international first-years fill spaces in demographic decline

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The CHE Center for University Development found that preliminary figures from the Federal Statistical Office say 402,617 students enrolled at German universities for the first time in the 2023/24 winter semester, down from a peak of 445,000 in 2011/12.

A decline in birth rates in Germany between 1990 and 2011 has led to the declines of enrolments in recent years, but CHE said numbers are stabilising, albeit at a lower level.

It is unclear whether the federal government is keen to keep funding places for international students, although stakeholders acknowledge they can be a good source of skilled labour that the country is in need of.

A 1.1% increase in first year enrolments in the latest figures compared to the previous year “can be explained primarily by a record number of foreign first-year students”, researcher Marc Hüsch said.

“At the beginning of the corona pandemic, the number of foreign first-year students fell significantly, but now they are enrolling at German universities again in large numbers,” he continued.

While German first-year students fell to almost 305,000 in the winter semester 22/23, the 93,000 international student figure is a record.

The development of total first-year students at German universities since the 2011/12 peak. Photo: CHE

The CHECK data counts those students that acquired their university entrance qualification (HZB) in Germany and international students who acquired their HZB abroad in the 93,000 figure.

It found that more than 40% of international first-year students in Germany come from Asia.

With 11,733 students, India represents the most international first-year students in 2022/23, followed by China with 5,661.

“It is noticeable that the number of first-year students from India has risen sharply in recent years, while the number of first-time students from China has declined,” the analysis said.

International student recruiters have previously told The PIE that Germany’swork opportunities and affordable education are attracting students, while surveys have shown the same.

Numbers of enrolments from world regions in first-year programs at German universities. Photo: CHE

Writing on LinkedIn,

This loss [of German first semester students] was overcompensated by an increase in foreign first semester students, reaching the all-time high of almost 93.000 students…

Some good messages: The pandemic shows no negative long-term effect on student mobility, and Germany is a highly attractive country for students from across the world.”

The President of the German Science Council, Wolfgang Wick, recently stated that international students offer a “great potential to win qualified staff for Germany”.

“It is noticeable that the number of first-year students from India has risen sharply in recent years”

However, Ulrich Müller, Cort-Denis Hachmeister and Marc Hüsch from CHE, highlighted that Wick had also said that international students require a higher effort from institutions, especially around course completion rates and access to both Germany’s university system and the country itself.

“We think that universities would need to ensure that international students are qualified similarly compared to the German students (with respect to language and technical/professional skills),” the researchers told The PIE.

“Especially with respect to international master study programs, universities need to offer additional training courses (language and technical courses) to ensure that international students have the skills that allow to complete the study program successfully (similar as their German fellow students).”

One federal state, Baden-Württemberg, introduced fees for non-EU students in 2017/18, but has already announced the fees will be abolished in the next months.

TU München in Bavaria said it would begin charging non-EU students fees from the2024/25 winter semester.

Ulrich Müller, CHE’s expert for higher education policy, said that the Baden-Württemberg model “doesn’t make any sense in German context”.

“It is not a well thought-out idea, to establish a tuition fee only for a minority of students. It means a lot of effort for little return,” Müller said.

Due to many exceptions – refugees, students in formal exchange programs and ‘Bildungsinländer’ (international students who attended school in Germany are all exempt from tuition fees – only 4-5% of students in the state end up paying fees, he explained.

Identifying who is obliged to pay creates a high administrative expense, while there is “almost no additional benefit for paying students”.

“In Baden-Württemberg, 80% of the fee-generated money seeps away in the federal budget. Universities have to carry the administrative burden on their cost. So they are not able to offer substantial added value for the international students,” Müller noted.

Müller, Hachmeister and Hüsc note that other countries such as the UK or the US allow for “more enhanced” student services, such as supervision, student residence places, free gym etc.

“Maybe Germany has to debate again to introduce general tuition fees for all students again”

Baden-Württemberg’s policy led to students opting for other states were tuition was free, Müller added.

The Bavarian Higher Education Innovation Act allows universities to decide whether to introduce tuition fees for international students. It is also an option for universities in Saxony, although only two music schools introduced fees.

“Maybe Germany has to debate again to introduce general tuition fees for all students again,” Müller continued. It comes as higher education systems around the world – including the UK and Canada – are struggling with financial stability.

“The idea of a public-private cost sharing is a good one. In order to ensure that relevant additional financial resources are generated, it appears to be inevitable that all students and graduates who benefit from higher education will have to make a financial contribution to the cost of their study.”

Müller suggested that any future general tuition fees should systematically integrate all fees including administrative costs, regional public transport, contributions to student services and student representation groups, as well as to laboratory supplies.

“If future study fees exceed the sum of all previous contributions and fees, then it may be possible to improve teaching,” he added.

“Any new fee model should avoid complexity and should clearly communicate, via a deferred model of tuition fees as the normal case, that studies do not depend solely on social origin or a person’s financial situation.”

Wick has been on the record saying that Chinese students have become a “challenge” as their retention rate is below average, meaning they don’t contribute to the skilled worker need in Germany.

He has also questioned whether the “transfer of knowledge to China by returning Chinese graduates is still advantageous for Germany due to the increasing technological, scientific and economic competition”.

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