Imagine university campuses with empty classrooms and a deserted cafeteria. And not just during the semester break, but throughout the whole year. Germany may not be facing this problem at the moment--universities are currently operating at 117% of their capacities--but the situation will change markedly in the coming years. According to several recent studies, Germany will face a dramatic shortfall of about 250,000 university graduates by the year 2010. This development is worsened by the constant decrease in the country's birthrate, which has already affected disciplines such as the sciences and engineering.

The problem unfolds on two different levels. First, not enough graduates from Germany's higher gymnasium schools pursue university educations. The number of gymnasium graduates who want to go to university has decreased from 82% in 1990 to 68% in 1999. That is not enough to cover the needs of Germany's industries. Out of 100 Germans, only 16 will graduate from a university, compared to an average of 27 in other industrialized countries, an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study finds.

An important reason for this is the current setup of most university programs: Although German students experience great latitude during their university educations, they study much longer than do their competitors in other countries. This fact obviously leads to frustration among students: The current dropout rate is remarkably high--31% at universities and 21% at applied science universities (Fachhochschulen). Federal and state governments try to counter this problem by encouraging universities to introduce B.A. and B.S. programs that offer first degrees after only six semesters.

Second, residence and working permit regulations for foreign academics are still very restrictive. The current system limits the influx of urgently needed experts from abroad, and immigration laws allow foreigners to study at universities but not to look for jobs afterward. As soon as these people graduate, their residence permits expire and they are forced to leave the country. This is an obvious reason why the federal minister for education and research, Edelgard Bulmahn, repeatedly states her strong interest in the liberalization of both residence and work-permit laws. "It is hard to believe that we give young people from other countries an opportunity to achieve a high qualification and other countries make a profit from that," says Bulmahn.

If these highly qualified students were allowed to stay, German high-tech and other industries would welcome them. "With each hiring of a foreign [university graduate] in Germany, four to five other new jobs are created," explains Bulmahn. More than half of Germany's businesses would like to hire foreign staff, because they either have special knowledge about other countries or have better qualifications than German graduates have. Although the so-called "green card" has already been introduced for the information technology industry, other industrial sectors would like to expand this type of working permit throughout the whole job market.

Although recent figures from Germany's Academic Exchange Service, Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, sound encouraging, much remains to be done. Over the last 25 years, the number of foreign students at German universities has quadrupled. About 11,000 of the 166,000 non-German students enrolled in Germany graduated last year. That is good, but it is still not enough. "We have to open up more for an internationalization of science, research, and the economy in Germany," says Wolfang Frühwald, president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The Humboldt Foundation, Germany's largest agency that provides financial support for foreign students, funded German-based fellowships for more than 2000 scientists from other countries in the past year alone. With recent government cash injections of DM 90 million (US$40 million), the foundation just started a new program that allows foreign scientists to establish research groups in Germany until 2003. Frühwald hopes that this program will attract more scientists to Germany. To make them stay and thus to solve the shortage problem, Germany urgently needs to change 'its immigration laws and develop a residential status for young foreign graduates.