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Unpopular tuition fees could soon be history

Hannah Cleaver · 24 Aug 2011, 07:00

Published: 24 Aug 2011 07:00 GMT+02:00

Although the sums charged may seem risible for someone who has left a British or American university tens of thousands of pounds or dollars in debt, the subject of tuition still raises passions in Germany.

Fees are limited to a maximum of €500 a semester, but the principle of higher education being available for free to all is still firmly anchored in the German psyche, according to Jenny Richter, from Hohenheim University’s marketing department.

A project there has tracked the acceptance levels among students for tuition fees across the country since they were made possible in 2007.

The information shows that 15 percent of those surveyed supported fees before they were introduced. Today that figure is 19.2 percent. But the share of students who opposed tuition fees has also risen over the last five years, from 60 percent to 64 percent.

The difference is that the number of students who were undecided on the matter has shrunk – showing the issue polarises students, said Richter.

Universities have handled the matter badly, she suggested. “They did not know how to use the money appropriately and did not inform their students adequately,” she said.

State governments, responsible for education matters in Germany, make the decision whether to charge students tuition fees and in some cases set the rates. The promise had been that university budgets would not be reduced when student fees were introduced.

“The problem was that the universities did not ask the students what they should do with the money," said Richter. “But we saw a lot of spending on libraries, opening them for longer or increasing stock – and that was not as important for the students as more teachers or better infrastructure."

Richter said students felt they were paying €500 a semester that they had not had to pay before, but were not seeing anything get better for the money. "This left them dissatisfied and led to protests,” she said.

She said that at least in Germany’s private universities the students could clearly see what they were getting for their money – with fees more comparable to British or American levels. State-funded universities often have hundreds of students attending lectures, while private universities have enough teaching staff – and few enough students – to have classes of around 50.

“The fear was that student tuition fees were also being used to fill budgetary holes and cover heating bills for example,” she said.

“Then there was also the case of one university which did not spend its student fee money at all.”

Phasing out fees

Since then many of the seven states where fees were charged have experienced changes in government, with incoming politicians promising to abolish the tuition fees.

Hesse and Saarland stopped shortly after introducing the fees, while North-Rhine Westphalia is due to follow them this winter. Baden-Württemberg’s new Green-led coalition will stop them as of next year, as is Hamburg.

That leaves only Bavaria and Lower Saxony still set on tuition fees.

These last two states provide interesting results on student attitudes to the fees, said Richter.

“This year we saw the greatest acceptance of fees where they are still being charged but will be abolished. In Lower Saxony 10 percent of students are in favour of the fees while in North-Rhine Westphalia the figure is 25 percent," she said.

“I think that is because although at first fees were introduced and the money not used properly, this has changed. Students are getting more information about where their money is being spent and they see an improvement in conditions. They then fear that if the fees are abolished, conditions will worsen.”

That concern is expressed by just over 40 percent of students in North-Rhine Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg, where abolition of fees is imminent.

Whether those fears turn out to be justified will depend on how much money the states concerned are able or willing to add to the universities’ budgets to compensate for the lack of income from fees.

But even though some universities may well see fewer teachers as a result, Richter said she could not imagine conditions getting bad enough to persuade students that tuition fees should be reintroduced.

Student opposition

One of those adamant students is Nadine Berger, a Hamburg resident who belongs to a group against fees.

Story continues below…

She told The Local the principle of free further education was crucial and a part of investment in people. She said an educated population benefited all and that it was important to keep education free so that those from unprivileged backgrounds could take part.

Berger also rejected the idea that universities needed the money from student tuition fees, particularly in the light of shrinking state budgets.

“There is enough money there," she said. “You can compensate the loss of student fees from the state budgets, it is a question of setting priorities.”

Yet Professor Hermann-Josef Buchkremer, director of the freshman institute and former rector of Aachen University of Applied Science, said it was a "big mistake" that the universities in Germany did not charge fees.

“The universities have no money,” he said.

