Shrinking universities turn to international recruitment

While German higher education is generally struggling with ever-growing student numbers, a new survey indicates that in one out of every six universities the student population is shrinking, and many of those institutions are seeking to offset this by recruiting more international students.

Germany’s student population peaked at around 2.87 million last winter semester. However, a survey by the Sachverständigenrat deutscher Stiftungen für Integration und Migration (SVR or Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration) demonstrates that higher education growth is distributed unevenly, with every sixth university location experiencing significant drops in the attendance of lectures and seminars since 2012.

Out of 263 university locations across the country, 41 are shrinking, the SVR states, noting that this trend, which appears to be rising, could exacerbate already existing local bottlenecks in the recruitment of highly skilled labour.

However, the SVR survey also finds that at 26 of these institutions, the decline in numbers of German students has gone hand in hand with a 42% increase in the share of international students. Although they only account for 12% of total enrolments at the 26 universities, they can at least partly make up for the decline in German student numbers that, according to the SVR, is a result of a demographic change the country is undergoing.

According to the study, a further impact of the increase in international students is that these universities are gaining visibility internationally. And taking the latest demographic forecasts into account, the SVR argues that the approaches they have chosen to address falling student numbers could guide other institutions in handling new trends.

Strategies to attract foreign students

It has therefore analysed what shrinking higher education locations are doing to attract international students, prepare them for their studies and retain them for the local labour market on graduating.

While the institutions the study has taken a special look at benefit from Germany’s good reputation regarding higher education, they also have to cope with what the SVR refers to as “systemic obstacles” in recruiting international students.

For example, admissions procedures are complicated, visas are often only granted in the nick of time for students preparing to enrol, and many prospective students have to invest much time and money to demonstrate sufficient language and subject skills to qualify for courses.

Shrinking universities sometimes seek to establish contact with prospective students even before they have opted for a particular institution, for example, by addressing them at language courses, via the internet or via social media.

In addition to the standard preparatory courses for overseas students, some of them run one to two semester preparatory programmes to provide extra support and thus lower the dropout rate among international students, which, at 45% for bachelor degree students and 29% for masters students, is much higher than among their fellow German students (28% and 19% respectively).

Access to the labour market

In some regions, universities have been cooperating with partner organisations to develop programmes facilitating access to the labour market for international graduates eager to stay on in Germany.

Such programmes include application training specially tailored to their needs and establishing points of contact with employers. However, the survey points out that such measures belong to projects funded by the state and federal governments and the European Union, and that it is as yet uncertain how support can be transferred to regional bodies.

The SVR concludes from its findings that universities and higher education institutions should make access to higher education more flexible and make procedures more straightforward for prospective applicants.

Furthermore, the study entry phase, comprising preparatory and language courses, ought to be better structured. And a sustainable transition management system providing support for graduates seeking to enter careers in Germany ought to be established. Funding, the SVR states, has to be contributed by the federal and state governments.

The SVR is an independent policy consulting institution that provides decision-makers with scientifically backed recommendations in the areas of migration and integration. Its founding members are the Stiftung Mercator, the Volkswagen Foundation, the Bertelsmann Foundation, the Freudenberg Stiftung, the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Stifterverband and Vodafone Germany Foundation.

Michael Gardner Email: