No longer left to their own devices

Dr. Dominic Orr, Research Lead
14 02 20

No longer left to their own devices or how a new learning platform could help foreign students interested in studying in Germany


Kiron has been working on a project entitled IMPactDigital, which looks at the needs of foreign students coming to Germany and investigates how they could be supported through digitally-enhanced services. This short blog presents one part of an analysis of the needs of foreign students coming to Germany. It focuses on the key market segments and how they might be supported in the future so that Germany can maintain its place as an attractive host country, and to improve the success rate for foreign students. 

Germany is an attractive place to study for foreign students; with 5.0% of all international students, Germany is among the top five destination countries for foreign students. Asked in which country they would most like to study if they had a free choice, 57% of foreign students in Germany say that Germany would be their first choice. German universities have also considerably improved their counseling and support services for foreign students in recent years (Apolinarski & Tasso, 2018)⁠. Currently, only one in four experience problems with orientation in the study system; in 2012 it was 41%. Despite this positive news,  a key challenge remains the reduction in student drop-outs.

According to a national study, the proportion of drop-outs in the first year of studies in 2012/2013 (last year available) was 45%, which is still well above the corresponding drop-out rate among German students (universities 32%, universities of applied sciences 25%) (Heublein & Schmelzer, 2018)⁠. A first in-depth study on reasons for dropping out shows that misinformation and a lack of contact lead to students having false expectations at the start of their studies and lacking sufficient orientation (Pineda, 2018).   

A closer matching of students’ interests and abilities to their chosen study programs could certainly help here, with students receiving the support and counseling they need. To achieve this, it is helpful to look more closely at the target groups and draw up a market segmentation, which can be the foundation of support structures (see for a similar approach: Choudaha et al., 2012). Viewed from the administrative perspective, which is most appropriate to the German case, there are two segments in the market for foreign students (Burkhart et al., 2018):  Applicants whose qualifications are considered equivalent to those giving German students access to higher education, and Applicants without this equivalency.

This is because access to higher education for foreign students is handled very formally in Germany, and less based on the actual skills and knowledge of those interested in studying (DAAD, 2014, Morris-Lange, 2019)⁠. If the prospective education of a prospective student is not recognized as equivalent to the German higher education entrance qualification, prospective students must (in most German states) attend a special preparatory course, in order to gain equivalency.  

This testifies to a higher education system that strictly observes the formality of entry requirements. Nevertheless, the drop-out rate of foreign students remains disproportionately high compared to German students. Therefore, it makes sense to speak of a third segment of prospective students who have a greater need for subject-specific and language support before commencing their program of study. 

These three segments are shown as a matrix in Figure 1. It can be assumed that during the recruitment phase of foreign students coming to Germany, insufficient attention has been paid to students requiring learning and support before their studies, because this deficit has been systematically neglected. This also means that students who are capable, but may not have formal equivalency of their prior qualifications may have been overlooked. For the future, more attention should be paid to this dimension if study success should be increased. 

Additionally, there are clear calls for higher education institutions to have more freedom on how to decide which foreign students to admit and on what basis (see DAAD, 2014). Future planning should bear this development in mind. However, it has also been argued that the complexity of access can also deter interested applicants (Burkhart et al., 2018). Therefore, it is important that flexible, more inclusive routes into German higher education should not create even more complexity and insecurity. This will be a careful balancing act.

Kiron truly believes that digital learning platforms offer an opportunity to support and inform students in their study choices. A learning platform for foreign students coming to Germany will ideally serve three main purposes: Firstly, the platform will help users understand the German higher education landscape and make informed choices. Secondly, guidance should be provided to help prospective students navigate through the bureaucratic processes needed to successfully apply to a university. Thirdly, targeted and curated support should be available to actively prepare students for their studies at a university, including academic preparatory and language courses. Together these should contribute to a better match between students, institutions of higher education and study programs, increase study success and reduce dropout rates.


You can read the full needs assessment here. 

The development of this needs assessment was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of the project IMPactDigital.