Germany Tries to Make Itself Foreigner-Friendly

Germany Tries to Make Itself Foreigner-Friendly

 

But scowling bureaucrats and skinheads can scare off academics once they arrive

 

The Chronicle of Higher Education

July 2, 2002

By RICK PERERA

 

                                                                                           

 

(Berlin)Germany is trying to market itself as an attractive home for the world's finest scholars -- even as it struggles to shed its reputation as a rigid, unfriendly place.

 

The country boasts a rich academic tradition, top-flight research, and relatively lavish financial support for academe. Education is key to Germany's economic productivity, and helps it to pack the world's third largest economy into a land area the size of

Montana. But German campuses face handicaps in attracting the best talent from abroad. Along with the language barrier, the country has an opaque system of diplomas and degrees, and a reluctance to recognize foreign academic credentials.

 

Regulations governing visas and residency permits are confusing. Racist violence, especially in the formerly Communist east, continue to mar the country's image, and any rightward slant in politics or racist incident is apt to make international news because of the country's Nazi past.

 

The ambivalent signals Germany is sending foreigners are also seen throughout Europe, where immigration is a central political issue. In the Netherlands, a new conservative coalition that includes the overtly anti-immigrant party of assassinated leader Pim

Fortuyn has taken power. "I think that conditions for foreign scholars might even get worse," says Anders van der Horst, spokesman for the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education. Already complicated immigration procedures are likely to be tightened, he says, and any move to loosen regulations "is not in the forefront of public opinion, to say the least."

 

Hostility to Immigrants

 

France has also experienced a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, as evidenced by April's surprise second-place showing of far-right presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, although many academics say they have been in the forefront of anti-Le Pen protests.

 

But German academe's new image-makers say the country is being unfairly tarred for the actions of a few. Indeed, the number of xenophobic crimes in Germany, including nonviolent ones, decreased from 15,951 in 2000, to 10,054 in 2001. And

Germany is relatively hospitable to foreigners: About 8.5 percent of Germany's students come from abroad, outranking France, with 6.5 percent, and the United States, with 3.3 percent. Still, Germany's proportion of foreign students is lower than

Switzerland's, Austria's, Belgium's, and Britain's, as well as Australia's. The U.S. State Department describes Germany as a safe country to travel in, but does mention that those who "look foreign" might risk attacks by drunken skinheads.

 

While some European educators worry that a rightward political shift will put a chill on academic exchanges, German advocates like Klaus Landfried, the president of the Association of Universities and Other Higher Education Institutions, want their country to carry the torch for an increasingly interdependent academic world, in which he hopes that Germans and others will become more tolerant of foreigners. "Higher education has not only the mission to invent new things, but also to extend respect toward society."

 

None of the news about European anti-immigrant sentiment daunts Rolf Hoffmann, the German who heads the glossy marketing campaign called GATE -- Guide to Academic Training and Education -- jointly sponsored by institutions of higher education and the German Academic Exchange Service and aimed at bolstering Germany's academic profile abroad.

 

"The German engineering education is still the best in the world, and the natural sciences aren't bad either," he says. "It's just the packaging that needs to be improved."

 

The program, which Mr. Hoffmann compares to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's "Cool Britannia" campaign, the marketing program that tries to recast that country's stuffy image, touts Germany as a land of academic opportunity. Slick Web sites and road shows at college fairs outside Germany are promoting interest in Germany, Mr. Hoffmann says. The number of foreign students is up 17 percent since GATE was started last year, with the strongest growth from countries the marketers have visited, from Argentina to Vietnam.

 

Money helps too, of course.

 

The renowned Alexander von Humboldt Foundation announced in May a 30-percent increase in stipends to support scientists, meant to help compete with research grants in the United States. The foundation also recently awarded a series of special science prizes, the most generous in German history at up to $2-million each.

 

While Germany's academic image abroad undergoes a polishing, the next steps are internal, says Mr. Hoffmann, such as the introduction of more widely recognized B.A. and M.A. degrees, and increasing the use of English in instruction and for dissertations.

 

Those who want to make Germany foreign-scholar friendly know they also have to streamline the country's infamous bureaucracy. Expatriate and visiting academics like to trade horror stories of repeated trips to unsympathetic residence-permit offices and battles over confusing paperwork.

 

Ronald Halterman, a visiting professor of chemistry from the University of Oklahoma at Berlin's Technical University, says he is not sure he would have come to Germany if he knew what the paperwork would be like. No one warned him what forms and documents he would need at various government offices, so he had to visit them multiple times. "The bureaucracy here at the university for getting my first paycheck was atrocious," he adds. "They were as bad if not worse than [the government]."

 

Sponsors of academic exchanges, after much lobbying, have gained legislative support for reforms that make it easier for foreign scholars, sweeping away old obstacles such as a ban on spouses' employment. Foreigners would also gain the right to work in Germany for as long as five years after finishing a degree. Particularly in fields such as computer science, in which

Germany has a shortage of skilled professionals, the government is interested in smoothing the way for graduates, including those from developing countries.

 

The reforms are part of a landmark package of immigration laws recognizing Germany's need for new blood. In the past,

Germany's laws took the stance that immigration was prohibited, but a series of exceptions made that a legal fiction. The bills have passed both houses of Parliament and been signed into law, but conservatives are threatening a court challenge.

