Is Germany better at teaching university courses in English than universities in English-speaking countries?
Germany has been named as the most supportive country for overseas students, in an international league table. Among the attractions for international students is the increasing availability in Germany of courses taught entirely in English, so much so that students can complete degrees without ever having to speak German.
In the international zones of these classes, students from Germany, the United States and China participate in seminars conducted by German professors speaking in English.
View from abroad
David Ravensbergen, a Canadian at the Freie Universitat Berlin, says these multiple layers of internationalism can puzzle other students.
“They say: ‘Let’s get this straight. You’re an English speaker from Canada, and you’ve come to Germany to study in English. And to study about North America. What’s gotten into your head?'”
But Herbert Grieshop, director of the university’s Centre for International Co-operation, says that languages should not be a barrier to such globalisation and that international English might be more useful than some regional varieties.
“I wonder whether a Chinese student can understand us better than someone with a Yorkshire accent or some strange American accent,” he says in flawless English.
The survey from the British Council which has placed Germany in first place is called the Global Gauge. It comes ahead of a major British Council conference in Hong Kong examining university globalisation, called Going Global, which begins on Thursday. The league table ranks university systems on measures such as openness, degree quality, how widely degrees are recognised, support for overseas students and how much students were encouraged to spend time abroad.
The UK was ranked in third place, with China coming fourth, ahead of the United States in sixth place, in a table showing 11 of the biggest players in the overseas student market. The strongest overall performance was from Germany, which has promoted a deliberate policy of internationalisation. There are more students from Germany studying abroad than any other European country and it wants half of its students to spend at least a term abroad, giving Germany one of the world’s most mobile student populations. The global market in overseas students has become a highly-lucrative business. The British Council estimates that it is worth £8bn a year to the UK economy.
But one of the attractions of Germany is that overseas students do not pay any more in tuition fees than home students. Universities in many parts of Germany do not charge any tuition fees, which means in those places overseas students do not pay any fees at all.
No tuition fees
Freie Universitat Berlin, a top-ranking research university, has been part of this internationalisation project. It anticipates that a third of its students could be from overseas in the future.
“It’s a well kept secret, that students are able to come here and there are very few barriers,” says David Ravensbergen. He is taking part in a seminar at the university’s John F Kennedy Institute. It’s conducted entirely in English – with language skills at a level where it is hard to distinguish between those who have English as a first and second language. He is also impressed by the way overseas students in Germany do not pay higher fees. In other countries, he says it can be a case of “internationalism for those who can afford it”.
“One of the strongest motivators is finance. To go to university in Canada means taking on debt. It’s essentially free to do it in Germany. It’s incredibly appealing not to have to mortgage your future.”
Sophie Perl, a student from the United States, also echoes the appeal of being able to study abroad, while paying less than at home. “I think the biggest factor is financial. In the US a graduate programme would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, in Germany it doesn’t cost anything. And it doesn’t cost more for foreign students than it does for German students.”
Dr Christian Lammert, who is leading the seminar, delivers what he says is now a “completely international” type of course. Even the noticeboards in the corridor have information in English. Outside the window it’s a cold afternoon in a leafy suburb of Berlin. The nearby tube station has a folksy thatched roof and there’s a wurst seller nearby. But inside the classroom it could be anywhere in the academic world, with English as the lingua franca and a multicultural group appropriately enough discussing multiculturalism. The idea of learning in another language, in your own country, does not seem to be a problem for German students. “It’s very common to learn in a language other than your mother tongue, so it’s not anything special or weird,” says Lena Verbeek.
There is a generational divide though. “For my parents it was something very new. Learning in an additional language was something they never dreamt of doing, as they studied only in Germany. It’s becoming more and more international.”
There is also an assumption that German students will spend time at universities in other countries. Julia Sunaric, studying managing and marketing, has studied at universities in the UK, China and Spain.
“I don’t think of it as that special, because other people have similar CVs. In Germany it’s really common to study abroad.”
She also says that German students are drawn to universities which teach in English, seeing it as useful for jobs in globalised businesses. “When a university has a lot of courses taught in English, it’s a kind of a prestige thing. If students have the ability and motivation to speak English, it’s a good thing. People come here for the international image.”
But what’s in it for the university? There is no financial incentive – and overseas students need extra support. “It’s been deliberate policy. We wanted to internationalise. We thought that it helps our students, our research,” says Herbert Grieshop, managing director of the university’s Centre for International Co-operation.
The idea of internationalism permeates the university. It was set up in 1948 as a university for the western zone of the divided city and has always promoted the idea of links with the rest of the world. The university’s showcase library was designed by Sir Norman Foster. Mr Grieshop is speaking in a classic 1950s building, full of light and post-war optimism, and the open-arms policy towards overseas students owes much to a cultural faith in internationalism.
“It’s good will, being a good neighbour. It’s basic to our culture and our economy. We are an outward looking country.”
“We think that global problems need global co-operation for research. And for our students it brings the sensibilities and the competencies they need in a globalised world market.”
The university has not opened overseas campuses, but instead it develops partnerships through a network of overseas offices in countries including China, the US, Russia and India. Pat Killingley, the British Council’s director of higher education, says that an increase in international partnerships between universities has become a global trend. These partnerships can then become pathways, establishing a route for exchanges between students and staff. For the UK’s universities, she says overseas students are becoming particularly important for postgraduate courses.
“It’s a hugely important trend, bringing students to the UK and supporting the research base. It’s internationalising the whole system, she says. It’s a picture in which globalisation will “intensify” she says, expecting both more competition and collaboration between university systems.
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent
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