Internationalisation confronted with far-right gains

Nineteen years into the Bologna Process, Germany can look back on a bumpy transition to Europe-wide recognised university degrees, but has also experienced increasing popularity as a country to study in. However, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), the country’s largest opposition party, wants to see a U-turn in internationalisation.

“Internationality and openness are of crucial importance to the future of the German higher education and research system and its global competitiveness,” said Horst Hippler, president of the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (HRK), the association of public-funded universities, announcing the new ‘HRK-EXPERTISE Internationalisierung’ project last month.

HRK-EXPERTISE seeks to develop programmes for various target groups at institutions in order to involve all university members in internationalisation. Experts will advise universities on appropriate strategies, best practice examples will be discussed and peer-to-peer consulting will be organised to support the exchange of internationalisation knowledge and experience.

HRK-EXPERTISE is just one of several programmes and campaigns that organisations and institutions are running to boost internationalisation. One of the main driving forces behind these efforts is the demand for skilled labour, especially in industry. Only recently, Verein Deutscher Ingenieure – the Association of German Engineers – drew attention to companies having difficulty filling vacancies.

Another major factor in internationalisation is the Bologna Process, conceived in 1999 to harmonise higher education in Europe. In Germany, the gradual replacement of Diplom and Magister degrees with internationally recognised bachelor and masters degrees has encountered various difficulties, among employers and also students, who have complained about excessive workloads and confusion over the huge number of new study programmes.

“Bologna has failed,” says Germany’s new far-right AfD party, and it calls for a reintroduction of the old Diplom and Magister degrees.

The AfD argues that Bologna has resulted in school-like structures and excessive regulation and bureaucracy in higher education, and that academic freedom has become more restricted, while pointing out that switching from one course to another is, if anything, more difficult.

The AfD’s key focus is on restricting immigration and asylum-seekers. It claims that “the majority of asylum-seekers lack vocational qualifications” and that large numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers are intent on “taking advantage of Germany’s social welfare system”.

Refugees seek degrees

This contrasts with results of the German Socio-Economic Panel, a long-term survey supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The Socio-Economic Panel states that across all countries of origin, 35% of adult refugees hold a higher secondary school degree, 16% have already studied at a higher education institution and 11% have a first university degree. A third of adult refugees seek to obtain an academic degree in Germany.

And a 2013 survey carried out by the Federal Employment Agency’s Institute for Employment Research in collaboration with the University of Bamberg found that migrants were in fact benefiting the social welfare state, paying more into the social security systems than they received.

The AfD was founded as a German nationalist, populist and Eurosceptic party in 2013. It already took 4.7% of the vote in the 2013 federal election, just missing the 5% threshold for the German federal parliament.

As refugee numbers increased in 2015, the new party gained more popularity, forming an antithesis to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘We can do it’ attitude towards handling developments and efforts by many politicians and organisations to demonstrate a ‘welcome culture’.

Reports of mass rape incidents involving immigrants on New Year’s Eve 2015 jolted the mood among the general public, and television chat shows were quick to associate the issue with terror and crime.

Feelings ran high shortly after Germany was hit by its first major Islamist terror attack, in December 2016, when a lorry charged into a Christmas market in Berlin killing 11 visitors. Chat shows were now addressing topics such as whether a harder approach towards migrants could guarantee more security and how those likely to threaten the safety of the public should be dealt with.

In one of these programmes, chat show host Anne Will asked her guests whether, “in this agitated atmosphere”, it was “justified to ask the right questions” and whether it was right to “unemotionally discuss topics”.

According to author and expert on right-wing extremism Bodo Morshäuser, half of the chat shows broadcast in 2016 centred on the thematic complex of refugees, Islam, terror and integration.

Morshäuser claims that these topics were juxtaposed to create a “field of agitation” that the hosts of the shows tried to keep “at a constant level of intensity”. He maintains that, whether intentionally or unwittingly, such programmes were playing into the hands of the AfD, which, he says, “specialises in agitation”.

Not surprisingly, more than a third of the TV debate held shortly before last September’s federal elections between the chancellorship contenders, Christian Democrat Angela Merkel and Social Democrat Martin Schulz, focused on the issue of refugees. The AfD was to score 12.7% of the votes, more than doubling its 2013 result and establishing itself as the leading opposition party.

The AfD’s success has put pressure on Bavaria’s right-wing Christian Social Union, a junior partner in the new government, to call for tougher legislation on migrants and refugees.

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is nevertheless sticking to its efforts to support refugee students. A package of measures launched in 2015 and implemented by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has helped several thousand refugees to take up regular bachelor and masters courses at universities.

“To us, just like other international students, they are an enrichment for Germany,” says BMBF State Secretary Cornelia Quennet-Thielen. “That is why the BMBF will continue to support refugee students.”

Michael Gardner is University World News' correspondent in Germany. Email: