Mixing soft and hard power approaches to international HE

In recent years, Germany has become the fourth most popular international destination for study abroad in the world. The German federal government places emphasis on internationalising the higher education landscape and is progressively adopting new policies in order to strengthen it with the support of a range of actors, especially through the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Foundational values

German federal policy is built on valuing higher education as a public good and traditionally promotes a specific type of internationalisation through cooperation, fostering academic freedom, contributing to development and participating in efforts to solve global problems.

The 2017 federal internationalisation strategy focused on five targets: strengthening excellence through worldwide cooperation; developing Germany’s innovative strength internationally; expanding education and training internationally; shaping the global knowledge society together with emerging and developing countries; and lastly, overcoming global challenges collectively.

In line with these targets, the new DAAD Strategy 2025 emphasises these values by stressing the importance of international mobility exchanges, research networking and collaboration, taking global responsibility and contributing to development and peace.

These ambitious goals are supported with impressive funding for various internationalisation projects and activities through the DAAD, the German Research Foundation (DFG) or the federal ministry, and are implemented by research societies and higher education institutions. Funding for international projects increased from €567 million in 2009 to €1.05 billion (US$1.3 billion) in 2019.

Following the DAAD’s strategy, the German higher education and research sector has increased its attractiveness through being a largely tuition-free system based on valuing knowledge exchange.

It is committed to the academic success of international students and to increasing the share of foreign academic staff to 15% of its academic workforce through advertising academic positions internationally.

In recent years, information and marketing campaigns of the DAAD have aimed to promote world-class research, invest in international partnerships through cooperative study programmes and fund German international universities abroad (for example, in Thailand, Egypt and Bahrain).

The DAAD positions itself as a leader when it comes to internationalisation in higher education and research and sees itself as an influential agent of science diplomacy.

In 2019, the DAAD had an overall budget of €594 million (US$716 million) and gave stipends to 145,659 students, graduates and faculty, including 60,581 individuals from abroad and 85,078 individuals from Germany. The implementation of these ambitious strategies, however, depends on the higher education systems of the 16 states (or Länder) and the various higher education institutions.

Measures at state level

Comparing statistics on incoming mobility in Germany by state in the winter semesters of 1998-99 and 2019-20, we can observe that, overall, the numbers of international students increased in all states.

The highest increase happened in former Eastern German states (for example, in Thuringia numbers rose from 4% to 15%, from 4% to 16% in Saxony-Anhalt and from 6% to 17% in Saxony, while in Berlin, the capital of the country, numbers boomed from 13% to 22%). Further, we can also observe differences in tuition fees.

In most of the states, higher education for international students is usually free, but some states have introduced tuition fees, such as Baden-Württemberg, where since the winter semester of 2017-18, non-EU students have been charged €1,500, or in Bavaria, where fees are charged to students who participate exclusively in study offers at branch campuses located outside the European Union, for instance, study programmes at the Technical University of Munich Asia in Singapore.

We can also see that different higher education institutions pursue different strategies when it comes to branch campuses, attracting and recruiting foreign academics, and supporting refugees via state-supported funding initiatives. All these measures point to soft power exercised by the states beyond legal frameworks, which are instruments of hard power.

A closer look at the legislation of all the states allows us to see that internationalisation is largely promoted by the state ministries for education through performance agreements with higher education institutions, while new laws provide general frameworks.

For example, in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the new law of 2019 calls for improvement in the quality of higher education institutions to make them more attractive to international students and faculty, and according to a new state law in Rhineland-Palatinate enacted in 2020, a Higher Education Forum will be established to strengthen cooperation and exchange between the state and higher education institutions on internationalisation.

Importantly, performance agreements are linked to the funding of higher education institutions – so concrete incentives are at play. For example, a recent agreement between Hamburg and the Hamburg University of Technology includes a 10% incoming and outgoing student quota, while in Bavaria, the Technical University of Munich has agreed to increase the number of North American students by 2022.

Future perspectives

The current federal and DAAD strategies, continuous commitment to internationalisation through substantial state funding and the overall increase in the importance of internationalisation in all states allows us to assume that the German government, as well as all major stakeholders, are seriously committed to being globally competitive in terms of higher education, science and innovation.

Global leadership based on long-standing traditions seems to work through both soft and hard power approaches.

One can observe certain measures promoting internationalisation in state higher education laws in Germany; thus, a hard power approach through coercion seems to be used to some extent.

At the federal level, we observe a range of non-binding, yet supportive measures to promote internationalisation, such as guidelines, strategy papers and financial policy instruments; thus, a soft power approach is used at the federal level through agenda-setting, benchmarking exercises and information policy instruments.

We also observe that competition seems to drive important changes at the state and higher education institutions level, such as the introduction of tuition fees or increased assertiveness in attracting international students and scholars, Berlin being a clear leader in this regard.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, what might happen in internationalisation is highly uncertain and faces serious challenges. Some countries are refusing entry to foreign nationals and the DAAD is advising against travel abroad to high-risk areas. Current developments point to the possibility of new measures by policy-makers and funding agencies to promote internationalisation in the virtual space.

At the same time, it is unlikely that Germany’s overall approach towards internationalisation will change in the near future, since the aims of cooperation, academic freedom and contribution to global development are anchored in the core value of higher education as a public good.

Sude Peksen is a researcher and PhD candidate at the Center for Higher Education at TU Dortmund University, Germany. E-mail: Liudvika Leisyte is professor of higher education and vice-director of the Center for Higher Education at TU Dortmund University. E-mail: This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.