Academic aptitude as a neglected factor for foreign students

Back in 1895, Albert Einstein, a brilliant young man from southern Germany, sought admission as an international student to what would become ETH Zurich in Switzerland, but was initially rejected because he did not meet the necessary requirements – the formal qualification and sufficient French language skills.

Recognising the need to assess more than just formal qualifications, the “Eidgenössische Polytechnische Hochschule” in Zurich offered Einstein the opportunity to take an aptitude test. He excelled in the science section but failed the French exam, a crucial requirement in Zurich at the time.

Despite this setback, Einstein persevered. He passed his Matura with excellent grades (except in French) and was admitted to Zurich a year later. His journey as an international student proved immensely successful, leading to professorships in Prague and Berlin before he emigrated to the USA in 1933, where he became a professor at Princeton.

Aptitude as the best predictor of academic success

Empirical studies on the prediction of academic success have repeatedly shown that aptitude for a field of study is the best predictor (e.g. Schult et al., 2019). For example, those with a high aptitude for science are very likely to succeed in a science or engineering degree. However, if they lack aptitude, they are likely to quit. In some courses, prior knowledge is also important: someone with a good knowledge of mathematics is more likely to get through the first few semesters of a mechanical engineering course than someone with only rudimentary knowledge of mathematics. 

However, the aspect of academic aptitude (including prior knowledge) is hardly taken into account in analyses of the success of foreign students and plays virtually no role in the question of university admission. Admission to higher education is almost exclusively based on formal qualifications and language skills; subject-related aptitude is often not even recorded. In 1895, the Polytechnic of Zurich was more progressive than many universities today, offering an entrance examination for applicants like Einstein.

Formal qualifications play a key role in university admission

Today, foreign applicants wishing to study in Germany face similar difficulties to those Albert Einstein faced in Zurich. Universities require a higher education entrance qualification that is recognised as equivalent to the German Abitur according to the criteria of the Central Office for Foreign Education (Zentralstelle für ausländisches Bildungswesen, ZAB). High levels of German language skills are also required at the start of the programme. Those who do not meet the ZAB criteria must first attend a preparatory college or study for a year (sometimes two) in their home country before gaining the formal qualification to study at a German university. It is obvious that by insisting on formal qualifications and a high level of language skills, as well as complicated examination and admission processes, a country is losing out on foreign talent. Who knows, perhaps Germany has already lost some extremely talented people because they did not meet the formal qualifications and therefore went to another country.

Which formal qualifications are recognised and which are not?

As the school qualifications and final exams differ in each country, and not all are of the same standard, it is not possible to say in general terms which countries’ qualifications give direct access to higher education. This complicates matters for universities and prospective students. Although there are some non-EU countries whose qualifications are generally accepted (e.g. USA, Canada, Australia, South Korea, Brazil or Nigeria), qualifications from several countries are not, including Ukraine, Vietnam, Iraq and Syria. The situation is even more complicated for qualification from countries like Thailand, Singapore or India –  here it has to be checked on a case-by-case basis whether the final exam fulfils the ZAB criteria or not. This is particularly problematic because, on the one hand, potentially successful students (e.g. refugees living in Germany) lose at least a year by attending preparatory colleges before they are allowed to study and, on the other hand, Germany is at a disadvantage in the competition for good students (e.g. from Vietnam).

How can universities take academic aptitude more into account?

If aptitude is to be taken into account in admissions, two things are needed: firstly, a reliable and objective measure of aptitude and, secondly, legally secure and uncomplicated procedures for taking the results of the measure into account in admissions.

A reliable and objective assessment of aptitude is possible with tests such as TestAS (Test for Academic Studies, a test designed and normed specifically for international students who want to study in Germany). TestAS has several specialised modules and can be taken worldwide in German and English. In addition to TestAS, there are other aptitude tests that measure subject-specific aptitude. These tests generally give standard scores (70-130 with a mean score of 100) and percentile ranks or percentiles (0-100; e.g. 80 means that a participant was better than 80 per cent of the norm group). These scores are based on a norm group, i.e. test takers with an accepted final exam who are interested in and applying for the field of study. Albert Einstein would probably have achieved a standard score of 130 and a percentile rank of 100 in the science module of TestAS or in our admission test ITB-Technology. But even with a standard score of 110 or a percentile rank of 85, the talent is so considerable that success at university is highly likely, even if there is room for improvement in language skills and there may be gaps in school knowledge.

The legislatures of several federal states of Germany have explicitly included direct access to higher education for applicants with non-equivalent foreign formal qualifications in their laws, e.g. North Rhine-Westphalia and Hesse, as well as Bremen, Saxony-Anhalt, Saarland and Thuringia. For example, the Higher Education Act for North Rhine-Westphalia (HG § 49) states that those who pass the entrance examination of a higher education institution have access to higher education. The purpose of the entrance examination is to determine whether the applicant has the subject-specific aptitude and methodological skills required for studying in a certain field of study or for the study of certain subject-specific courses of study. Universities may use the assistance of third parties for the purpose of the entrance examination.

The solution, therefore, is to define specific aptitude tests, developed according to scientific criteria, which foreign prospective students can use to gain direct access. Ideally, these tests can already be taken in the home country in test centres or because the tests are also available as online tests with video monitoring. Additionally, passing thresholds must be set to ensure a high level of study aptitude, e.g. a percentile rank of at least 60 or 70.

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