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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Mobility in higher education


13.Mobility and internationalisation

13.2Mobility in higher education

Last update: 27 November 2023

Student mobility

Globalisation, the fact that Europe is growing closer together and the formation of a European Higher Education Areaopens up new horizons for graduates. Good knowledge of foreign languages and personal experience of both the economic and social conditions and the culture and mentality of other countries are nowadays regarded as basic requirements for graduates in many sectors of the labour market. It is this trend that has prompted the development of EU programmes to promote cooperation in higher education and student mobility and also the national, regional and bilateral initiatives that provide incentives for study/placements abroad and fund and develop new courses of study. National initiatives include, amongst other examples, the increased promotion of study abroad and in particular of a full course of study in another EU country or in Switzerland as part of the Federal Training Assistance Act (Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz – BAföG) and likewise special support programmes implemented by some Länder.

In April 2013 the Federation and the Länder adopted a joint Strategy of the Federal and Länder Ministers of Science for the Internationalisation of Institutions of Higher Education in Germany (Strategie der Wissenschaftsminister/innen von Bund und Ländern für die Internationalisierung der Hochschulen in Deutschland). This develops joint objectives for areas of action relating to internationalisation. The paper is based on the main idea that internationalisation is a central element for the development of an institutional profile for German institutions of higher education. The Federation and Länder want to support this process and have agreed on joint objectives and approaches in nine fields of action:

  • Strategic internationalisation
  • Improving the legal framework
  • Establishing a welcoming culture
  • Establishing an international campus
  • Increasing the international mobility of students
  • Improving the international appeal of Germany as a higher education location
  • Attracting excellent junior scientists from abroad
  • Extending international research collaborations
  • Establishing offers for transnational university education

The internationalisation goals are being realised by the Länder and the Federation at their own responsibility within the scope of the constitutional responsibilities and respecting the autonomy of the institutions of higher education. For 2023/2024, the Federal Government and the Länder are striving to further develop the Strategy of the Federal and Länder Ministers of Science for the Internationalisation of Institutions of Higher Education in Germany.

Through placements abroad during courses of study, prospective academics can acquire additional competences and develop personally. International experiences are moreover becoming increasingly important on the labour market and in science. The Federation and the Länder therefore seek to ensure that one in two higher education graduates has gained study-related experience abroad and at least one in three can provide evidence of a period of study abroad lasting at least three months or equivalent to 15 ECTS.

Mobility is already well developed even now. Germany is one of the top five host countries and countries of origin for internationally mobile students worldwide. In total in the 2021/2022 winter semester around 349,000 international students studied at German higher education institutions. This corresponds to around 12 percent of all students in Germany. The most important countries of origin are China (around 40,000 students or 12%), India (34,000 or 10%), Syria (17,000 or 5%) and Austria (15,000 or 4%). At the same time many German students are studying abroad with the aim of obtaining a higher education qualification: in 2020 in total around 132,000 German students were enrolled at higher education institutions abroad. This corresponds to a share of around 5 per cent of all German students. The most popular host countries are Austria (around 34,000 students or 25% of all students abroad), the Netherlands (25,000 or 18%), the United Kingdom (13,000 or 9%) and Switzerland (12,000 or 9%).

Information on the foreign language assistant exchange programme of the Educational Exchange Service (Pädagogischer Austauschdienst – PAD) of the Secretariat of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (Kultusministerkonferenz), in which prospective foreign language teachers are exchanged, can be found in the section on teacher mobility.

In Germany, the task of promoting relations between higher education institutions and foreign countries through the exchange of students and academics is the responsibility of the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst – DAAD), a self-governing organisation of German higher education institutions and their student bodies. The programmes of the DAAD to promote internationalisation at German higher education institutions aim at creating the organisational and financial framework for studies/a placement abroad, international cooperation and the establishment of strategic partnerships between higher education institutions as well as further development of courses of study and higher education qualifications. Furthermore, the measures already carried out shall be incorporated into a strategy for internationalisation involving the entire institution of higher education.

The internationalisation of higher education institutions is regarded as a complex process which links the interests of students and academics, the higher education institutions, the aims of foreign cultural and education policy, national science policy, development cooperation, and the requirements of all international partners.

