Challenges As An International Student In Germany

A Schengen Visa entitles you to travel to 26 countries and 3 other European countries with an Indian passport. The prospects of visiting different countries and reliving the romantic scenes in Bollywood movies is the brighter side of the tale of being an international student in Europe. However, prospective students should be prepared for the challenges lying ahead and yes, it’s not just the language barrier.

Enrollment of Indian students in different foreign universities in 2017

Every year almost 550,000 Indian students migrate to study in a foreign university. A majority of the students pursue postgraduation in the STEM fields. While 60% of the students migrate to the USA and Canada for higher studies, less than 15% of the Indian students migrate to Europe for education. If I put it in another way, almost 60,000 Indian students migrate to Europe every year. Almost 22,000 Indian students enroll in the predominantly English speaking European countries: The UK and Ireland.

Recently, Germany and France have emerged as popular destinations for Indian students due to the low cost of education. In fact, India is the largest beneficiary of the European Union’s Erasmus+ program for higher education scholarships and university cooperation.

Currently, in 2018, there are over 14,000 Indian students in Germany while 4,500 students in France.

Source: Economic Times

Nevertheless, I am done with my first semester at RWTH Aachen and here is my take on the challenges which the Indian students faced while studying.

1.Exam Pattern

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

Unlike the British, Irish and Indian universities, there are no mid-term examinations or continuous evaluations through assignments during the semester. In my Medical Statistics course, scoring 50% in all the assignments were mandatory to be eligible for the final exam, but the marks didn’t count towards your final grade. So, your final grade depends on your performance in one exam only. You have 3 chances to clear an exam. If you are not confident with the exam preparation, you can deregister from an exam 3 days prior to the exam and that way, it would not be counted as a failed attempt.

Further, not all exams are written. Some exams are ‘oral’. In India, there used to be ‘viva-voce ‘ in practicals that accounted for 10% or 20% of the overall scores. In Germany (and Belgian universities), viva-voce accounts for 100% of the marks. The ‘Fluid Mechanics’ exam at RWTH Aachen in my first semester was viva-voce and saw a merely 60% success rate.

German exams don’t focus on ‘rote-learning’. This is the best part of German university examinations.

However, I liked the question pattern in the written engineering exams. The written exams are usually 1-1.5 hours long. A long derivation is hardly ever asked. The questions are application-based and conceptual and you don’t have to be verbose in your exam paper. This came as a surprise to me because I was used to the 3-hour exam pattern at IIT. Further, several questions demanded lengthy answers or you have to solve numericals which take up pages. Quite often, you may need to even derive an equation or prove a theorem.

2. The Reverse Grading System

The Grading System In German Universities during your MS in Germany
Grading system in Germany. Germany doesn’t use A, A-, B or any other such letters or grading. While this is not a real challenge, the transition from relative scale to absolute scale is a challenge.

The grading at the Indian Institute of Technologies is on a relative scale. Several other Indian universities also have relative grading. That means, you get a score of 68/100 in ‘Production Engineering’ and still end up with an A grade on your transcript. The grades are assigned based on the Gaussian distribution or the typical ‘Bell Curve’. But in German universities, the grading is based on an absolute scale.

While the US, Indian or British grading system starts from the lower grade and ends up at the highest, the German grading system is reverse of that. The highest grade is 1.0 while the lowest grade is 4.0, with 5.0 meaning fail.

3.Graduation Time

Delayed Graduation Time is the downside of the MS in Germany
A German student protests against the Bologna reforms in Mainz in 2010. Photo: The Local

“I graduated with an MS in Biomedical Engineering in 3.5 years. I failed in ‘Polymer Chemistry’ in my first semester which happens to be the prerequisite for the ‘Biomaterials’ course in the second semester. The ‘Biomaterials’ course was the pre-requisite for ‘Artificial Organs’ course in the third semester. Further, without finishing all the courses, I couldn’t even start my Master’s thesis and the internship. So, that delayed my overall graduation time.”

Thomas Schmidt , graduate student at RWTH Aachen, Germany

It’s not just at RWTH Aachen. The stories of delayed graduation time are persistent across all universities of Germany. While the Bachelor’s degree in engineering at Indian universities happen to be 4 years, in Germany it is 3 years officially. However, students take 4 years to graduate on an average.

RWTH Aachen is one of the largest universities in Germany with over 42,000 students. The very high number of students can partly be attributed to the delayed graduation time. Since RWTH Aachen doesn’t charge tuition fees, the average funding per student decreases significantly when more students fail to graduate in time.

Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior are the words you hear in the American or Indian universities only. This doesn’t apply to the German universities. Students identify themselves by the semesters they are in.

Before 2010, the average age of graduates used to be 28 years which can be a frightening figure for an international student. In NRW, an undergraduate student took 8.64 semesters or just over four years to graduate.

According to the 2014 statistics, the average age of students at the point of obtaining a Master’s degree in Germany is 29 years. Most of the Indian Master students in Germany usually take around 3 years to graduate, with 2.5 years being the most likely case.

