Germany ‘has lessons on internationalisation for UK’

The UK higher education sector remains more international than Germany’s, but Germany is moving forwards while the UK risks moving backwards, according to a paper released by the Higher Education Policy Institute, or HEPI, last Thursday.

It says that, for example, Germany has a clearer cross-government strategy for inward and outward student mobility. It is also more positive about post-study work. Germany, for instance, includes the income tax contributions of international students who remain in the country when calculating the benefits of international students.

The author of the paper, Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, said: “Where Germany undoubtedly has clear lessons for the whole UK is on its open approach to the internationalisation of higher education.”

He said while UK universities continue to perform better than German ones on international engagement, the UK is hunkering down while Germany is opening up.

“There are things the UK could learn from Germany on the calculation of the economic benefits of educating international students, as well as on post-study work and where policy responsibility for internationalising higher education should rest in government,” said Hillman, who was a special adviser to David Willetts when he was minister for universities and science.

In a week when the differences between the German and UK approach to Europe’s refugee crisis have dominated the media agenda in Britain, the HEPI paper – Keeping up with the Germans?: A comparison of student funding, internationalisation and research in UK and German universities – has highlighted stark differences between the two countries' approaches to higher education, particularly in funding, internationalisation and research.

Hillman said he wrote the paper in response to increasing interest in Britain in university systems that look “less neo-liberal” than those in the UK, particularly England, after recent reforms; and in the light of a common fear that the UK underperforms compared to one its closest neighbours.

He cited the argument of historian Professor Howard Hotson that previous disdain for Germany by the Anglo-American axis had changed since the bursting of the US housing bubble in 2007, the meltdown of the international financial system and the revelation of deep-seated corruption in the financial sector.

This had “set the UK scrambling to ‘rebalance the economy’, that is to reindustrialise more along the lines of the German model. Germans, having resisted that neo-liberal fantasy, can still afford public higher education, and are entitled to a bit of schadenfreude,” Hotson wrote.

Free tuition in Germany

One of the starkest differences is on the payment of tuition fees by international students. In Germany there is free tuition for all, including international students, which prompted one American postgraduate student to tell the BBC: “When I found out that just like Germans I’m studying for free it was sort of mind blowing… lt was a wow moment for me.”

There is less demand from international students to study in Germany than in English-speaking countries. But Germany’s “more welcoming approach” encapsulates a wholly different attitude to the contribution international students make to their host nation, the paper says.

The German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD, has calculated that if 30% of international students in Germany remain in the country to work for five years, then the cost of education for all international students is recouped. By contrast, the UK Home Office regards it as a failure that so many – actually possibly fewer than one in five students – are thought to stay in the UK, the paper says.

The Conservative Party’s approach of trying to ensure fewer can stay on is having an impact on the perception of the country as a place to study, the paper argues, citing research from PwC and London First showing that international students, because they are making a big investment by paying high tuition fees, expect to be able to put their skills into practice and gain work experience in the UK after graduation.

Hillman’s other key findings include that while tuition fees have been abolished in Germany – a u-turn made at the same time as they tripled in England – this was affordable only because the country sends a lower proportion of people to higher education and spends less on each student.

Moreover, fewer than half of Germany’s 16 states had fees, which were low (typically €1,000 a year), and administrative charges continue. However, while some English academics see Germany as a model for abolishing fees, some German academics worry about underfunding.

The German Rectors’ Conference continues to argue that fees would help address funding gaps, which assumes that any extra income from fees would be additional rather than a way of reducing public support.

Research in Germany and the UK

Analysis of the British and German university systems also highlights the depth of research collaboration between the two countries.

“The success of this relationship is an exemplar of how different nations can work together for the common good,” Hillman said. “It is an overwhelmingly positive story, but it could potentially be disrupted by changes to European Union research funding.”

He said the absence of clear demands from UK universities in the run-up to the EU referendum is arguably a missed opportunity to give “firmer foundations to things that currently work well”.

The paper found that UK and Germany both do very well from EU research funding and the depth of research collaboration between the two countries is a prime example of cross-border links working to the benefit of all.

The German research base is characterised by non-teaching institutions and looks complicated, but is also relatively well-funded when compared to the UK’s. Its structure also leads to underperformance in the global league tables, making German research appear less good than it really is, Hillman argues.

For example, if the Max Planck Society were included in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University league table, they could displace Cambridge as the top placed European university and knock Oxford out of the top 10, Hillman says.

Nevertheless, there appears to be some convergence between how research is undertaken in the UK and Germany.

In higher education, by contrast, there are stronger parallels between Scotland and Germany than between England and Germany – not only on tuition fees but also on demographic concerns and the autonomy of higher education institutions.

Hillman noted that while German initiatives have influenced the UK in recent years, it has been in a rather episodic, unstructured way.

“For example, Catapult centres, which seek to provide a bridge between industry and research, are based upon the German Fraunhofer Institutes for research into applied science and there is now even a Fraunhofer Centre in the UK, specialising in Applied Photonics in Glasgow.”

He said Britain also looked enviously at the mature employer-focused German apprenticeship system, which has influenced the development of longer and more prestigious vocational pathways.

But Germany has also been influenced by recent British experience.

“For example, the success with which the English-speaking world has attracted international students has been one factor in the shift towards teaching in English at German universities,” the paper says.

Hillman observes that the UK is entering a period of deep reflection on its relationship with the rest of the world, which will culminate in a referendum by 2017 on whether to leave the European Union.

“Between now and then, the UK’s place in the world could be the single biggest policy issue facing universities in all four parts of the UK,” Hillman says in the paper.