At the beginning of 2020, the DAAD adopted a new "Strategy 2025": This focuses on three strategic fields of action:

1. "Recognising and supporting potentials worldwide":

Providing scholarships remains the DAAD’s "core business". In 2021 it was able to support just less than 19,900 German and international students, doctoral candidates and researchers with scholarships and individual programmes.

2. "Strengthening the strategic academic network":

This includes international degree programmes, and the PROMOS programme to enhance the mobility of German students, which finances short stays for German students abroad. As part of the programme launched in 2010 with funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung – BMBF), in 2021 5,407 scholarships were awarded by 312 higher education institutions. In order to meet the specific requirements of Hochschulen für angewandte Wissenschaften, the BMBF has launched a specific programme for the internationalisation of Hochschulen für angewandte Wissenschaften via the DAAD. Initiation and preparation measures, the development of model and cooperation projects with international partners as well as individual scholarships for students, lecturers and researchers are awarded. The BMBF-funded programme Lehramt.International focuses on the internationalisation of teacher training in order to meet the specific conditions for the international orientation of the teaching profession and to increase the mobility of trainee teachers, also with regard to their later function as multipliers (for more information, see the article on teacher mobility).

3. "Providing expertise for international relations": 

In the future, the DAAD will apply its compe-tences and expertise even more to providing information and advisory services to institutions of higher education and other academic exchange stakeholders, both in Germany and abroad. With its decades of experience in programme work and its unique worldwide network of 19 regional offices and 47 Information Centres IC) and Information Points (IP), the DAAD brings tremendous knowledge of higher education systems and national science systems around the world. This knowledge flows into the consultations, events and publications of the Competence Centre for International Science Cooperation (Kompetenzzentrum Internationale Wissenschaftskooperationen – KIWi). With individual advice, networked expertise and impulses for foreign science policy discourse, KIWi is an important contact point for German higher education institutions and supports them in initiating, implementing and intensifying their international activities.

In addition to these three strategic fields of action, the DAAD Strategy 2025 also identifies eight so-called key topics: "Diversity and Equal Opportunities", "Innovation and Transfer", "Freedom of Science", "Global Issues", "International Professionals for Science and Business" and "Digital Transformation".

Within the scope of Erasmus+ (2021-2027), the DAAD has also been designated by the BMBF as a National Agency (NA) and is thus responsible for the implementation of Erasmus+ in the higher education sector. Within this framework, the NA DAAD promotes, among other things, the international mobility of students (studies and internships) within Europe and also worldwide. Prerequisites for funding are cross-border higher education agreements and the obligation that full recognition by the home institution of higher education of study achievements made abroad is guaranteed. In addition, participating higher education institutions must be in possession of a valid Erasmus Charter for Higher Education. For the 2021–2027 programme generation, funding rates for students will be increased to strengthen participation in the programme; the special additional financial support for certain groups and the introduction of new funding formats also promote the European Commission's goal for more (social) participation and inclusion in the programme. Between the beginning of June 2019 and the end of May 2021 a total of 33,790 students from Germany were given funding for a period of study abroad, and 7,062 students for a work placement abroad. Conversely, 25,843 Erasmus students from other countries spent a study-related stay at a German higher education institution during the same period. More information can be found on the Internet.

In addition, the DAAD NA is responsible for the selection and promotion of Erasmus+ Cooperation Partnerships as well as for providing information and advice on the Erasmus+ cooperation projects administered centrally in Brussels (Erasmus Mundus Action, European Higher Education Institutions, Capacity Building Projects in Higher Education, Alliances for Innovation, Jean Monnet Actions, Teacher Academies and Future-Oriented Projects). More information is available on the internet.

Grants for periods of study abroad are also provided under the Federal Training Assistance Act. Students are able to receive assistance under the Federal Training Assistance Act for a full course of study in a member state of the European Union. Furthermore, financial assistance is provided for practical training and studies of limited duration inside and outside of Europe.

Alongside these funding opportunities at national level, in some Länder there are Land-level programmes to support international student mobility.

