By Hannah Cross and Elena Stenzel

Due to heavy admission restrictions for German medical courses, thousands of German students study at eastern European universities each year. After completing their degree, these students don’t stay but choose to return to their home country instead. By doing so, they create a new phenomenon alongside brain drain: the higher education boomerang.


“It has been known for many years, that students interested in studying medicine go to eastern European countries such as Hungary to study,” says Sandra Sudmann of the Medical Faculty Dean’s Office at RWTH Aachen University.


This long-time trend Sudmann refers to is a consequence of the Numerus clausus, a strict admission restriction at German universities based on an average of final exam grades. Many German applicants that aren’t accepted have few options: they can wait years for a place, give up, or head east.


As originally outlined in the Treaty of Rome, the European Economic Community had four fundamental freedoms: the freedom of movement of goods, services, capital, and people.

Later amended into the European Union’s internal market, these freedoms remain at the forefront of basic EU rights. European Commission Spokeswoman for Education, Youth, Culture and Sport, Nathalie Vandystadt, confirms this:

It is very important for students and other young people to have the opportunity to go and study, train or volunteer abroad,” she says, “Mobility should, as far as possible, be in all directions.”


This is how students, Jessi Gilbert and Carl Ruckdeschel, who weren’t accepted into German universities, are able to study in Romania and Hungary, respectively.


“I didn’t get in in Germany,” says Ruckdeschel, “It was close everywhere that I applied, because my grades were good, but not good enough to get in.”


Gilbert knew from the beginning that she would not be accepted in Germany: “Studying in a foreign country comes with high tuition fees, so I had to be sure that medicine is what I wanted to do,” she says.


Studying at ‘Carol Davila’ University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest, Romania, 6.000 euro is what she must pay each semester in order to be educated there. Ruckdeschel has to pay 7.200 euro per semester in Budapest. If not for the Numerus clausus, Gilbert and Ruckdeschel could be studying in Germany for free.


This is why the German Court of Justice has opened negotiations this month about whether the Numerus clausus is legal or not. If successful, this could change the future of many prospective students who aspire to study medicine in Germany.


The solution seems so simple: why doesn’t Germany simply provide more places, if the demand is so high? German universities don’t respond to student demand, but rather labour demand, notes Sudmann.


“The capacities of German universities should adapt themselves according to the demand of the job market,” she says.


To counter this lack of supply, universities in countries such as Hungary offer medicine courses in German. This issue has also been acknowledged within the European Parliament.


Hungarian Member of the European Parliament (MEP), György Schöpflin, favors this trend:

“There is a gap in the market because Germany doesn’t train a sufficient number of doctors so other countries like Hungary, where the costs are lower, will step in to fill that market gap.”


According to Hungarian MEP György Schöpflin Hungary steps in to fill market gap in the medical sector in Germany.
Photo: Hannah Cross.

However, professional migration remains a large issue: “The ‘brain drain’ problem is a real one”, says Schöpflin, “The income a doctor or any professional will make in the United Kingdom will probably be three times what they make in Hungary.”


This is why professionals are migrating more and more to wealthier European countries where the pay is better, leaving their home countries with a deficit of well-educated professionals (“brain drain”). This is a problem mainly in the medical sector.


It seems paradoxical that countries suffering from “brain drain” attract more foreign students wanting to study these subjects, leading to a sort of reverse migration; an educational migration.


However, international students are not willing to stay: “Hospitals in Romania aren’t very well equipped compared to other European countries. I think you should do the clinical part of your medical course where you would like to work one day,” says Gilbert.


Ruckdeschel agrees: “I definitely want to return to Germany, you will always find a vacancy as a doctor there.”


The ongoing case in the German Court of Justice could potentially alter student migration patterns throughout Europe. If Numerus clausus restrictions are lowered, there may be less German students forced to consider alternatives. If not, the higher education boomerang will continue.

Cross-border Medical Students in the EU from Hannah Cross on Vimeo.