Germany's students are mobile. Already about 10% of them spend more than a semester abroad. People from the worlds of industry, politics, and academia agree, however, that just meeting the European Union's (EU's) 10% minimum goal is not enough for an export-oriented country in the heart of Europe. "I'd consider it most desirable to double this percentage by the year 2010," said Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder last week at the university rectors' annual meeting in Wiesbaden. And studying abroad is not just fun, it also makes you especially fit for the job market.
Experience gained abroad has become a key qualification in the increasingly international job market, especially for leadership positions. Business and industry need young staff members whose personal experience allows them to fully appreciate the products and services. And a solid understanding of English -- the modern "lingua franca" of science and business -- is now demanded in more than 40% of all job ads, says a recently published survey from the Higher Education Information System (HIS). "No matter whether it's research, study, or internship, the job market, i.e. the German economy, acknowledges a stay abroad," says Theodor Berchem, president of Germany's Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Summarizing recently published experiences from the EU's mobility program ERASMUS, Germany's science minister Edelgard Bulmahn agrees: "The experience of studying abroad is the stepping stone to jobs with a future."
Traditionally, two-thirds of the students that go abroad stay in Europe, while 16% study in the United States and only 20% explore the rest of the world. However, both the number of mobile students as well as the diversity of disciplines increased steadily in the past few years. Science students have recently made a great leap forward. Today, more than 25% of all young German scientists augment their curriculum with study abroad. Five years ago it was just 15%.
But many more don't take the opportunity to work abroad. The main obstacle is money. According to the HIS survey, 60% of the students "perceived the added financial burden as a large impediment." Now help is on the way. Earlier this year, Bulmahn announced the addition of 1 billion DM (US$500 million) to the public study allowance for German university students (Bafoeg Reform, see the Next Wave report). Part of the money will be used to finance an increased mobility. Bafoeg recipients who agree to spend two semesters studying in Germany will be free to use Bafoeg money to finance studies in any European Union country.
The second big enemy of student mobility may be even harder to fight: 40% of the students are afraid they won't get full recognition for credits earned abroad. Here, the universities are asked to support their students' efforts. "I appeal to the German universities to exercise more generosity in recognizing certificates that were obtained abroad," says Berchem. Some progress is being made. Germany's universities recently started to introduced bachelor's and master's degree courses that will make the university system more internationally compatible ( see the Next Wave report). And more than 1000 European universities have joined the European Creditpoint Transfer System (ECTS), a system in which student work is converted into points that are recognized by all ECTS members.
Studying abroad is big fun, boosts your career, and brings incredible impressions and lasting friendships. However, studying abroad also requires careful planning. Scheduling aptitude tests, completing grant applications, finding accommodations, getting social insurance, and more require stamina and a considerable talent for organization. Assistance with many of these questions may be obtained from your home university's International Office. "A year of preparation is more the rule than the exception," says Ulrike Spangenberg of Humboldt University's International Office (Akademisches Auslandsamt). "We can provide all technical details such as when, where, and how to apply, and also help organizing study and research trips for both scientists and students," says Spangenberg. To get a first impression of where you might want to go, you can also look at the DAAD's detailed Web pages.
Says Berchem: "Staying abroad makes independence, a sense of responsibility, global thinking, and tolerance become the personality's most characteristic features. These are the people and qualifications to assume responsibility in market leading and internationally operating enterprises. And there exists a great demand for them."