Academic Staff Mobility

In 2021, around 59.300 foreign scientists will be employed at German institutions of higher education, including around 3,700 professors. Since 2016, the number of international staff has increased by 29 per cent. In comparison, the number of German scientists and researchers abroad has only increased by 8  per cent in the same period. The most important region of origin of international academic staff is Western Europe. Around 34 per cent of all international academic staff and as many as 66 per cent of international professors come from Western European countries. The most important countries of origin are India, Italy, China and Austria. Of the international professors, most come from the two German-speaking countries Switzerland (9%) and Austria (19%).

In 2020, around 15,000 employed scientists with foreign nationality worked at the institutions of the four largest extramural science organisations, the Max Planck Society, the Fraunhofer Society, and the Helmholtz and Leibniz Associations. Their number has almost doubled since 2010, so that in 2020 around 28 percent of the science staff will come from abroad.

In addition to employed international academic staff, international guest researchers also conduct research and teach in Germany, whose stay is funded by domestic and foreign organisa-tions. In 2020, this amounted to around 23,000 stays. Since 2019, the number of temporary guest stays by international scientists has thus decreased by 30 percent due to the pandemic. Visiting researchers are persons with foreign citizenship who stay in Germany for a limited period of time without being employed within the framework of financial support and who are active in teaching and research at institutions of higher education or other research institutions. There are three major funding organisations in particular that support the vast majority of stays by visiting researchers in Germany: German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – DFG), DAAD and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. In 2020, the DFG alone funded 53 per cent of all visits, the DAAD 30 per cent and the Al-exander von Humboldt Foundation 8 per cent. Together, they contribute to the funding of 91 per cent of all stays. Western Europe and Asia and the Pacific region are the most important regions of origin for international guest researchers, with shares of 25per cent and 22 per cent respectively, and China (8%), India (7%) and Italy (6%) the three most important countries of origin.

The Erasmus+ programme of the European Union also supports temporary stays abroad by guest lecturers. These guest lectureships within Europe can last between two and 60 days. The funding covers teaching stays by academic staff and professors at universities and research institutions as well as employees in companies. In the Erasmus year 2020 (beginning of June 2019 to end of May 2021), a total of only around 860 Erasmus guest lecturers came to Germany for a teaching stay. That was around 1,650 or two thirds fewer than in the previous year. The pandemic-related Europe-wide mobility restrictions and the closure of higher education institutions in 2020 meant that many Erasmus stays in Germany could not take place.

On the one hand, German academics in other countries work permanently at institutions of higher education and research institutions. On the other hand, many German guest researchers complete a temporary research and teaching stay abroad with the support of various institutions.

According to the available data, most German academics work at higher education institutions in Switzerland, followed by universities in Austria and the UK. In 2020, the largest proportions of Germans among all foreign academics can be observed in Austria with 43 per cent and in Switzerland with 30 per cent.

In 2020, around 5,300 stays by German guest researchers abroad were funded by domestic and foreign organisations. Compared to the previous year, 8,300 or 61 per cent fewer stays abroad by German researchers were funded in 2020 due to the pandemic-related mobility restrictions. Western Europe is the most important host region for German guest researchers. Of the funded stays, 30 per cent took place in Western European countries. Other significant host regions are North America (21%) and Asia and the Pacific (13%). The most important host country for German guest researchers abroad was the USA, followed by the United Kingdom and France. The USA alone accounted for 19 per cent of all funded guest stays, the United Kingdom for 8 per cent and France for 5 per cent. In all three countries, the numbers of funded stays abroad fell sharply due to the pandemic. 

In addition, a total of around 1,200 guest lecturers from Germany spent time abroad in the Erasmus year 2020 as part of the Erasmus+ programme. Compared to previous years, their number has thus decreased by 61 per cent. The worldwide pandemic-related mobility re-strictions had a very strong impact on the comparatively short-term stays abroad of Erasmus guest lecturers. Most Erasmus guest lecturers were in Western Europe (24%) and Central East-ern Europe (23%) for their stay abroad in 2020. 22 per cent of them stayed in Southern Euro-pean countries and 14 per cent in Northern European countries. The most important host countries in 2020 were France and Spain. Their shares are 12 per cent and 11 per cent respec-tively. In third and fourth place are Finland and Italy with 9 per cent each.

Statistics on the international mobility of scientists and researchers may be found in the publication Wissenschaft weltoffen.