SeSaBa Research Study

International students: using language skills to achieve academic success

The continuous funding of language skills in the national language and the language of instruction is a key success factor for international students in Germany. This is one of the findings from the research project ‘Academic success and the withdrawal of international students from bachelor's and master's degree courses in Germany’ (SeSaBa). This involved the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst – DAAD), the Bayerische Staatsinstitut für Hochschulforschung und Hochschulplanung (IHF – Bavarian State Institute for Higher Education Research and Planning) and the FernUniversität in Hagen (Germany’s State Distance-Learning University) repeatedly surveying over 4,500 international students at 125 participating higher education institutions over a three year period.

Mehrere Studenten machen sich Notizen, während sie an den Schreibtischen sitzen und sich auf ein Seminar oder eine Hausarbeit in der Bibliothek vorbereiten

‘For the first time, the findings from the SeSaBa Research Study now provide a comprehensive overview of the academic success and drop-out rates of international students in Germany. The findings relating to language skills and to the major significance of both the start and completion of studies reveal the parameters that are important in reducing the high dropout rates of international students in Germany,’ stated DAAD President Professor Joybrato Mukherjee. 

The DAAD member institutions are reported to be highly committed to their international students. Yet they lack adequate funding to provide the necessary and intensive mentoring. In addition to the start phase, this is seen to be especially important at the end of studies to enable international students to successfully transition into the German job market. ‘The federal and state governments should do more here with a view to international students as future skilled workers in an ageing German society.’

Targeted information and incentives

The research findings demonstrate that language courses should be offered and actively advertised throughout the course of studies. Higher education institutions can also underpin the use of such offers by means of incentives like credits for study courses. International students should moreover be informed at an early stage of the importance of good language skills in writing their thesis and for successful transition into the German job market. The research project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) reveals that, in addition to language skills, the management of expectations regarding academic requirements and learning strategies during studies, and the integration of international students into the social and cultural life at the higher education institution are also significant factors in academic success.

The first critical phase: starting studies

The phase before starting studies in Germany and the first period of study in particular lay the foundation for academic success. The SeSaBa Research Study suggests that the management of expectations prior to commencing studies is decisive. International students should be provided with information about studying in Germany (and the associated challenges) that is as precise, specific and realistic as possible. This can reduce false expectations and prevent subsequent issues such as frustration, lack of integration or funding gaps that often lead to the withdrawal of students. International students often need greater support from higher education institutions at the start of their studies than their fellow students from Germany. Targeted information and counselling on subject-related, organisational and social issues are therefore imperative. There is at the same time a need to avoid information overload, otherwise existing support services might not be recognised and accessed.

The second critical phase: completion of studies

When considering the completion of studies, it has been shown that Germany is particularly attractive to master's graduates as a place to start their careers. The research study reveals that 76 per cent would like to remain in the country for a career or doctorate. Yet at the same time, graduation and the prospects of entering the job market are often a source of concern for international students: they often lack the business contacts and knowledge of application conventions that would enable them to smoothly master the transition into working life. Moreover, many students only realise shortly before finishing their studies that their German language skills are not sufficient for a thesis or a successful job search. In this phase too, therefore, comprehensive linguistic and academic support in relation to their thesis and support with their transition into the job market are decisive to the success of international students in Germany.

Practical recommendations for higher education institutions

Based on the findings of this research study, the DAAD has developed practical recommendations that have been published together with the most significant practice-related project findings in the ‘DAAD Studies’ series. They offer tips and recommendations to those in higher education institutions and those responsible for higher education policies regarding improvements in the academic success of international students in Germany.