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German Universities Go "Offshore"

By Christian Bode

More and more German higher education institutions are co-operating with higher education institutions in other countries or founding new institutes or entire organisations abroad. Which countries or regions are the focus of this export? And what are the associated educational policy aims?

German universities go offshore© GUC German University in Cairo
Over 600 cheerfully noisy graduates and their proud families are packed into Cairo's largest conference room. The Egyptian national anthem is intoned, then Germany's, deserving professors from the partner universities of Ulm and Stuttgart are honoured, and finally the certificates are handed out: the "German University in Cairo" (GUC) is bidding farewell to its first class. Its founder, Professor Ashraf Mansour, a former DAAD and Alexander von Humboldt scholarship holder at the University of Ulm, has every reason to be pleased, and so do his private sponsors, who donate a share of their wealth to benefit the community as is expected of good Muslims. The graduates of the mainly natural scientific and technical degree courses speak perfect English, whereas even after two years of mandatory lessons their German is limited if they don't happen to be graduates of the excellent German schools in Cairo or have studied part of their degree course in Germany.

Their degree is Egyptian, but accredited by German agencies; consultations are still underway regarding joint degrees with the partner universities. The graduates and their families have paid approximately 8,500 euros in fees per year (the best may receive discounts of up to 50 percent). The German side has spent around 3.5 billion euros - via DAAD from funds provided by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs - since the university's founding in 2001, mainly for German lecturers, administrators, and on grants. The Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, Deutsche Welle and a number of businesses are also on board, and the project enjoys political support at the highest levels in both countries.

The Arab countries

The GUC has gained widespread recognition in the Arab countries and made German universities "acceptable" as founding partners. The German Jordanian University (GJU) in Amman was founded soon afterwards; however, it differs in significant aspects: it is a state university with currently 1,100 students and is partnered with a consortium of German universities of applied sciences, led by the Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences. The language of instruction at GJU is English, however in the fourth year of study a one-year stay in Germany is mandatory. The university has even developed its own Master's degree course in German as a Foreign Language in order to meet the demand for German language teachers. The stay in Germany integrates study and practical content for preferably all students. The university's expansion is also financed indirectly by transforming previous credit debt into state investment assistance.

At a somewhat less advanced stage is the "German University of Technology" in Oman, which has just accepted its first almost 100 students to initially four degree courses. Its sponsor is the RWTH Aachen, and its founding rector, Professor Rauhut, is a previous rector of RWTH. It is financed from the private purse of the Minister of Religious Affairs, and is also among the projects supported by DAAD's "Export Programme".

Support of this kind is not required, on the other hand, in the case of the "King Abdullah University of Science and Technology" in Jeddah, where money has so far presented no challenge to speak of. Here the foreign universities, among them the TU Munich, are in demand as well-paid service providers, guarantors of quality and "crowd pullers" for marketing purposes. Similar conditions apply to the newer foundations in the Gulf states of Qatar, Kuwait, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where well-known Anglo-American universities and the University of Paris Sorbonne are involved. What makes these (Gulf) universities special is that they are aimed less at the (rather scarce) local youth than at foreign customers: education offerings as part of a strategy for the "age after oil".

This strategy was pioneered by Singapore, which with the help of renowned universities from abroad has meanwhile gone a long way towards achieving its intention of becoming an "education hub". Today, between 25 and 30 percent of students there are foreign nationals. Among the universities involved is the TU Munich, which operates a "German Institute of Science & Technology" (GIST) with natural scientific and technical Master's degree courses.


Asia, South-East Asia and China to be more precise, is the real key focus area of "offshore" activities. The motivation of these countries however is mainly to provide for their own young people seeking a university education and to import western know-how. Germany's commitment here already has a long tradition: Tongji University in Shanghai was founded by a German physician (1907), the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (Chennai) was set up with German development aid (1958), and even the respected Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok owes its development to German support (1967).

Today there are far more, if less spectacular, German initiatives in the region. The most well-known are probably the "Chinesisch-Deutsches Hochschul-Kolleg" (Chinese-German Higher Education College, CDHK) at Tongji University in Shanghai and the "Sirindhorn International Thai-German Graduate School of Engineering" at King Monkut's Institute of Technology in Bangkok (RWTH Aachen). In the case of the CDHK, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, it is particularly the support from German industry that is impressive: 27 professorships are sponsored by German companies. Of course this is due to the dynamics of Shanghai as a business location; no comparable commitment by German industry is to be found in other projects. Further noteworthy features are German as the language of instruction, the double Master's option with the German partner universities (including the TU Berlin, TU Munich, and the University of Bochum) and the increasing number of German students, for whom the CDHK represents a "foot in the door" in an otherwise rather inaccessible country. In addition to the CDHK, a college with technology-oriented Bachelor degree courses is being developed with the help of a German consortium of universities of applied sciences. If the merging of the two (university of applied sciences and university) colleges desired by all parties really succeeds, a noteworthy chapter of German higher education history will have been written in faraway Shanghai...

