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German Education: A Hidden Gem?

CAIRO—For tourists traveling to Germany this summer, the country may be known for remaining fragments of the Berlin wall, nature reserves of the Black Forest or its hearty cuisine.

For prospective students, it is also becoming known for low cost, high-quality higher education.

“Germany has become one of the most popular destinations for students worldwide,” said Michael Harms, director of the German Science Center and the German Academic Exchange Service Cairo office (DAAD), which promotes international education. “Germany is high on the agenda, not only for some countries, but especially for the Middle East and that is particularly true for Egypt.”

The popularity stems partly from the quality and reputation of German education, Harms said. Moreover, education is largely free since the government, rather than students, pays for university education. “This of course makes it very attractive,” Harms said.

The number of Egyptian students interested in studying in Germany has grown over the years, he said. And following the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, the German government doubled funds available for academic collaboration with Egypt. In 2013, the DAAD Cairo office, which is the organization’s largest in the region, gave scholarships to 2,400 Egyptian students that mostly went toward covering costs of living in Germany.

“We like to open our campuses for the best brains from wherever,” Harms said, noting that most international students who study in Germany go for a master’s degree or a Ph.D. “It’s competition for good brains.” The collaboration also helps create long-lasting partnership between Germany and students who eventually return to their home countries, he said.

At a recent event in central Cairo that was organized by the German Science Center in collaboration with the DAAD, nearly 200 prospective students showed up, seeking to learn about getting a Ph.D. in Germany.

Reasons for interest varied. Ahmed Mahfouz Marzouk, 26, cited a combination of factors. As a teacher at, and graduate of, the German University in Cairo, he is familiar with the educational system. He has also traveled to Germany before, once for a language course. “Germany for a Ph.D. offers a very promising opportunity for me, where the science meets the industry,” he said. “This is the main reason I’m going for Germany and not any other country in Europe.”

Yet if selected for a Ph.D. program there, Marzouk doesn’t expect it will be easy. “There are many aspects where challenges lie—the language, blending in with the German community. It’s really harsh,” he said. The Germans welcome foreigners but “you have to work hard and be disciplined, which is not always the case of our people,” he said, referring to Egyptians.

Omar Mohammad Galal, 27, who seeks a Ph.D. in the application of solar energy in urban development, is looking at Europe in general. “You have better access to publications and updated information,” he said.

Interest extends across the Arab world. During the winter semester last year, about 1,000 Jordanian students studied in Germany, according to Andreas Wutz, director of the DAAD Information Center Amman. More Jordanians, however, need to better understand the German system so they know it is accessible. “We don’t have to tell people come to Germany because of the quality,” he said. “They know about the quality, but they think: We need the language, it’s so hard to get admission. There are these kind of preconceptions that we are trying to defuse.”

German Education

It is not broadly known in Jordan that higher education in Germany is basically free, he said. Moreover, some don’t know that German language isn’t required: Germany offers about 1,600 study programs in the English language. “There is a huge choice when it comes to studying in Germany nowadays,” Wutz said. “You can study from a bachelor to a Ph.D. completely in English. There is a huge variety.”

Germany is home to roughly 400 institutions of higher education, according to Wutz. One of them is Freie Universität Berlin, where 56 Egyptians, 47 Syrians and dozens of others from Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Morocco, Algeria and the Palestinian territories are currently taking a summer semester, said Gesa Heym-Halayqa of the university’s international office in Berlin.

Those who have attended from Egypt have shown strong interest in fields such as engineering, biology and chemistry, while interest in humanities and social sciences is on the rise, said Florian Kohstall, head of the university’s office in Cairo. He advises that students applying to the university scour its website to review and carefully choose a course of study. Those seeking a Ph.D. should establish a good relationship with their professor before going to Germany, he said, and students should be prepared for the nature of the German system, which expects students to find their own way without lots of handholding.

“We do a lot of things for students in terms of orientation,” Kohstall said, such as offering students a German language course. “But in general studies in Germany are relatively independent. It starts with looking for your own flat, etc., so being prepared a little bit for that is important,” he said.

Manar Omar, who conducted research in Germany over a decade ago and is now an assistant professor of contemporary German literature at Helwan University in Egypt, said students planning to study in Germany should be prepared for the journey. “It’s a very big shift, even if you know the language and the country,” she said. “If you move to another country to stay abroad for a period of time, you need to be open—open to changes in your life, in your character, open to ups and downs.”

She recommends that Egyptian students travel to Germany only if they have a specific purpose or goal. “You have to have a target,” she said. “You have to have a plan. Going to Germany itself is not a target. It’s about: What do you plan to do? What do you want to reach by going there?”


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