The Growing Popularity of International Study in Germany | Top Universities

The Growing Popularity of International Study in Germany

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Laura Bridgestock

Updated Feb 23, 2016



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At, we’re constantly reminded about the popularity of international study in Germany. Germany is the most-viewed destination in our “Where to Study” section, and (currently at least) the country most often asked-about in our student forums and article comments.

More generally, it’s fair to say Germany is the major success story in the international study market of recent years – and you won’t find many people scratching their heads trying to figure out why. According to the latest Education at a Glance report from the OECD, Germany is now the world’s third leading destination for international study, behind only the US and UK.

While German universities don’t tend towards “superstar” names to rival the likes of MIT or Cambridge, Germany does have a large and consistently strong higher education system, embedded in one of the world’s leading economies. Factor in the absence of tuition fees at public universities in Germany, the large selection of attractive German cities in which to study, and the liberal immigration laws that have made it easier for international graduates to stay on and work in Germany… and it’s pretty easy to see why this thriving nation at the geographic, economic and political heart of Europe is attracting a growing number of students from around the world.

Surge in number of students choosing to study in Germany

In an interview for the QS Top Grad School Guide earlier this year, Ulrich Grothus, deputy secretary general and head of the strategy department at the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), said the number of international students in Germany increased from 250,000 to 300,000 in just the last three years. The country looks set to reach its target of 350,000 international students by the end of the decade, and Grothus says that goal looks increasingly conservative. While the target was originally set with the intention of maintain Germany’s market share of international students (currently around 6%), it now seems likely the country’s overall share will increase.

Grothus notes that incoming student numbers have seen particularly strong growth at graduate level; more master’s and PhD students are choosing to study in Germany, not only from other European nations, but also countries such as the US, India and China. He says Germany has benefitted from the implementation of the Bologna Process, which has made it easier for students who have already completed a first degree elsewhere to continue their postgraduate education in Germany.

Meanwhile Joana Rosenkranz, head of international student recruitment at Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, identifies Germany’s recently increased prominence in European and international politics as a key contributing factor in its growing appeal for overseas students, alongside greater awareness of the strong Germany economy. “Germany’s role as a European and global economic powerhouse is very attractive to international students,” Rosenkranz says. “Not only does the strong economy fuel Germany’s thriving job industry, characterized by attractive job opportunities, competitive salaries and good benefits, but it also draws talented people from all over the world.”

Opportunities to work in Germany after graduation

It certainly seems that “talented people from all over the world” are coming not only to study in Germany, but also to stay on and seek work. While exact figures are not available, Grothus says recent studies suggest around 50% of international students do stay on to work in Germany. He points out, “Even in comparison with traditional immigration countries like Canada, that is a huge percentage, and it’s increasing rapidly.”

This is thanks not only to the fact that employment prospects in Germany have remained healthy – markedly so compared to many other European nations in the post-financial crisis years – but also to the liberalization of immigration laws over the last decade; whereas German employers previously had to prove that an EU national was unavailable for the position before employing a non-EU applicant, this requirement no longer stands.

The possibility of finding work in Germany after graduation is particularly relevant to those studying at postgraduate level, Rosenkranz says. “Studying in Germany at the master's level opens the door for graduates to enter the German labor market, which, as previously mentioned, is at the moment highly attractive.” She adds, “A master's degree from a German university gives graduates access to a long list of internationally successful German corporations, as well as international companies with European headquarters in Germany.”

Grothus notes that regardless of whether students intend to search for work in Germany, many are aware of the links between Germany’s strong economy and the quality of its higher education system. Highlighting engineering as a field in which links between industrial and educational excellence are especially well-perceived, he comments: “A number of people will assume that if our manufacturing industry does pretty well, that must have something to do with the engineering we teach.”

