Foreign students win better deal in face of entrenched discrimination

New legislation adopted by the German parliament is set to improve prospects for foreign students and academics, just as the results of a new survey show that many international students are put off staying on in Germany due to discrimination.

In Germany 39.4% of international students surveyed by the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR), said they had encountered discrimination or prejudice because they were foreign.

Of the five countries surveyed, only France had a marginally worse record (39.9%). Students in the UK reported the lowest experience of discrimination or prejudice (27.4%), followed by The Netherlands (30.1%) and Sweden (34.9%).

Regulations just approved by the federal parliament, to implement a European Union (EU) directive on the highly qualified, could considerably improve conditions for foreigners in Germany.

The new law provides for far-reaching changes going beyond the EU requirements. Students will be allowed to work to earn a living for 120 instead of 90 days a year.

On graduating, they can stay in Germany for 18 instead of the current 12 months to seek skilled posts. No restrictions will be imposed on employment during the period in which they are looking for permanent employment, and Federal Labour Agency consent will not be required. A permanent resident’s permit will be granted after two years.

Foreign academics will be granted a resident’s permit for up to six months. Academics holding an employment contract and earning a minimum of €44,800 (US$59,000) a year (and with some professions, just €35,000 a year) will receive a Blue Card. With this, they can obtain a permanent resident’s permit after two to three years. And their next of kin will not require approval by the Federal Labour Agency when taking a job.

Finally, the maximum stay for students including preparatory courses has once again been raised, to 10 years, and the maximum for a doctorate is five years. In 2009, time for a first-degree course plus a doctoral course was restricted to 10 years, which the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has always maintained is too little time even if the prescribed duration of first-degree studies is observed.

The organisation stresses that the new measures give students and academics more freedom of decision – an important aspect, it says, in a cosmopolitan and hospitable country.

The student surveys

Two recent surveys have given mixed messages about what needs to be done to ensure foreign students are attracted to Germany and stay on in the country.

The latest, a new study on trends among foreign students in five European Union countries, suggests that while a majority of students would like to stay on in Germany, only a few actually do, with many being put off by experiencing discrimination.

In the survey by the SVR carried out in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands and Sweden, two-thirds of students stated that they wished to stay on. In the event, however, just a quarter really did stay.

The survey, conducted among 6,200 foreigners at universities in 2011, looked at the reasons for their decision to return home.

More than one in 10 of Germany’s two million plus students are foreigners, and that proportion is on the increase. However, while four out of five foreign students said they wished to stay on in Germany after graduating, most of them return home. Many appeared to be frustrated by the complex regulations that have to be met to gain the right to stay, and 39.4% reported facing prejudice.

Gunilla Fincke, director of the research field at the SVR – an independent committee of experts that is supported by four major German foundations – pointed to “substantial hurdles” that foreign students face in Germany, one of the key problems appearing to be lack of guidance on bureaucratic and legal issues.

Just a quarter of the students were aware of regulations on the right of abode for graduates. German aliens law is complicated and difficult to understand. English versions of legal regulations could help, some of those interviewed maintained.

Only 12.5% of the students stated that they wished to stay on for more than five years, with the majority seeking either to return home and take advantage of their new skills and experience or to go to another foreign country.

By contrast, Germany does well in terms of the learning experience it offers international students in the International Student Barometer, which last year asked 209,422 internationally mobile students about their satisfaction with aspects such as study programmes and the general framework for studying.

In all, 238 higher education institutions in 16 countries were involved in the survey, which is supported by a range of higher education institutions, government agencies and international organisations worldwide.

Teaching quality and the reputation of an institution and its degrees seem especially important to students. The German institutions involved could boast courses with good practical relevance and a strong research element. Technical facilities, teaching programmes and teachers were rated 'good'.

Other positive aspects that were mentioned included a relatively low cost of living, friendly hosts and good prospects for long-term employment.

All in all, these factors resulted in an above-average rate of studying in Germany being recommended to others by the students interviewed in the survey.

Outcomes for the 52 German institutions taking part in 2011 were released by DAAD. In the UK and many other countries, the outcomes are released by participating institutions rather than national organisations and it is therefore difficult to draw meaningful comparisons.

DAAD and the German rectors’ conference, HRK, will use the results to address problematic areas. However, desirable improvements were also mentioned.

There could be more support with language problems. Students said assistance in getting their courses organised was sometimes insufficient, and they called for more guidance in handling course topics as well as better study counselling.

The appraisal of achievements could be more straightforward and detailed, offering foreigners better prospects of adapting optimally to course demands.

Accommodation was rated below-average and DAAD said that, especially in the initial arrival and settling down period, students from abroad were sensitive to their new environment, and problems with accommodation could lower the level of satisfaction. Poor impressions were then frequently communicated to relatives and friends at home.