(GERMANY OUT) University of Heidelberg, University Library Heidelberg, renaissance, art nouveau, pluralism, Late historicism (Photo by Werner OTTO/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Heidelberg is just one of the German universities lagging behind American, British and, increasingly, Chinese institutions © Getty

Germany can take a lot of credit for shaping the western university system. From the 19th century on, its progressive, research-orientated institutions set the pace in higher education, drawing in students and academics from elsewhere who would later implement many of those ideas and practices back home at places including Harvard and, indirectly, Oxbridge. (If that PhD is robbing you of sleep, blame the Germans.)

Much has changed since those halcyon days, not least the assault on Jewish academics by the Nazis. But academia and all its attendant distinctions — those Herr and Frau Drs scattered across public life, from the chancellery to the boardroom to the press gallery — still hold a special place in Germany’s self-image.

All the more galling, then, that these days German universities often appear as also-rans on the international scene. Scroll down the rankings of the world’s top universities and it takes a while before you hit Munich or Heidelberg behind all those American, British and, increasingly, Chinese institutions.

German university administrators question the methodology underpinning the rankings, which they say is biased towards English-speaking institutions. Whatever the truth, Germany’s relatively poor showing is cited, alongside an ageing population and lack of digital savvy, as a shortcoming said to render Europe’s biggest economy match-unfit for the 21st century.

Or is there another way of looking at it? Research published this month shows German universities are attracting increasing numbers of foreigners (a doubling over a decade), propelling the country past France to become the top destination in the non-anglophone world for international students.

Just over 250,000 international students were studying at German universities in 2016, according to the study, which uses the most recently available comparative data. This ranks Germany in fourth place overall — behind the US, the UK and Australia — in an increasingly competitive market for international students. Students from China and India are the most likely to head to Germany. Given the country’s stellar reputation for high-end metal bashing it’s little surprise that engineering is one of the biggest draws, subject-wise.

Julia Hillmann from DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service) and one of the editors of the report, says that other factors include the introduction of masters degrees taught in English (more than 1,300 in all) and the fact that except in one regional state there are no university tuition fees in Germany. Combined with a good quality of life and high levels of positive recommendations from previous generations of students, it makes for quite a decent package.

This has not been without design. Her co-editor, Ulrich Heublein from the DZHW centre for higher education and science studies, credits policy measures dating back a decade or so, when officials agreed a strategy to give the country’s universities a more global perspective. There is “strong consensus” about the importance of internationalising both teaching and research, he says.

The aim was not just to boost the position of the universities, but also the wider German economy. Anja Karlichek, federal education minister, has said foreign students represent “significant and growing potential” to meet Germany’s demand for skills. To underscore this, Berlin has tweaked employment laws to enable foreign graduates to stay and work longer in the country — something their counterparts in Brexit Britain and Donald Trump’s America might envy.

All in all, it represents a new thread in the German debate on education. When it comes to the state of the nation’s schools, critics have never been silent in a culture that likes to fret and grumble: “otherworldly”, “stuffy” and “strapped for cash” are among the judgments. Many parents and students look abroad out of frustration, as the boarding schools and halls of residence of England and North America show. A foreign education has carried a cachet that Germany seemed unable to deliver.

That may be changing. Whether or not it pushes German universities up the rankings is unclear — but then what would German academia have to grumble about?


Letter in response to this column:

German universities are having a research impact / From John O’Hagan, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

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