Expat Blog Interview: Ned, From London To Leipzig


This month we speak to Ned, who hails from London with Irish and German parents.

As part of an ongoing monthly series where we do a regular expat blog interview, this month we explore some of the difficulties faced by foreigners when they come to Germany to study, as well as some of the many advantages of Germany as a destination for university education. Spoiler alert, the dreaded bureaucracy gets mentioned quite often!

Ned O'Hara Expat Blog InterviewNed made the move from London to Germany to go and study in Leipzig.

He is an amateur lifestyle filmmaker (his videos are way better than ours!), who has documented some of the changes in lifestyle he experienced in moving to Germany. (Check out “Transition: a short film about moving to Germany”)

He also works in an international coworking space in Leipzig. So, if you’re in the area or a freelancer living in Leipzig, drop by and show your face!


First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Sure, I’m twenty years old, I’m from London. I basically just finished my A levels and I thought, uni in the UK… you know…£9k a year even before all your living costs, and I knew that was ridiculously expensive. I couldn’t really fathom it. In total, I think it’s about £56,000 in total that it will put you in debt. It just felt like a tax on living, on everything I would earn in the future. This felt unfair, unjust, however you want to put it.


This lead me to other alternatives. I’m half German, half Irish, so my mom knew there were cheaper ways to study abroad. Here in Leipzig it’s…I think €216 a semester. That was the main reason for being here, but there were other reasons. I was tired of things being so expensive in London. I used to come here to Germany and I knew things were cheaper here. Which is important when you’re a student!


Yeah, that’s very important! So you mentioned the cost of uni in the UK, and having strong connections to Germany through your family. Could you already speak German when you moved out here?

I could speak German, yeah. I was fluent before I came here. Well, perhaps not fluent, but I’d spoken the language since I was young. My mom spoke it at me, and I used to speak English back, but I think it sort of saved itself subconsciously. And that wakened itself when I came here. But there was definitely a struggle in learning the language to a point where I was so fluent that people wouldn’t know I was from another country. Which it has gotten to now, luckily.


Wow, that’s good. Everyone can still tell that I’m foreign, but I get asked if I’m Dutch quite often. I guess that’s a compliment though considering how good at languages they are!

But yeah, I think one of the things that, if you read Twitter, or read the expat website forums, as far as I can see, the biggest challenge for most people is the language. All the things that spring from that: dealing with bureaucracy and how things tick in the workplace, or even more social aspects like dating. All those frustrations seem for the most part to stem from not being fluent in the language.

So, when you first got here, other than things being cheaper than in London, what was pretty much as you expected it to be, and was there anything that took you by surprise, even though you were familiar with the city through family connections?

I had a lot of things that I thought Germany was going to be. Not all of which were particularly true. I thought that the people were more open, which isn’t always the case, although I have met people who are extremely open. But generally, I think Germans are not as open (edit: as the British). And I thought oh, it will be easy registering at a university…


I didn’t really know that German bureaucracy was such a thing. To my distaste it was pretty bluntly shoved in my face. And that wasn’t very nice. I tried to get my English A-levels translated over to the German equivalent grade, and it was a nightmare. To be honest after a year and a half I still haven’t gotten through that bureaucracy. I ended up studying a physics international course, which is taught in English, Physics IPSP for anyone who’s interested. People come from all over the world to study it, but it’s extremely difficult. That’s the reason why I’m changing over to Digital Humanities, and luckily half of that’s in English.


But be warned. The bureaucracy is ridiculous. It’s almost impossible. Be prepared to have all of your documents translated to German. Even though the uni doesn’t require it in German, the German government offices will require your documents in German, and they’re the ones who authenticate the documents. You have to go through quite a long process to do that.


OK, so it’s not so much the government bureaucracy, although that definitely can be a challenge to expats. But the university bureaucracy was very rigid in what they demand from you.

So on the one hand studying is effectively free, or costs a few hundred euro a semester. But then on the other hand, the hoops you have to jump through to get to that point in terms of having your school qualifications recognised, are hurdles which are so high that for someone who doesn’t speak the language, that might be a hurdle too far?

Yeah, I’d definitely say that for the academic community. But outside of that, I found the Government tried to help as much as possible. I mean, we’ve had the refugee crisis and it seems the (bureaucratic) infrastructure here is buckling. It’s difficult for students here, because people know that Germany is cheap and it’s quite sought after.