4. Housing Crisis

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The housing crisis is real in Germany, especially in larger cities like Munich and Berlin. Even finding a house in Aachen was not easy for me. I found a house at a place 10 km far from Uniklinik where I mostly attend classes. Thanks to the semester ticket and the public transport which are there around the corner and makes life easier. The city buses in Aachen are punctual and the buses are a German engineering masterpiece.

This is in contrast to India or the USA where students get on-campus accommodation. In IIT, hostels were free. Even the local students who don’t stay in hostels get their own room. Comparing this situation to Germany, Rajputana Hostel in IIT (BHU) with its sprawling lawns feels like a luxury.

If you are planning to start your study in Germany, make sure to register on Studierendenwerk website at least 7-8 months before the start of the semester. I would recommend you to apply before even submitting your application at the German university.

5. Student Jobs During Study

Most international students usually take up Research Assistant jobs (Hilfsenwissenschaftler) in universities or technical jobs in companies during the study. If your university is located in a small city, finding a job can be hard. A smaller city like Aachen has relatively lower work opportunities than Munich or Stuttgart. If you are in mechanical engineering, you may face a hard time without German language proficiency. A German proficiency of B1 is recommended because most of the machines in the lab or industry have German as their default language. In computer science and biomedical engineering, I don’t think there is a huge demand for German language skills. Thankfully, I managed to find two student jobs as research assistants without German language skills. But I am learning the language.

Beyond the two jobs I mentioned, finding non-technical jobs like working in a grocery store or typing jobs are very hard to get. There is stiff competition with the locals and usually, the employers demand significant German language proficiency.

6. Dressing Sense

If you like long beards, do care to maintain it properly lest you are mistaken as a homeless guy.

While you can typically walk into the classroom in sandals in IIT or most Indian universities, I haven’t seen anyone dressing up casually to the classrooms. People don’t even dress casually to the grocery store. While you can find people wearing colorful clothes in India in public, I hardly find that in Europe. European fashions are most easily recognized by their clean, simple lines. In Europe, people dress in neutral monochromes with the color palettes limited to black, brown, grey, brown, white with bold, bright highlights.

This picture says it all.

While Indian and American nerds can be found wearing clothes that are often comically large, Europeans wear clothes that fit their body, even the nerd. So, being an Indian student in Europe, you need to be conscious of your appearance in public. People do judge you by your style and fashion sense.

7. Market Timings

Photo by frankie cordoba on Unsplash

It may be bright and sunny outside but the supermarkets can be closed on a regular working day in Germany. Lidl, Netto or Edeka-all the supermarkets close by 8 PM. This is a stark contrast to that in India, where I often go out to do shopping after 9 PM so that I find less crowd in the market. Saturdays and Sundays are non-working days and that doesn’t just apply to government offices.

Long holidays like Christmas can be dreadful for an international student. Student cities like Aachen turn into ‘Ghost Town’ in the long holidays. Several shops can remain closed for weeks. So, as an international student one has to stock enough food resources for at least a week.

8. DIY Culture

Part time student jobs during MS in Germany
Photo by Eugen Str on Unsplash

As a student hiring laborers to help you shift your house can cost you arms and legs. So, either you have to rely on your friends or do it on your own. No wonder IKEA has a huge market in the West as compared to the East.

A word of advice for Indian friends, learn some European cuisines beyond pasta and the Indian cuisine. It opens up new menus for your taste buds.

9. Slow Service

Laptop repair can take ages in Germany

Service is extremely slow in Germany. I found it cheaper and faster to get my eyewear imported from India than get it done in Germany. I visited 6 optical stores in Aachen and none of them assured me to deliver the spectacles in less than a week. I could have even imported my eyewear from 39DollarGlasses from the USA at less than half of the price quoted by the German opticals.

Germany hardly has a repair culture. People discard old items and buy new ones as servicing and repairing costs are very high. In order to replace my laptop fan, I was asked by the laptop repair center to pay €75 and come after one week. I ended up repairing myself as the entire process takes less than 30 minutes. In India, it would have cost me around €15 to get a new fan and get it fixed by the repair center, that too on the same day.

10. Loneliness

According to a survey by ARD-Deutschlandtrend , 68% Germans feel that loneliness is a big problem.

“Loneliness is something I learnt to deal with here. You’ll have to be really fortunate to get a good gang to hang out with. Back in India, it was easy to find friends of matching wavelength from a large pack with whom a cup of chai would be all you need, a ‘Bhai’ for all your needs. Here, since the sample size of Indians is small, you must be really fortunate to find such a ‘Bhai’. International friends are fun to hang out with, but it’s not the same. I am still hopeful to share a ‘Bhaigiri – type’ bond with one of them someday.”

Shaukath Ali, an Indian student in Germany

The sight of old women walking alone on the pavement with their dogs is enough to understand how lonely people are in Germany. There have been several reports about the isolation crisis among German seniors. In fact, in a recent article published in a German tabloid, two-thirds of the Germans feel that the country has a major loneliness problem.

