Friday, August 06, 2010

German varsities struggle to attract Indian students

Justus Liebig University in the student city of Giessen is named after the German chemist who gave the world artificial fertilizer and baking powder and was a member of its faculty alongside such luminaries of science as Wilhelm C. Roentgen, inventor of the X- ray. In December, the four century old institution acquired another distinction when linguistics professor Joybrato Mukherjee became its president (the equivalent of vice- chancellor in India) at age 35, the youngest to head a German university. Mukherjee was born in September 1973 to Bengali-Indian parents who moved to the Rhine valley area in the western part of then divided Germany in the 1960s. His father worked with a company that made agricultural machines. "I was born here, raised here, German is the language I am most comfortable in", says Mukherjee, a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Bonn, who became a professor at Jus- tus Liebig at 29. "I know I am different. I don't look German, there is something culturally (different) on top of my German identity". His India connection perhaps partly explains why Mukherjee wants to attract talent from there to the university he heads, which has around 25,000 students in 11 faculties, and encourage academic exchanges with institutions in the country.

It won't be easy and Mukherjee seems to know it. The language barrier isn't easy to negotiate for Indians trained in English, or any other foreigner. Just 10% of the student strength at Justus Liebig, for instance, is from overseas. Germany doesn't encourage foreigners staying over for employment after completing their education in the country, on ethical and economic grounds, although its ageing population means it needs young, skilled people for the future growth of Europe's biggest economy.

The Anglo-Saxon orientation of Indian students and institutions doesn't help either, although state-funded higher education is relatively inexpensive in Germany, costing as little as 500 per semester. German academia is against universities becoming profit vehicles and favours maintaining the purity of education and research, explaining why fees are so low, according to Mukherjee. "The language works against German universities", says Mukherjee. "We are not like (universities in) Sweden and the Netherlands where every- thing is taught in English".

He has been in touch with Indian universities, including Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, to form strategic partnerships and exchange programmes that would help Justus Liebig University in drawing Indian students. He says the universities were unresponsive to his overtures. In Delhi, JNU spokesperson Poonam S. Kudaisya says there's no reason why JNU, which has collaborations with "scores of universities", would be unresponsive. "If they have not received any response, they should write to the coordinator, international collaboration, by giving reference of their earlier communication", Kudaisya said.

Around 103,260 Indians students were studying in U.S. campuses in 2009, according to a report published in the Hindustan Times on 3 August. There are around 4,500 Indians -- less than 5% of those in the U.S. -- studying in German universities, according to the Indian embassy in Berlin. "It's a pity", says Klaus Tappeser, ministerial director, ministry of science, research and art, for the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, of which Stuttgart, a sister city of Mumbai, is the capital. "We have a language problem and we have a cultural problem". Students from the country tend to prefer universities in the U.S. or the U.K. because courses are taught in English and also because they are home to large populations of people of the same origin, providing a comfort zone to Indians who tend to be "family-oriented", Tappeser says. The U.S. is home to more than 2.2 million people of Indian origin and the U.K. to 1.5 million, according to the website of the ministry of overseas Indian affairs. Germany has 70,500 such people.

Sandeep S. Jolly, who runs a telecom business based in Berlin, recalls shifting in 1982 when he was fifteen-and-a-half to then West Berlin in divided Germany. His stepmother, a German, insisted on him going to school rather than spending all his time at his father's grocery shop. "I did not speak German at all. I thought talking and knowing English would be fine", says Jolly. "That was the main reason I shifted from Ludhiana to Bombay to a British standard school so that I could speak fluent English. I was quite disappointed when I came here because nobody spoke English with me". Jolly had to take a German language course and repeat his ninth and tenth grade in a German school before going on to a pre-university course and then entering the Technical University in Berlin from where he graduated with a degree in information technology.

To get a job in Germany after studying in a university in the country isn't easy for foreigners. Only those who earn a minimum 60,000 euros a year are allowed to work. Trade unions are worried about too many foreign workers finding employment, says Tappeser. Employment rules being eased for foreigners is a sensitive issue at a time when Germany is just starting to emerge from a recession that caused economic output to contract by 5% last year in the wake of the global financial crisis. Germany is discomfited by the idea of allowing foreign students to work in the country after they complete their education also on ethical grounds. "Do you want to attract international students at the cost of their home countries", is the argument of those who are opposed to the idea, says Mukherjee.

German universities have been hit by the brain drain syndrome themselves, having seen the departure in past years of scholars and researchers for countries such as the U.S., which he is hoping will stop as American universities pare budgets, suspend pensions and cut back on research after the financial crisis. In Germany, professors can't be fired even if a university has to shut down. "This is our chance really to stop the brain drain and turn it into brain regain", Mukherjee says.

(Article written by Anil Penna who was lately in Germany as a guest of Robert Bosch Stiftung GmbH. Prashant Nanda contributed to this story).

Source: Mint, August 6, 2010

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