GERMANY: Foreign students deterred by charges

Germany is popular with overseas students and comes third in terms of recruitment from OECD countries. Where they have been introduced, tuition fees appear modest compared with many other countries. But while a number of programmes exist to support students from abroad, World University Service Germany is concerned that fees are proving a deterrent to foreigners, particularly from southern countries.

International student numbers have grown steadily since German reunification in 1990 when 92,000 students from abroad were enrolled in universities compared with 1.4 million Germans. In 2008, 233,600 students were studying in higher education institutions, amounting to just over 12% of the total student population of 1.9 million.

The latest OECD report on education says 8.6% of all OECD students going abroad choose to enrol at German institutions. A breakdown of the total foreign first-year student number of 52,883 in 2007 shows that 15,036 came from developing countries, 15,360 from the newly emerging economies and the balance of 22,346 from industrialised nations.

Policies on tuition fees vary considerably throughout Germany, with the individual states enjoying far-reaching powers to decide on educational affairs. Neither do institutions themselves always impose the highest fees legally permitted, whereas some have even introduced extra fees for foreigners, such as Bonn's "special tuition fees". Where they have been introduced, the standard tuition fees are usually around EUR500 (US$700) a semester.

There are various ways for students abroad to find out about tuition fee arrangements. The German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD provides extensive information on its homepage. The DAAD overseas branches with their information centres and foreign language assistants and the German embassies can inform students, too.

Tuition fees are charged at public institutions in just five of Germany's 16 federal states, with Hesse having opted out in 2008, and the Saar in 2009, following state elections.

"Students from overseas are known to have left universities to seek institutions in states without fees. For some, the fees obviously act as a deterrent to enrolling," says Kambiz Ghawami, Head of the World University Service Germany. "Some foreign students are facing considerable financial problems, especially with part-time jobs being hard to come by in the wake of the economic downturn and the scrapping of many part-time assistant arrangements at universities."

Last year, WUS Germany approached the then Foreign Minister Hans-Walter Steinmeier with a request that EUR10 million be provided to support overseas students, with funding made accessible via the new economic stimulus package to combat the economic crisis. Ghawami says that while politicians acknowledged the plight some foreign students were experiencing, no extra money was provided.

But for some, especially those from developing countries, there is another problem. The Aliens Registration Office requires that students applying for an extension of their residents' permits provide proof of sufficient income and, in some cases, also demand access to accounts. To have a visa issued, students need to show they have enough money to live on for one year, with the figure currently put at EUR7,656.

"Clearly, tuition fees are making things worse for these students," Ghawami comments. "But so far, neither the federal nor the state governments have taken any steps to ease pressure on students from abroad."

The DAAD itself offers a wide range of grants for foreign students, providing information in the "Stipendiendatenbank" via its homepage. Special programmes have been arranged for students from developing countries, too, although the level of grants varies from programme to programme, with, as a rule, EUR650 for undergraduate students, EUR750 for a bachelor's degree on and EUR1,000 for doctoral candidates. On top of this, subsidies are provided for travel costs, health insurance, family support and other services.

Also, a number of universities exempt specially gifted students from fees. Then there are mutual arrangements between institutions that their exchange students are not required to pay fees. In some federal states, overseas students may be exempted from fees if the university has a particular interest in cooperating with their country of origin in education areas.

Surveys providing statistical material on the impact of prospective students from abroad are not available yet.