He said because German universities do not charge fees, they cannot invest in education conferences abroad, which isolates them and limits them to the domestic national norms as far as educational methods go.

“The universities cannot invest because they don’t get any money (from fees) that they could invest abroad,” Buchkremer said. “The passion to control is greater than the passion for innovation.”

German student fees never came close to the giddy heights of Anglo-American tuition costs, perhaps making it easier for the country's universities to survive without them. Of course, now that the political will to impose them has all but disappeared, they will have little choice.

Hannah Cleaver (hannah.cleaver@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

08:25 August 24, 2011 by rajkshan
I feel all the Uni should charge fees for the foreign students. It is really absurd that students come from abroad, study and leave for their country. WHY? The Unis can spend the money in a better way for the students here.
09:41 August 24, 2011 by frankiep
I strongly suggest that Germany nip this in the bud right away. If they don't then it won't be very long until Germany will find itself in the same position as the US where you have basically 3 "choices":

1. Come from a wealthy family which can afford to pay the outrageous tuition charged at even the "affordable" state schools.

2. Taking out loans to pay the tuition which inevitably leave students financially crippled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt before they even start working. Is it any wonder why so many American university students choose to study finance or law, hoping to turn it into a job where they can make a quick buck, rather than go into fields like engineering or science which are normally not as immediately lucrative.

3. Don't go to school at all and prepare for a likely career as a cashier, flipping burgers, cleaning, or something similar.

The way I see it, Germany's strength is in exporting high quality products. IMO, they can do this because of having very skilled engineers, scientists, etc. As soon as you see students having to spend tens of thousands of Euros on a degree (and it looks like thats where some people want this to go) those same bright students who might have been good engineers will likely decide that earning more money quicker as a banker is more desirable. What great, high quality products would Germany be able to export if this happens?
10:06 August 24, 2011 by taiwanluthiers
First of all, Germany allows foreign students one year to search for a job in Germany without going through the absurd step of having the company prove that no one in the EU can do this job, which means that once the student finds work, they will have to pay tax which goes right back to paying for the actual education.

In fact foreign students should be placed into work in their field of study and be required to work there for at least 5 years, as a condition for the free education.

Whereas in the US or other English speaking countries, foreign students are not allowed to stay and look for work after they finish, they must demonstrate to the immigration official that they will return to their home country after they finish their study. One US State politician I know says that the US does this as a favor for other countries by requiring them to return after finishing their studies, so that they may affect change in their home country and bring about growth, etc.

Fact is only wealthy families can afford to go to school abroad anyways, because you often have to prove to immigration officials that you have tens of thousands of euros on hand before you can even qualify for a student visa.
10:26 August 24, 2011 by johnny108
America has already fallen into the "education for a profit" trap....

Germany will follow?
10:30 August 24, 2011 by freechoice
Germany should maintain it's free tuition policy to attract foreigners to come to study and work here. There is a massive skillful labour shortage in Germany, one way to fix this is to provide free education to anyone who wants to study and work here. And later pay taxes!!
11:28 August 24, 2011 by dacarch
I have to say, that I was thankful as a student to have the option not to pay for a masters degree, which would have cost me tens of thousands of dollars in the US. I finished my masters here in Germany and tried to find work but had no luck at the time, nor did I speak the language. After a year of not working in my field, I decided to go back to the US. This was back in 2003-2004.

At the end of 2009 I found myself unemployed because of the financial crisis and decided (with my german wife I met during my initial stay), to move (back) to Germany. I am now fully employed in my field and paying taxes like everyone else.