Definitely. Not just people coming from the UK or Europe, but now people coming from the US and other places. The more courses that are taught in English, the increasing popularity Germany will inevitably have as a destination to study.

But even considering all the bureaucracy to get to the starting line, even if you employed a lawyer or someone to sort out all that administration, it’s still so much cheaper than university in the UK or the US.

It’s interesting to hear you say that even somewhere like Leipzig, which doesn’t have a particularly high immigrant population, you say that the government is struggling to cope with the refugee and migrant influx over the last few years. Where I live it’s much more international, but it surprised me that those issues are coming to the fore in eastern Germany as well.

Definitely. I vividly remember going to the city hall here and getting a ticket, a waiting queue ticket like you get in most government offices. I was number one hundred and twenty seven in the queue, and should come back in five hours!


Okay, so moving on from that… You’ve been here just under two years now. Reflecting on that, what would you say were the things that you appreciate most.

I would say ‘purchasing power’ by which I basically mean the value you get for your money, in the way you can live, and the quality of what you receive, is great. You’ll have a pretty good diet even if you’re on minimum wage here. You can make things make things work, have a nice lifestyle, have a place to stay. You’ll be fine, is what I’m trying to say.


Secondly, there’s so much on offer, especially in summer. Especially here in Leipzig, you get little open air forest meet-ups or raves if you want to call them that. They’re very organised, often. You get a lot of people getting together and listening to music and you can just have a great time because the community organise things themselves. It’s a quite a DIY sort of scene. If you’re looking for a change and a way out of the rat race I found myself running into in London, then that’s great.


And thirdly, beer is very cheap, haha.


Cost of living, especially in eastern German cities, and especially for a student. It’s like night and day compared to London, that’s for sure. I would definitely agree with that. So now that you’ve done the move and you’re settled here, what advice would you give for anyone, especially someone your age, if they were considering the move?

Use the time effectively. Prepare….everything. You need copies of absolutely everything. Make sure that you’re doing a foreign language as part of your school leaving exam. Study a language alongside some other subjects, to have the process go smoothly.


You mean to ensure that your qualifications are viewed as being equivalent to a German Abitur? (Note from James: The German school leaving certificate for students entering university, known as the Abitur, has at least one foreign language as a compulsory part of the curriculum).

Yeah, that’s right.


Get your documents together, know what you have to get together. There are a lot of resources online, know which resources to use – I would recommend WG Gesucht to find a room or somewhere to stay. And ask people in Germany how they can best help you. Find someone here, maybe a pen pal in the city you’re looking to go to. They will help you get through all that, as they should know how difficult it is.


Especially for someone looking to go and study, they are really useful tips.

Moving on, I’m curious what you think, having experience in the co-working space, how Germany will cope going forward? From my perspective, as a Brit who has worked as an employee in a German workplace, I found it to be quite old-school here compared to the UK.

This is a huge topic. You could do a whole other interview on it, I feel (laugh).


I had a conversation with my co-worker at lunch about this. It’s not an easy answer. I do also believe the systems are old-fashioned and are actually a hindrance. But at the same time, Germany is huge, it’s gaining a lot of traction in the international digital nomad sphere because it has so much to offer. Studying opportunities, great value for living, you’re on the European continent, you can just take a €5 Flixbus to Prague from here and only spend a couple of hours getting there. There’s just great value.


But at the same time this…institutionalism makes it difficult. As a co-working space, I feel Germany has a lot of room, a lot of potential for co-working. This small working ecosystem can work here. And we’re trying to see if that can work in other places in Germany. It’s working in Berlin, but we’re trying to see if this sort of thing would work in the more conservative cities in Germany. I wouldn’t say that I have any concrete opinions about the sharing economy, because it’s such a grey zone…it’s big and complicated.


It’s still very much in its early phases, I don’t think anyone can answer that concretely. But it was interesting to hear your thoughts – especially someone in a generation younger than me, who regularly comes into contact with students, freelancers and digital nomads. It’s great to get your insight on that.


Thank you, Ned, for being our expat blog interview of the month and good luck with your studies!

So, over to you? Have you considered studying in Germany and were you aware of some of the things you need to consider before taking the jump? Or maybe you’re studying here and have had different experiences to Ned. Let us know…

And if anyone would like to be interviewed to share their experience of studying in Germany as a comparison to Ned’s experience, please send us an email and we would love to hear from you. You could be our next expat blog interview of the month!