Personally, I didn’t have any issue making friends with Germans. I have some really amazing classmates who have helped me time and again, especially being patient when I was using a pipet for the first time.
One of my German friends even took me out for a ‘booze’ on Karneval. However, in general, my Indian friends in Aachen, Stuttgart, and Munich have complained that they could be friends only with other international students.

P.S.: Don’t judge me, canine companionship is a psychological treatment to cure loneliness.

Tip: Indian students complaining about not making German friends often fail to endeavor to make friends. No one is going to approach you if you decide to stay in a pack of Indians.

11. Fancy Events and Extra-Curriculars

Lonely Guy During MS in Germany
Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash

American and British universities charge a hefty sum for services which are not quite required. It would have cost me $70,000 per year to attend Northwestern University and $52,000 to attend Imperial College London. They market university merchandise pretty well. There are luxury gyms which are free for all students. Basically, you have already paid for the gym sub-consciously while paying the tuition fees, even if you don’t avail the services. A freshman orientation week is a grand event. There are various clubs and societies (like Phi Kappa Sigma) for extra-curricular activities and for like-minded college students.

Even similar clubs exist in Indian universities and the Inter-IIT Cultural Fest, Tech Fest or Sports Fest are an integral part of student life.

German universities are less fancy and they don’t quite market themselves. There is almost every kind of facilities available for an enthusiastic person, but no one is going to spoon-feed you. That’s one of the major reasons why German universities don’t charge tuition fees (except in Badem-Wuttemburg) for international students. Even the TEDx events are less glamorous than the Indian universities with people from academia filling up the spots for keynote speakers.

Although there are no prominent student career clubs, business clubs or extra-curricular clubs, RWTH Career Centre organizes several events throughout the year on internships and interview etiquettes. There is a student society called ‘Bonding‘ which organizes the career fairs and excursions. The RWTH Gym is not a luxury gym like that of the US universities, it has decently enough infrastructure to keep you fit. Unlike the British universities with a huge army of non-teaching support staffs, German universities lack the officials to pamper you. But there are enough staff to meet your requirements.

I miss KashiYatra, the Cultural fest of IIT (BHU) or Technex, the techno-management fest of my previous alma mater. College fests in India are vibrant and in IITs it’s like a ‘Carnival.’

12. Student Voice

Photo by Prince Abid on Unsplash

Students don’t have much of a say in every day working of German universities. There are student representatives from each class but almost all the decisions rely on the administrative board. However, student feedback on the professor and curriculum is taken into account but the action taken is unreliable.

In IITs, there are student parliaments and the representatives are elected by the students through voting. Students take direct responsibility for the food catered in the mess, the hygiene in hostels, safety and security of the campus, the library maintenance and even the student decisions impact the course curriculum and exam regulations.

13. Teaching

MS in Germany and Teaching in German Universities
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The lectures are usually held once a week. The classes are of 90 minutes duration. In the US, UK and India, there are usually 2 or 3 lectures in a week. Teachers spend a lot of time explaining things right from the basics. As a student, one has to toil a lot in Germany.

You can drop by your lecturer’s room during their office hours for clarification of concepts. However, in Germany, you need to make appointments with the Ph.D. students for clarification of concepts. If they fail to clear your doubts, you may then contact the professor.

14. Course Structure

The number of courses one needs to take to graduate (Master’s) is almost 1.5 times than that in the US and almost 3 times than that in the UK. German universities offer a great depth of course. While you are expected to take 4 courses per semester in the US, in Germany you have to take at least 6 courses per semester.

I find that the UK universities have a very facile curriculum and often lack a depth of the course. A Master’s degree (taught) in the UK is typically a 1-Year duration.

Conclusion

My rating of MS in Germany experience
Rating of German Universities based on a small survey I conducted.

“The expenses are less compared to other study destinations and the semester ticket offers you the possibility to travel without any other extra cost to all over the North-Rhine Westfalia (NRW) with the regional trains and buses. There are 6 airports in NRW and because of the free transportation throughout the state, it’s easy to plan short vacations to neighboring countries. Further, my course has a significant industrial collaborations.”

Siddharth, M.Sc. RoboSys, RWTH Aachen

Siddharth is quite true when he talks about the perks of being a student in Germany. I have been able to accomplish around 80% things which I expected out of a foreign university. I faced difficulties while attending some career guidance seminars as they were in German. The lectures can be improved if the professors become more interactive. Many professors explain concepts only if you ask or interrupt. Otherwise, they assume that you already know them beforehand. Further, I expected to be a part of the business club or such similar clubs at RWTH which I can’t accomplish.

Nevertheless, the research assistant job I secured has given me a great deal of exposure in ‘Tissue Engineering’. People care about your interests and assign you tasks that you like. They don’t impose things. The research at German universities, especially the TU9 universities can be counted among the bests in the world. When you take into account the depth of courses, German universities would oust their American or other European counterparts on any day.

SurajPanigrahi

Suraj is the founder of this EdTech website which publishes content regarding career, higher education, and student finance. After graduating in Mechanical Engineering from IIT (BHU) Varanasi, he is currently pursuing MS in Biomedical Engineering at RWTH Aachen.
SurajPanigrahi

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