Eastern Europe

The third region well suited to "transnational" initiatives is Eastern Europe, including the former GUS states. Here too the motivation is not only an interest in western know-how, but even more a desire and a need to keep local talent in the country if possible. A "local" foreign university is then the better alternative to studying abroad, especially as it is usually more affordable. This is probably one of the main reasons why projects in Eastern Europe are almost entirely so-called co-operation projects run in or at a local university. Often based on university partnerships, which DAAD has been sponsoring with its "Eastern Partnerships" programme for over 20 years, stable exchange programmes have meanwhile developed: German law schools in Poland (Cracow, Warsaw, Gdansk) that train home-grown lawyers in German and prepare them for a stay in Germany; German centres of law and economics (both in Moscow); the projects of the DAAD programme "German-language degree courses" with or without a double degree, some of them institutionalised in the Warsaw School of Economics (together with the University of Mainz), or even German-speaking faculties (TU Sofia with Karlsruhe and Brunswick, TU Budapest with TU Karlsruhe).

In a different form of co-operation, the Deutsch-Kasachische Universität (German-Kazakh University, DKU) was founded a few years ago by a handful of German lecturers and teachers as an independent enterprise, and has meanwhile worked its way onto the political agenda of both countries.

Planned co-operations

Two further (strongly politically motivated) forthcoming large-scale projects are the German-Turkish University in Istanbul and the "Vietnamese German University" in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. A third large-scale project, the founding at Pakistan's request of a German-Pakistani Technical University in Lahore, has been put on hold at an advanced stage of planning in view of the current political and financial turbulences.

Contrary to most other foundation projects, a government treaty was drawn up for the German-Turkish University. A German university consortium is soon to be created which will then co-ordinate the development work. As the university is to be a state institution and thus subject to Turkish university law, Germany's options to exercise influence (for example to assure quality in double degree programmes) will probably be limited to indirect and informal channels. By contrast, the - also state-run - Vietnamese German University, which is based on an initiative of the Federal State of Hesse, will permit equal participation of German government and university representatives in the decision-making bodies. Here too a corresponding German university consortium is currently being founded. In both projects, the country where the university is located will bear the majority of the cost; Germany's financial participation is to run to approximately three million euros a year for each, although in the case of Saigon the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the state of Hesse will be splitting the costs.

From a regional point of view it remains to be added that there are hardly any offshore projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America or the western industrialised nations: this is partly due to adverse market conditions, partly due to political reticence on the part of the host countries, partly also due to a lack of comparable density of academic collaboration; exceptions worth noting are the activities of the University of Bochum in Capetown and of the University of Heidelberg in Chile.

No standard projects

Even from the cases described briefly above, it is clear that there are no standard "off the shelf" projects; occasions and motives, protagonists and participants, sizes, subjects, organisations and financing vary widely. Most of the projects (around 40) have developed "bottom up" from university initiatives and are sponsored as part of a BMBF-financed DAAD programme ("Courses offered by German Universities abroad"); a few larger projects are "top down", politically initiated and implemented by universities. The range of courses offered concentrates mainly on technology and the natural sciences, and sometimes also on economics and law, and is thus clearly development-oriented. Accordingly, the main protagonists are the technical universities and corresponding universities of applied sciences. The preferred option is to co-operate with powerful universities in the host countries; independent new foundations are rare. Joint degrees are the norm rather than the exception. The language of instruction is usually English (with accompanying German lessons), only in a very few instances is teaching entirely in German. Financing mainly comes from various sources in the host country; course fees are indispensable but generally insufficient. Financial profits cannot seriously be expected; covering the costs is already difficult enough. Additional financing from German subsidies serves not least to eliminate or reduce the German partner's dependence on the foreign sponsor, especially as the ideas of what constitutes a university differ significantly between cultures. The German side's participation in the bodies of the respective university varies; it is usually limited and based more on trust than on legal documents.

Higher Education Policy Objectives

After all this, what justifies the significant efforts in time, energy, nerves and money invested in these projects by the German side? At a political level it is mainly the desire for a new way to advertise Germany as a location for study and science ("showcase"), and perhaps also the aim of positioning German universities as "entrepreneurial" universities in the international education market "on the ground". Sometimes, distinct foreign trade and foreign policy considerations - such as an increased "dialogue between the cultures" - also play a part. The universities on the other hand are more interested in strengthening their international reputation in order to attract more great minds from around the world - also to the mother university in Germany. Added to this is here and there the expectation of acquiring research co-operations and developing new networks, which are becoming increasingly important as basic structures for international collaborations of all kinds. And sometimes, not just here, headstrong individuals, historical co-incidences and traditions, and very occasionally a certain taste for academic adventure play a role - a mixture that has already been responsible for a number of innovations in the history of higher education institutions.

Forschung & Lehre :: January 2009