“The number of international students in Germany has risen despite Covid-19”

How has the pandemic affected international mobility for students and academics in Germany? The recent publication “Wissenschaft weltoffen 2021” presents data on this question. We talked to DAAD Senior Expert Dr Jan Kercher about what the figures say.

Dr Kercher, do we now know how the Covid-19 pandemic affected international student mobility in Germany?

It is not yet possible to make a final assessment of that as we are not yet out of the pandemic and will probably still have to face a fourth wave. Nevertheless, we can say a little about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on student mobility in Germany in the first two semesters of the pandemic, i.e. the 2020 summer semester and the 2020/21 winter semester. What we see there is that there has been no overall reduction in the number of international students in either semester. In fact, the opposite is true: the number of international students in Germany has risen despite Covid-19. I would say that was a surprise, but also very pleasing.


What explains this surprising discovery?

If you look more closely at the numbers, there was certainly a substantial decline in the number of international first-year students, which was down 41% in the summer semester and 19% in the winter semester (compared to the respective semesters in the previous year). However, these falls mainly affected visiting and exchange students, while the number of students intending to complete a degree in Germany was affected to a much lesser extent. A fall in the number of visiting and exchange students has a much less pronounced effect on the overall number of international students, as these students generally only spend one or at most two semesters in Germany. Moreover, we suspect that many international students who were already in Germany when the pandemic began changed their plans – either out of choice or necessity. For example, we believe that many students started master's degrees immediately after completing their bachelor's degrees (which was not their initial intention) rather than trying to find a job in the midst of a pandemic. We also believe that Covid-19 meant many more international students remained within the German higher education system than would otherwise have been the case.

What can be said about outgoing mobility of students in Germany during the period of the pandemic?

We now have better data on this point as well, though only for what is known as “credit mobility” – temporary study-related international mobility, such as mobility within the framework of the Erasmus programme. The reason for this is that when it comes to capturing “degree mobility” (the international mobility of German students intending to graduate abroad), we have to rely on higher education statistics from the various host countries, which always lag a year or even more behind us. Take Switzerland, for example. It was the only major host country that could supply student data on the 2020/21 winter semester in time for "Wissenschaft weltoffen 2021" going to print. What we see there is that it would be wrong to assume that the pandemic caused significant decreases in German students' degree mobility across the board. As it happened, around 4% more German students were enrolled in Switzerland in the 2020/21 winter semester than in the previous year.

How has the credit mobility of German students that you referred to changed since the pandemic began?

We can mainly talk about trends for the Erasmus programme, which is in itself the principal funding programme for credit mobility. In 2019, before the pandemic began, some 41,000 standard Erasmus visits were undertaken (without being terminated early). By contrast, only around 21,000 standard visits were made in 2020 after the outbreak of Covid-19. Nevertheless, given the adverse conditions I consider that a major success. After all, many higher education institutions abroad temporarily stopped accepting Erasmus students entirely. From mid-2020 onwards, students had the choice of completing their visits in standard form (i.e. where they attend in person for the whole visit), in hybrid form or entirely virtually. Some students availed themselves of these options, although they amounted to only about 4% of all Erasmus visits since mid-2020. What this makes clear is that the overwhelming majority of Erasmus participants want to complete standard visits, despite Covid-19.


Is it yet possible to say how Covid-19 has affected the international mobility of academics in Germany?

Yes, it is. Through our work on “Wissenschaft weltoffen” we have been able to collect and evaluate the early data. However, a similar caveat applies here as it did to the student data, as it is currently only possible to comment on short-term visits. We cannot yet take a view on longer-term mobility, which can be identified by examining trends in employment contracts at higher education or other research institutions, to take one example. As part of preparing “Wissenschaft weltoffen”, we survey the relevant research institutions each year to understand short-term guest visits by academics which they fund. The survey showed that, while there was a sharp reduction in funding in 2020, which principally affected outgoing mobility from Germany, the reduction was much less pronounced for incoming mobility into the country. The reason for this may be that it is easier for the German-based funding organisations we surveyed to arrange and support visits within Germany, rather than dealing with many different foreign countries where the pandemic conditions and Covid regulations varied widely and changed constantly in some cases.


This interview was originally published in the DAAD Aktuell.   

You can read the whole interview in German here.


November 2021