Internationalisation of universities – the German way

The concept of internationalisation at German universities, which has regained considerable strength since the late 1980s, has historically been based on the idea of cooperation and partnership, thanks to the post-1945 belief that only a Germany that was firmly anchored in Europe and the world could be internationally accepted and economically successful.

There has been, therefore, a tradition of political support for the exchange of students and researchers embedded in international university partnerships based on an equal footing and on trust. In the 1990s, numerous binational initiatives, such as the Franco-German University and the Sino-German College for Graduate Studies, exemplified this idea of trust-based cooperation for the purpose of promoting cultural exchange and understanding between people.

This cooperative approach to internationalisation has since received further vital impetus from the education programmes of the European Union, which require the full integration of student mobility into regular study programmes. More recently, growing competition within the German system, coupled with the effects of globalisation, have resulted in the emergence of a more competitive approach.

Interestingly, it was again the European dimension which provided crucial impetus here, especially the goal defined by European education ministers in 1998 of creating a competitive and internationally attractive European Higher Education Area aiming to gain a sizeable share in an expanding worldwide market of globally mobile students and researchers.

It is worth noting that German universities approached the standard rhetoric of the ‘horse race for talent’ with a degree of hesitation. The idea of self-promotion was rather foreign to them for several reasons. First, both relatively open university access and the long-held assumption that the country’s universities were homogenous in terms of quality meant that there was virtually no experience, nationally, of marketing to attract students.

Second, it was simply assumed that the good quality of research and teaching at German institutions was already well known and that these brand credentials were enough on the international higher education market.

Different rationales for attracting international students

Similarly, cooperative and competitive approaches have coexisted for many years with regard to attracting international students, although these approaches have been distinct and unconnected. The more cooperative rationale is easily gleaned from Germany’s tradition of offering tuition-fee-free university education.

Within this context, a growing number of international students have been studying at German universities, either taking courses as part of degrees awarded by their home institutions or for a full German degree.

For students from developing and threshold countries, financial assistance has often been linked to a requirement to return to their home countries promptly after completing their studies in order to counter the brain drain effect.

Providing an education to a large number of international students at the cost of German taxpayers is regarded as Germany’s contribution to international exchange and global development. No less importantly, the international alumni of German institutions are valued as important ambassadors and worldwide partners for Germany.

We may observe the more competitive rationale with nationwide initiatives such as GATE-Germany, through which German universities have gradually come to terms with, and built competence in, international marketing. Universities have increasingly taken part in international education fairs and similar initiatives; some institutions have even established representative offices abroad for the purpose of attracting excellent students and early career researchers.

This approach is supported not only by government, but also by industry, which views universities – sometimes, regrettably, with a rather one-dimensional perspective – as ‘magnets’ for academically qualified individuals from abroad. These parallel approaches have resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of international students in Germany over the past two decades – from 158,000 in 1997 to approximately 358,000 in 2017 (about 12% of all students).

It should also be noted that the international student body is extremely heterogeneous. As in most host countries, China is by far the largest country of origin. Nevertheless, Chinese students only make up around 13% of the total international student body in Germany – contrasting with 30% in Australia, 32% in the United States and 37% in the United Kingdom.

Preparatory language and content courses and ongoing support and advice for this heterogeneous international student body pose significant challenges to German universities that are more than just financial.

At the same time, international students offer considerable potential to Germany as a place of study and research. This valuable contribution, for example, helping achieve a truly ‘international classroom’, is being increasingly recognised and used by universities.

Where do we go from here?

With few exceptions, the substantial increase in the number of international students has occurred without universities being able to demand financial contributions or cost-covering tuition fees from this group. Not surprisingly, this has caused some astonishment around the globe, with international partners wondering whether their German colleagues were simply naïve and good-natured or, in fact, remarkably astute.

The question arises as to whether, and how, the two sometimes contradictory rationales described here can, in the future, be harmonised. Like other European countries, Germany could follow the example of leading host nations and demand substantial fees from international students to cover the costs of their education.

The argument that German taxpayers should not be expected to pay for international students is an understandable one. Yet, the example of the introduction of fees for international students from countries outside the European Union by the state of Baden-Württemberg (starting from this current winter semester) illustrates that an all too simple cost-benefit analysis is generally inadequate in a state-dominated system like in Germany.

In this case, it is already clear that the universities will not benefit from the additional income: while they must handle the additional administrative workload, universities will be required to pass 80% of the revenue to the federal state. So, there is much to be said in favour of an alternative option: in the global competitive market, Germany can further enhance its profile by consistently pursuing its partnership-based approach.

This would mean that the country deliberately sets itself apart from the mainstream of recruiting international students to cover deficits in university budgets. There is plenty of evidence that not only universities, but also the economy and society, reap long-term benefits.

German universities are therefore doing well to further internationalise their structures and offer attractive conditions to students, researchers and experts from all over the world. Attractiveness not only depends on the legal framework for studying, research and employment, but also on the establishment of a cosmopolitan culture within universities and beyond.

The argument does not extend, however, to posit that students – including international students – should be exempt from making a financial contribution to the costs of their degree. For a long time, the German Rectors’ Conference has expressed its support for the introduction of moderate, socially supported tuition fees for all students. It remains to be seen how the situation will evolve further.

The newly elected state government in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, has announced its intention to introduce tuition fees for students from countries outside the European Union.

It is not yet clear exactly how this will work, whether other federal states will follow suit or what impact this will have on the higher education sector’s internationalisation efforts.

But what is already clear is that universities will only be able to pursue a clear internationalisation strategy if they are given greater scope for autonomous decision-making in international matters – from admissions and staff recruitment to resource allocation.

Marijke Wahlers is head of the International Department, German Rectors’ Conference, Germany. Email: This article first appeared in the current edition of International Higher Education.