates increases, a degree from a foreign university is seen as providing so-called haigui, students who return to China after studying abroad, with an edge on the job market.

In 2014 the number of international students at German universities increased by 7 percent over 2013. The German government backs this growth, and has set a target to increase the number of foreign students at German universities to 350,000 by the year 2020. Whereas there has been a shift from graduate to undergraduate programs among international students enrolled at U.S. institutions, the majority of foreign nationals at German universities are studying for graduate degrees, mainly in engineering-related fields. Of these, around 4,700 international doctoral students were funded by the German Academic Exchange Service [2] in 2012 as they pursued either “traditional” research-based PhDs or “structured” curriculum-based PhDs at German universities.

For students from China, the appeal of German universities is multifaceted. Germany’s appeal as the “country of poets and thinkers” may be rooted more firmly in the past than in the present, but its reputation as a bastion of engineering excellence is current and highly relevant to prospective Chinese students, the vast majority of whom pursue degree courses in technical fields at German institutions of higher education.

The so-called Excellence Initiative, which provides additional funding for particular fields of study, elite institutions and doctoral research, has benefitted local and international students and researchers at universities across the country since 2005. The transition from the traditional German system of Diplom and Magister programs to bachelor’s and master’s degrees as part of the Europe-wide Bologna process – a reform initiative that aims to harmonize degree structures across the continent – has facilitated transnational exchange. This is also relevant to students from China as Germany’s new higher education structure is more closely aligned with China’s than it was in the past.

Additionally, the number of university courses taught in English has risen to over 1,000, the majority of them in technical fields, making Germany a viable option even for those who do not speak the language. And finally, after a brief flirtation with tuition fees at public institutions, which make up approximately 95 percent of the roughly 400 accredited institutes of higher education in the country, tuition fees for undergraduate degrees at public universities have been abolished again. Tuition fees for graduate degrees at public institutions, inasmuch as they are still in place, are low by international standards. This makes Germany an affordable and popular study destination for international students who might be priced out of countries with higher tuition fees like the U.S. and the U.K.

WENR-1015-GermanyChinese-v2 [3]

Education at the heart of Sino-German cooperation

Sino-German trade volume exceeded U.S.$ 166 billion in 2014, making mainland China Germany’s third-most-important trading partner and Germany mainland China’s sixth-most-important trading partner. A paper [4] published by the German government in 2014 described China as a “strategic partner for peace, stability and wealth of the world,” and outlined plans to strengthen political and economic ties between the two countries.

The two governments’ strategies include not only measures such as the German-Chinese investment-protection agreement and the opening in Berlin of the first Chinese chamber of commerce in Europe, but also the facilitation of cultural, linguistic, academic and educational exchange through bodies such as the Confucius and Goethe institutes, the German Academic Exchange Service and the China Scholarship Council [5]. Transnational research partnerships between prestigious organizations in both countries have resulted in the establishment of the CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology [6] in Shanghai, the Center for Sino-German Cooperation in Marine Sciences [7] in Qingdao, and bilateral government-sponsored initiatives such as the Chinese-German Platform for Electric Mobility.

German schools expand their presence in China

Educational exchange plays an important role in this vision for mutually beneficial collaboration. China aims to increase the number of foreign students it sends abroad to 500,000 by 2020 and Germany hopes to raise the number of German graduates who have spent at least a semester abroad to 50 percent by that time. Among the more than 400 joint Chinese-foreign high schools in greater China offering international examinations such as the International Baccalaureate and SATs, an increasing number of German-language schools are being established. While the majority of Chinese universities will not admit applicants who have learned German instead of English as a foreign language, programs such as the Deutsches Sprachdiplom [8] (German language diploma), offered in conjunction with local schools, promote German as a second foreign language.

At the tertiary level, too, German institutions are expanding their presence in China, with universities such as the Freie Universität Berlin [9] and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München [10] setting up representative offices and collaborative projects in China’s major cities, sometimes in partnership with local universities. Other collaborations include graduate programs that lead to a master’s degree awarded by both Tongji University [11] and one of its German partner institutions.

Approximately two-thirds of Chinese nationals at German universities are enrolled in master’s programs. This is because applicants from China who have no previous higher-education experience are generally not eligible to enroll at German universities. Those who have completed a four-year undergraduate degree at a Chinese university, however, are eligible. In some cases, a preparatory year at a Studienkolleg college, followed by an examination, is required, and a German-language test is a prerequisite for some programs and scholarships, though this is generally not the case in the fields most popular among Chinese students at German universities: mechanical and electrical engineering.

Challenges faced by Chinese students in Germany

Even in the absence of tuition fees, the average international student’s living expenses in Germany total approximately U.S.$ 800 per month. Students from China are generally not eligible for the part-loan, part-grant awarded to some students by the German state (known as Bafög) and student visas permit no more than 120 days of work per calendar year. As a result, Chinese students must either be self-funded or recipients of scholarships, many of which are awarded by the German Academic Exchange Service.

The linguistic, academic, and cultural challenges faced by international students in Germany lead to approximately 41 percent abandoning their studies before graduation. The completion rate among international graduate students is considerably higher than that among international undergraduate students, however. The need to raise completion rates among international students is pressing as the personal cost to the individual student, and the financial cost to the German taxpayer, is high. As a result of the high dropout rate, the German state invests U.S.$ 150,000 in each foreign graduate, as opposed to U.S.$ 50,000 in each German graduate.

Improving graduation rates

As the number of international students at German institutions rises, driven in part by the increasing number of students from China, the universities are considering ways to improve graduation rates. One solution is to place a greater emphasis on the rigor of the selection process, focusing both on academic aptitude and also on German-language skills. Support for enrolled international students in the form of mentoring, orientation weeks, language courses, and career counseling is also being expanded. This will be of particular benefit to students from countries such as China, who must adapt to the greater emphasis placed on seminars, tutorials, group work and discussions at many German universities.

From the German government’s perspective, it is important that a proportion of the most highly qualified graduates do not return to their home countries immediately after completing their studies. The political and economic calculation is that, in the absence of tuition fees, approximately 30 percent of international students must remain, work, and pay taxes in Germany for a minimum of five years in order to balance the cost of educating international students for free. It is also hoped that the skills gap created in part by an ageing population can be bridged in this way.

Whether this calculation pays off remains a subject of lively debate, as does the question of whether Germany can afford to continue to offer tuition-free education to international students. Germany’s universities are less well represented in international league tables [12] than they would like to be, a fact that is often linked to limited funds for research and for attracting and retaining the most accomplished academics. Some politicians and university administrators argue that charging tuition fees for all students, or even just for non-European Union citizens, would raise these much-needed funds.

The number of students from China and, as a result, German academia and industry’s connections to the Chinese economy, would be affected by such measures. At present, the German electorate and government appear to value the principle of free education for all – and the international connections that this policy engenders – too highly to take such a risk.