Germany’s ‘international attractiveness’ as a place of study: Covid-19, Germany and the European Higher Education Area (EHEA)

Dylan Alling studied Comparative Literature and Spanish at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. After a period of teaching in France, he has become interested in education systems and intends to pursue further study in social and health sciences.

UK | June 27, 2020 | Student Essay

On the 24th of June, representatives of 48 countries were initially set to meet in Rome to discuss the state of higher education across Europe. The forum however will not take place in June: to limit the spread of Covid-19, the 2020 Ministerial Conference of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) has been pushed back to late November.

The EHEA is perhaps most recognisable for having designed the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), a widely used tool which classifies university courses in a standardised way. The EHEA is an international cohort of member states who have agreed to develop their systems of higher education with the primary goal of facilitating employability and increasing staff and student mobility.

It is no surprise that achieving such a goal is complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which, according to a study by the International Association of Universities, has already been found to negatively impact international student mobility at 89% of higher education institutions across the globe. Come autumn, these institutions predict a fall in the number of incoming international students, and the effect of this will be heightened in countries that regularly receive high totals of foreign students such as the USA and the UK, which are the top two study destinations globally.

Combined with the fact that universities in these two countries are more dependent on international student fees than their counterparts in nations like Germany and Norway which  receive more government support, the financial consequences of a fall in foreign students are likely to be serious for American and British universities.

The situation in the US and UK is further exacerbated by global media criticism of their treatment of the Covid-19 outbreak. Negative coverage of America’s ‘stalled’ response and Britain’s ‘complacent’ attitude to the crisis may certainly discourage students from pursuing studies in the USA and UK, as high numbers of cases have meant the continuation of safety measures and travel restrictions, liable to disrupt any study abroad plans.

Conversely the effective and highly-praised response of the German government has raised interest in the country as a potential study destination; marketing director of Lancaster University Leipzig Akos Kiraly has already asserted that ‘Germany’s popularity among international students is growing based on the first results in dealing with Covid-19’.

A logical response to the obstacle of travel restrictions is for universities to shift their learning to a virtual format, a measure which is already being implemented by 60% of higher education institutions across the globe, says one study. By digitalising course content, UK and US institutions may be able to continue attracting foreign students and in this way ‘safeguard internationalization’ to some degree.

But this life raft may not float in the context of an economic recession, where many prospective students will be set back by the financial effects of the crisis and may not have the funds necessary to enrol in higher education. The lack of tuition fees at public institutions in Germany has long made the country a popular choice for study, but the financial constraints that many students and their families now find themselves in may incentivise studying in Germany to an even larger extent.

Considerations such as these might help explain why recent data shows that 72% of international students were intending to follow through with plans to study in Germany, while that same statistic drops to 63% for foreign students in the USA.

With data from new polls such as this being released regularly, it is easy to appreciate just how much the outbreak of Covid-19 has already shifted the global landscape of higher education. And with the next Ministerial Conference of the EHEA set to take place in November, there is still plenty of time for Covid-related developments to unfold and influence even further the next set of guidelines that the EHEA members will outline for the future.

It is curious to note that the most recent EHEA report on Germany listed as one national objective the enhancement of ‘Germany’s international attractiveness as a place to study’. In the wake of Covid-19, Germany may indeed be able to profit on the political and financial repercussions of the pandemic to achieve this aim and become a leader in the pursuit of the EHEA’s goal of cross-border student mobility.

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