German universities’ dual focus on research and application

Indian student Nitin Garg, studying for a Masters in Finance at Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, agrees that Germany’s combination of educational, economic and reputational strength makes for a winning formula. He identifies three key factors behind his own decision to study here: the good reputation of the individual institution, particularly within the German and European financial sectors; the strong economic climate; and the “German education philosophy”, which he says is characterized by a good balance of theoretical and practical approaches to study.  

A strong dual focus on both research and applied learning is also highlighted by Grothus, when discussing the distinguishing characteristics of German higher education. On the one hand, he points out, Germany is the home of the Humboldt model, which emphasizes strong links between teaching and research. This is true even at undergraduate level, he says, while graduate students can expect an even greater focus on research and independent study. At the same time, German universities are equally known for their strong orientation towards practical application – not just within the Fachhochschule, or Universities of Applied Science, but also within research institutions.

Rosenkranz similarly highlights both practical application and research as fundamental components of the German system. “Higher education in Germany is selective, rigorous, technical and puts great emphasis on apprenticeship and applied learning. There are also numerous opportunities to conduct research during studies at both the bachelor and master’s level. All of these attributes contribute to an education that prepares students for highly competitive careers.”

German as a “larger small language”

The majority of courses at German universities are taught in German, though there is a large and growing selection of graduate-level programs offered in English. Grothus says approximately 10% of programs are now taught in English, and estimates that around a fifth of international students are enrolled in English-taught programs. At graduate level, he says that share is probably higher than a third.

Even for those studying in English, the opportunity to become proficient in the German language holds a strong appeal for many incoming students. As Grothus puts it, German is “a larger small language, so to speak”. It may not have the international reach of languages such as English or Spanish, but nonetheless, he says, “a majority of international students recognize that it’s an advantage to acquire a language that is widely spoken in central Europe and that is of course also the language of a pretty strong economy.” Or in other words, “English is a must and German is a plus.”

US student Katherine Greenup, studying the Master of International Business at Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, says her top piece of advice for other international students would be to learn German, even if it seems unnecessary. “Once I began to understand German, I felt so much more connected to the country than before, even in an international, often English-speaking, place like Frankfurt. It really improved my whole experience, not to mention my career outlook.”

Impressive selection of universities, surprisingly low costs

As mentioned above, Germany’s representation in international university rankings is impressive not so much for its top scorers, but for the relatively strong performance of a very large number of institutions. The QS World University Rankings® 2014/15 features only one German institution (Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg) in the top 50, but a total of 37 institutions within the global top 500 – a figure beaten only by the US and UK. As a result, international students can choose from a large selection of German universities of consistently and comparably high quality.

This is matched by an equally appealing selection of German cities with lots to offer students. “Living in Frankfurt has exceeded my expectations as an international, but still German, city,” Katherine says. In particular, she says she’s been impressed by the opportunities to network with professionals from a range of countries.

Aside from Frankfurt, other popular options for students include Berlin, the country’s trendy and history-packed capital city; Munich, famed for its fashion scene, manufacturing industry and world-renowned Oktoberfest; Heidelberg, popular with tourists for its attractive red-roofed cityscape and ruined castle, and home to Germany’s highest-ranked university; and Cologne, another major student city known for its stunning twin-spired cathedral and art galleries. Then there are Hamburg, Stuttgart, Münster, Göttingen, Freiburg im Breisgau, Karlsruhe, Tübingen, Aachen and Bonn – all thriving German cities with at least one university ranked among the world’s top 200, and all offering a slightly different perspective from which to explore German culture and history.

Finally, German universities are a relatively low-cost option; there are no tuition fees at public universities, and fees at private schools are also relatively affordable in the global context. Grothus says many international students find their overall expenditure is even lower than they’d expected; this is not only due to the low or non-existent fees, but because living costs are also relatively low compared to other highly developed countries. As he says, “That shouldn’t be the main factor – the education is the main thing – but it’s still a very nice side effect, and a surprise for many students.”

This article is adapted from the QS Top Grad School Guide. The complete guide is available to read online (free to access; site registration required).

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