Here comes the point, out of a group of about 12 students that came with me to do the masters, I am the only one back. Even if in my case it changed my life for the better and I am grateful about it, as far as I know the other foreigners never planned to live here. I agree that if there is no tuition, then there should be a rule to have to work and contribute to this society for a minimum time of 2 to 3 years. It is only fair!
13:23 August 24, 2011 by foreignstudent
There are some foreign students who are enjoying the perks of a German Higher Education, mainly the absence of fees. But there are also others like me who are paying 3700 € per semester for their Masters Course in a reputed university in NRW in addition to a yearly expense of 7800 €. I have taken an educational loan in my country for the same and I assure you I am not from a wealthy family. I feel the reason for such a drastic difference in tuition fees from the average student of a German Uni and myself is a lack of accountability of the University regarding fee procurement to any particular agency. Or it might be the case that me and my classmates, being foreign students, have been caught in a grey area with regard to policy making concerning fees. I have to deal with issues like poor quality of english in the textbooks, lack of extra course material in english in the libraries and difficulty in securing student jobs because of my poor command of the language. You might ask why I came here to study if I wanted to study engineering in english. The course was advertised to be completely in English and I assumed I could complete my course prerequisites without perfecting my German language skills. Also, education in Germany is still cheaper than in the United States. Hope the reforms also consider foreign students to the extent that we are made to pay a nominal fee. I dont mind paying a fee as long as I dont feel like I am being looted.
14:38 August 24, 2011 by oldMoslin
GErmany should follow its own trends. No need to copy uk/usa/aussie because in those countries education has become a business. In the uk people can really buy degrees from briefcase colleges/univesities.Where as in Germany the unis are still god condition, becuase they have funds from the sources like tax,government, and some other instituitions/organizations.

No need to impose tutions fees. Many poor foreign students are coming to germany and studying here. They are not improving their own lives but also benefitting the German society as well.

Many Asians for example come to study Information Technology (Master/Ph.D). after study very little do return and they serve Germany by working in different comapnies.

Not to be blind that only EU students are hlping to make the technological backbone stronger but it is highly the other foreign student that are the driving source.
15:05 August 24, 2011 by iseedaftpeople
If tuition fees are used directly to ameliotate the quality of education at a university and not just to fill some budgetary holes, then I think they are to some degree justifiable. It depends on how high they are. If you are a full-time student, especially with the now-streamlined Bachelor and Master curriculae which don't leave much free time to earn money on the side if you don't have parents with financial means, 500 euros a semester can really turn into quite an obstacle. And even if you pay that kind of tuition fee using your student loan money, it will only add to your debt when you leave college.

Ultimately, I can't see what was wrong with the previous model of having the taxpayer pay for much of the cost of higher education. In the end, today's students are tomorrow's taxpayers, and given that many if not most college graduates will earn above-average taxable incomes in their employment life, they will eventually pay back what the other taxpayers afforded them during college.
16:20 August 24, 2011 by catjones
I suggest the educational system correct the popular misunderstanding that 'the principle of higher education being available for free to all'.

Education is as free as healthcare and donuts.

The notion is that we all benefit from taxes paid to educate our people. However, when you look at the brain drain to other countries, the benefit goes with as well. I'm really surprised germany hasn't instituted a payback demand for anyone educated here and then immigrates.
17:12 August 24, 2011 by Wise Up!
That's right catjones, you figured it out! Get your free education in Germany and come to work in the US! Escape the over 50% income tax burden and earn a better living!! LOL!!
18:34 August 24, 2011 by lookagain
First of all I should say that I am grateful for the almost free education I get here in Germany. But if I for one was supposed to pay for my education I would not have chosen this very nice country!! why? 1- instead of just focusing on your research you have to learn a new language which takes a lot of time. 2- your English skills despite studying in the language will not improve which further you really need better skills to right papers and communicate internationally. 3-You dont have the chance to work part time because you dont know the language that good which in case of English speaking countries you could, as a lot of my friends did, simple low level jobs delivery ,fast food, etc. (but hey they got payed).4- after liviing for some time here I still don't have a few German friends to hang out because while being decent and friendly they do not like to mingle with auslanders generally (I am talking about the majority in my point of view, not all ), so you cannot be an active part of society therfore later it is double difficult to find a job here since you really don't know much about Germany although you live here. 5- And finally if you are one of those students who would like to get a job and through that give back to society a little, you are facing a lot of difficulties. why? how can you build a carrier somewhere you are not sure if you would be allowed to stay 2 years from now? consider you are not spring chicken any more so cannot take uncalculated risks...

