by Jana Berg, Michael Grüttner, Stefanie Schröder
With the exception of a few master’s degree programs, the German higher education system is dominated by monolingual organizations. Therefore, language certificates are a key element of access to German higher education for international students. Trust in language certificates is critical, both for international student applicants and for university staff as well. However, in admission practice, there might be a tension between professional responsibilities and a lack of trust in the validity of standardised language certificates.
From 2017 to 2021, we conducted the study “Refugees’ pathways to German higher education institutions (WeGe)” on study preparations for refugee students in German higher education at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), which was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research under grant number 16PX16015. Our interview partners included staff of HE institutions as well as preparatory colleges that have to decide about admission to study preparation courses for international students. Those courses often include language instruction, but an at least intermediate level of German proficiency is usually mandatory for enrolment.
Our interview partners demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility. On the one hand, to fulfil their perceived role in the context of quality assurance by selecting capable and motivated students. And on the other hand, to prevent students from wasting their time with futile endeavours. This responsibility was embedded in their role, but also reflected in their perception of tasks and priorities. At the same time, we found notable insecurities regarding the quantitative evaluation of language skills. Standardised language certificates, even though formally recognized on an institutional level, were commonly perceived as no representation of actual language proficiency. Interview partners referred to their practical experience that language skills of applicants with the same language certification varied widely.
This insecurity between institutional quality conventions and formal access criteria raises problems for the perceived responsibility to ensure a maximum chance of success for students. We illustrate this with qualitative interview material from one case that emphasised the perceived lack of reliable documentation of skills by standardised language certificates. The interviewee strongly identified with the role of keeping up quality conventions. However, he perceived a strict formal protocol based on paperwork as insufficient, as his professional experience had shown that language certificates do not always match his expectations in an applicant’s language proficiency. He emphasised: “I don’t really care about documents, the skills have to back them up”. His strategy to deal with this lack of trust was his personal, informal language test: “Whenever it is possible, if the people are present, I do an assessment test. It is 100 tasks with 40 minutes, like a snapshot. It is supposed to show what people can access spontaneously”. Theoretically speaking, a tension arises between two quality conventions, a first concerned with an evaluation that takes into account the local circumstances and personal responsibility for the individual purpose of the international student applicants, and a second concerned with an evaluation that treats every international student applicant as equal and self-reliant (Imdorf & Leemann, 2023). As a compromise between these two quality conventions, university staff invent localised, self-designed short language tests to address this tension.
After high dropout numbers and bad experiences with a lack of language proficiency in the past, our case study participant reported that his now more selective and rigorous procedure had improved the course results of participants. However, it was still very much based on his individual perception of potential participants, as one exception he had made emphasises: “A prime example is a woman from Sudan, South Sudan, with two small children. […] she got up at four in the morning to study before the children were awake. […] And I don’t know why, I looked her in the eye, and she wanted to. And went through with it, mercilessly. So really, as a prime example. And is now studying electrical engineering.”
This case emphasises how professional insecurities can cause the development of professional strategies that devalue institutionalised procedures and increase the relevance of subjective impressions. However, it is not an issue only related to this case, even though this interviewee was especially explicit in addressing his insecurities and his coping strategies. Our findings imply that this divergence between perceived professional responsibilities and institutional conventions on the one side, and the quality and reliability of even internationally recognized certificates on the other side, is causing a lack of direction. This void is met with strategies of additional support, individual assessment criteria, and sometimes a stronger emphasis on personal perceptions of applicants. This has implications not only for HE professionals, but also for accessibility and equity in higher education. When practitioners perceive documents as unreliable and adapt their selection measures accordingly, application procedures become unreliable and less than transparent to applicants. However, all HE application procedures should transparently respond to one question: what counts?
On a practical level, we recommend addressing such insecurities with HE practitioners, by offering practical training and creating opportunities for exchange and supervisions. Additionally, a closer look at the perceived insufficiencies of language certificates could and should also be used to further develop standardised language tests, best in a dialogue between test providers, teaching professionals and course participants. Further research in the area of study preparation on conditions conducive to the acquisition of German language skills at the university level could also usefully contribute to improvement.
Dr Jana Berg is a postdoctoral researcher at the German Center for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW). She holds a Dr. in Sociology from the Leibniz University of Hanover. Her main research is on widening participation, the governance of HE internationalization, and climate science communication.
Dr Michael Grüttner received his Dr in sociology from Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany. He conducts research at the DZHW with a focus on social inclusion, migration, lifelong learning, and higher education.
Stefanie Schröder, MA, is the coordinator for continuing higher education at the Hochschulallianz Ruhr at Bochum University of Applied Sciences. Previously, she worked as a researcher at the DZHW. Her research focuses on educational inequalities, alternative access to higher education, and anti-discrimination data.