 

Put on a Happy Face

 

Academic administrators are also using cash carrots to put a happier face on traditionally scowling bureaucrats. A coalition of scientific grant makers, including the Humboldt Foundation, has announced a $24,000 prize for the "friendliest public agency" dealing with foreigners.

 

"A foreigner is still perceived in some chambers of German bureaucracy as a menace," says Mr. Landfried, the president of the university association. "And there are many people who cannot distinguish between a person who comes to Germany to enrich the country ... and those persons coming to Germany to make their living by exploiting the social-security system." (At the end of 2000, 22.1 percent of the 2.69 million welfare recipients in Germany were foreigners, although they are only 9.7 percent of the country's population.)

 

As is so often the case in Germany, there's an east-west divide in terms of attitudes toward foreign scholars. The formerly

Communist east, although home to universities with illustrious histories, consistently loses the race to recruit talent. Of the 20

German institutions that play host to the highest number of visiting scientists, only one, the Humboldt University, in Berlin, is in the east.

 

The problems confronting universities in eastern Germany are revealed in Frankfurt on the Oder, a grim city of 75,000 on the

Polish border that is, incongruously, home to a bold experiment in international education. The Viadrina European University, founded in 1991, was conceived as an academic bridge between Germany and its European neighbors. Just across the river in the Polish town of Slubice is a sister campus, the Collegium Polonicum. Students and faculty cross back and forth on foot, flashing identity cards at indifferent border guards.

 

Hostility in the East

 

Administrators at the campuses express the hope that, with the eastward expansion of the European Union, the European

University will be at the center of an integrating continent, an international institution with as many ties to countries in Western Europe, such as France, as with Poland. But the young university has yet to make inroads in the West. Its enrollment of 4,000 consists of about 35 percent Poles and 60 percent Germans. Nearly half of the Germans come from the surrounding state of

Brandenburg.

 

Only 10 percent of the institution's faculty members are from outside Germany. Of those foreigners, many would rather endure a long commute from cosmopolitan Berlin than relocate to this remote outpost. Small wonder: Brandenburg, one of Germany's poorest states, is home to a small but violent subculture based on an ideology of racial purity. The European University has struggled since its founding with reports of harassment and attacks against foreign students.

 

Nora Mannaa dropped out of the university after a year. The daughter of a Libyan father and a German mother who grew up in West Berlin, the former law student says her dark hair and eyes made her a target of racists, and says she was tired of feeling afraid.

 

Five drunken skinheads once called her a "dirty foreign slut," she says. "It's a big problem that they're building a European university in a Nazi stronghold.

 

Waning Harassment

 

Administrators and others say that harassment of Polish students who cross into Germany, once a regular problem, is fading.

According to the student-council president, Robert Suligowski, a law student from Gdansk, xenophobic violence is no longer a major concern. "It's worse in Poland," he says. "Big cities there are dangerous."

 

Most observers expect suspicion of foreigners to continue to decline. But Dieter Martiny, who oversees the university's office for foreigners, says the atmosphere is still tense. "We can't house dark-skinned people in dormitories in certain problem areas," he admits, "In the city center, yes, but not in areas where a lot of drunken, aggressive people live."

 

At the University of Jena, in eastern Germany, a Chinese mathematician named Yang fondly recalls his work in Jena with a research group that he says worked at a very high level in an area of mathematics known as function spaces. But in January Yang, who asked not to be identified more specifically, was beaten bloody by three young men. He was not robbed and he exchanged no words with them because he speaks very little German.

 

Mr. Yang has canceled plans to return, noting that he might consider visiting a western German city instead. "Whenever I recall this thing, I still have some fear in my heart," he writes in an e-mail message. "This thing really badly hurt my spirit."

 

Another incident in January, involving a Russian scholar, is murkier: It took place outside a bar in the early-morning hours, and the three assailants, who were arrested, claim they were provoked. The cases are still being investigated, but "as it looks now, as unpleasant and ugly as they are, they were likely typical problems that could just as easily have happened to Americans, for example," asserts Axel Burchardt, a university spokesman.

 

Other scholars in Jena agree. "One has to be careful, because hooliganism is all over the world," says Ajit Varma, a biologist who is visiting from India's Jawaharlal Nehru University.

 

Some foreign visitors like Jena precisely because it is small and provincial. "I find the atmosphere at the university quite pleasant," says Alexander Nazarkin, a Russian researcher in the Institute for Optics and Quantum Electronics at the University of Jena. "I can work in peace -- That's the important thing."

 

Still, incidents like these don't go unnoticed abroad, says Mr. Landfried, the president of the university association. When

German recruiters travel outside the country, Africans tend to express the most concern about racist violence. But "in Asia, especially China, they don't care -- they know newspapers like scandals. You get the same kind of reaction from intellectual people in Europe and Latin America."

 

Germany needs to sell itself better, says Michael Gotthard, a molecular geneticist who returned in April from Washington State University to his native Germany to work at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin after receiving a major prize from the Humboldt Foundation.

 

Dr. Gotthard says even many young German scholars, who emigrate in large numbers, don't realize how much academic opportunity there is at home.

 

"I think a lot of problems arise because of a lack of communication," he says. "If people in Germany don't take care of representing themselves properly in the media and don't do public relations, people think the worst."

 

Copyright © 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education