So there are always pros and cons.

Also from our hosts point of view in short term they are right, it seems that they are doing the students a favor but if you consider long term and look beyond the 5000€ tuition fee a semester. If one third of the students coming to study stay or even 25% stay, the country is not loosing money. Just look at it from an educator's point of view how much time, energy and money has been spent on a bachelor graduate to be a German university (good ones I mean) worthy and pass all the procedures successfully. I think they even out quit fairy.
19:13 August 24, 2011 by aami12
As a foreign student, I must appreciate Germany's education system, where we have equal rights as German students. That really help to be a part of German society after joining some company. Indeed, everyone is paying back these education spending in terms of taxes after getting a job.

Now I would like to suggest German Government to solve German_language issues to make Germany more attractive to work to make foreign students part of working force. many students go back due to German_language issues.
23:44 August 24, 2011 by wxman
"Education is not for sale?" Stupid children. Of course it is, it's a business like any other! Besides, if it is "free" to you, that means innocent taxpayers are paying for an education they don't receive. You want to go to university? You pay for it, punk.
19:29 August 26, 2011 by odtaa
Erm wise up "Get your free education in Germany and come to work in the US! Escape the over 50% income tax burden and earn a better living!!"

Sure a better living? Work all the hours your boss decides - including unpaid overtime. Get maybe 2 weeks holiday a year. Get fired whenever your boss decides he doesn't like you, he wants to downsize, he's found someone who can do your job a lot cheaper.

Make sure you don't lose your medical insurance - mostly it means you daren't lose your job - and sure you'll probably get a bigger house if you can pay your massive mortgage.

And don't lose your driving licence - no public transport - and the roads are probably all pot-holed.

Sure you can drive a thousand miles in the states to a town with the same shops, same people unless of course you've gone to Disneyland.

If you want a proper work-life balance live and work in Germany or other parts of Europe.
22:20 August 26, 2011 by Expat IV
Education is not for sale? I assume, then, that German professors work for free, university buildings spring from the earth, their utilities fall from the sky, books are plucked from trees. Every German who pays taxes is paying for a university education whether he/she gets one or not. Each tax-paying German is paying for university educations for auslanders as well. I have no clue what percentage of German taxes are used to pay for university educations. It would be interesting to see what the average German tax payer pays for a university education-- even if he does not get one-- over a life time. Probably about the same as the "pay for your own" education system of the US where those who choose not to get a university education are not forced to pay for those who do nor for foreigners.
19:38 September 5, 2011 by ChuChu
My heart bleeds for those POOOR foreigners that cannot afford to study unless they come to our country and study in English (my daughter has to go to a Polish University because she cannot find a study place in DE...ALL FULL..) this is INSANE!!!!We are one of the highest tax paying countries in Europe...WHY? so that we can pay for others to

take advantage of our goooody gooody laws? Rubbish...you study...you pay and to hell with the foreign students. If they want to study in Germany and IN GERMAN and they are prepared to pay.....BRING IT ON and they will be most welcome..otherwise they must stay home and study a TRADE. Not everybody can go to Varsity.......Expat1V spot on...
21:27 September 5, 2011 by mikhal
To me Education should be free, the government should cover it through taxes. Even books on education should be freely available. Is it not education that makes your country strong and advanced, so why should people have pay to help their own country.
11:54 September 7, 2011 by DoubleDTown
Mikhal has a point that investment in the people via education is good for a nation's strength. But, the students are wrong to think they should expect it handed to them on a platter. The financial burden faced by students in the U.S. is unfortunate, but millions of Americans seem to deal with it and get educated anyway. And perhaps they appreciate their education more for having had to pay for it. Germany may not need to reduce educational subsidies to the low levels Americans enjoy, but certainly students should be forced to individually bear more of the burden for the education that they will receive.

Didn't we all learn in the early 1990s that socialism just doesn't work?
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