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Sending half of Germany’s university students abroad for part of their studies by 2020 will give the country a major competitive advantage over other export-driven nations, a leading figure in German higher education asserts.

Sebastian Fohrbeck, director of internationalization and communication at the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which promotes German higher education abroad, dismissed fears that its plans for “a massive movement of students abroad” represented an “organized brain drain.”.

About a third of German students now undertake some of their degree study in another country, but government ministers are keen to increase this to 50 percent within six years, Fohrbeck told a conference in London, which was jointly organized by the UK HE International Unit, the Institut Français and the DAAD.

In contrast, only 6 percent of British students will study abroad at some point, which is well below the European Union’s goal of having a fifth of all students undertaking study outside their country by 2020.

On the rationale for investing millions of euros in study-abroad programs, Fohrbeck said it was a key part of Germany’s industrial strategy, which requires highly skilled graduates to be able to operate across the world.

“The German economy is dependent on exports, which once made up 30 percent of our economy, but now make up 50 percent,” he said.

“That is why we want to qualify our manpower and we are trying to make sure [graduates] are internationally qualified,” he said, adding that “it is important to have political and economic networks worldwide.”

About 118,000 German students receive funding to go abroad each year, of which only 36,000 are recipients of EU-funded Erasmus+ grants, he said.

Extra funds are provided for 36,000 low-income students to study abroad, while universities are given money to award as scholarships to a further 10,000 top students, he added.

“Germany is putting a lot of money into this. This massive movement of German students abroad is funded,” he said, acknowledging that the 50 percent target was “ambitious and we are not sure we are going to make it."

Germany is also seeking to increase the number of foreign students studying in its country by 50,000 to 350,000 by 2020, despite charging no tuition fees for most courses, Fohrbeck said.

“The aim is to gain long-term friends of Germany throughout the world,” he said.

About 50 percent of foreign graduates remained in Germany, which helped to fill a shortfall in skilled labor. A recent study had found that even if only 30 percent of foreign students remained in Germany and paid tax over five years, the cost of their tuition fees would be recouped, Fohrbeck added.

“This is why we are doing it – we do not view international higher education as an industry in itself,” he said.

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