The Case for German University Outreach to China

My university, the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nurnberg (FAU) is a renowned general university with a strong engineering faculty and tradition. While highly attractive from an educational point of view, it has remained hard to attract sufficiently large numbers of students to this beautiful college town.

China is a booming economy with a hunger for education. Chinese engineering students, after finishing their Bachelor’s degree, often look to getting a Master’s education abroad. Most look to the U.S.A. first, only to discover the high cost of tuition. The smart students realize that unless they are getting into the small percentage of top engineering schools, U.S. universities are not worth it: The quality of education, despite their good-looking certificates, rapidly falls off once you look beyond the well-known schools.

German engineering universities are broadly speaking much better and much more even than your average American engineering university. Better yet, almost all are publicly funded universities with no tuition or only token tuition. Thus, most Chinese engineering students are better served by a German university than a U.S.-based one: Better education at much lower cost.

This reality is not being reflected by the admissions numbers, at least in Computer Science. Out of the small numbers of foreign nationals applying for the Master’s program in Computer Science at FAU this year, half were Chinese, but to me, who interviewed all of them, the selection of applicants appeared random. I believe that we could significantly drive up application numbers from top Chinese universities if we only positioned our program right. The benefit of doing so would be more and smarter students with good work ethics. This is a particularly good opportunity for the more rural universities – Berlin and Munich don’t face the problems that Erlangen does.

For this to happen, we need to do two things in the Computer Science department (and perhaps, beyond):

  1. Display more of an international focus, in particular lay-out well-defined English-speaking paths through the program, and
  2. Advertise the program not only in general terms, as the university currently does, but by being specific about computer science.

As to #1, the language issue, we have already been adapting. Many colleagues routinely teach in English. I usually ask and if we have English-only speakers in class, I switch to English. German regulations require that applicants pass a German test. I’m not sure this is needed. I think that those students who want to stay and enjoy the high quality life of Germany after their degree will take up German classes by themselves. I love German, my native language, but I’m not sure the German test is a helpful requirement.

As to #2, advertising the program, we need to better work with the general outreach of the University to make sure Computer Science isn’t buried in the wealth of studies offered by my University. The best approach would be if our University supported Computer Science professors during their travels to China to give guest lectures on their research topics while at the same time explaining our Master’s program and how it is a great opportunity for Chinese engineering students.

These two combined measures, I believe, could improve out admissions numbers over time, thereby improve the applicant pool, resulting education and research, and ultimately the experience of everyone involved.