Germany and the Competition for Globally Mobile Students

March 14, 2011

By Marlene M. Johnson

I still vividly remember the trip to Germany during which I learned that some higher education institutions there were offering course work, and in some cases entire degrees, in English as well as in German. It was 1998, and even then, from the German perspective, it made perfect sense. I say even then because at the time the United States was still basking in the seemingly foregone conclusion that it would always be the destination of choice for foreign students, because it always had been and because, after all, won’t everyone who wants to learn English naturally come here?

By the late 1990s, Germany had decided that it wanted to be a serious participant in the global movement of students and scholars, and it recognized that many of those individuals had a dual purpose in mind: to gain a high-quality college education, and achieve proficiency in the lingua franca of global politics and business, which was widely understood to be English. Viewed from the outside, though, Germany’s quest to break into this market by offering its own programs in another language seemed quixotic, a small drop in the bucket given the intense competition for foreign students that kicked into overdrive with the new millennium.

And yet here we are. The BBC reported last week that Germany is at the top of the heap in a British Council “Global Gauge” of foreign academic destinations. The United States comes in at 6th place, after Australia, the UK, China, and Malaysia. What’s going on?

It’s clear that students like what Germany has to offer. In Germany, students can earn degrees without having to know how to speak German. Germany is also ranked the “most supportive country for overseas students,” according to the Council’s analysis. Herbert Grieshop of the Freie Universität Berlin tells the BBC that from Germany’s perspective, language need not be a barrier to globalization. He also suggests that perhaps the kind of “international English” that foreign students hear in German classrooms is more amenable to their needs and more useful in the global marketplace than, say, a Texas twang or Yorkshire accent. And it is not only foreign students who see value in this kind of classroom environment. Many German students who study alongside them find English-language instruction perfectly normal, and indeed advantageous, in today’s globalized world. To some degree this notion, too, is not new in Europe, where people from countries with small populations and relatively lesser-known languages have long had to take a more global and multilingual approach to their education.

Germany’s strong performance wasn’t based only on its English-language offerings, of course. The “Global Gauge” looks at countries’ higher education systems across measures such as openness, degree quality, recognizability of degrees, support for foreign students and the extent to which students are encouraged to spend time in other countries. German students outnumber other European students in terms of how many of them study abroad. And Germany has set a goal of having half of its students spend at least one semester studying outside of Germany, making it the country with “one of the world’s most mobile student populations,” the BBC reports. And Germany has also managed to keep costs down for foreign students.

Germany is doing a lot of things right, and has been for quite some time.


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