Unpopular tuition fees could soon be history

German universities have been allowed to charge tuition fees since 2007. But many states have decided to ditch them, soon leaving only Bavaria and Lower Saxony still taking money from their students. Hannah Cleaver reports.

Unpopular tuition fees could soon be history
Photo: DPA

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.

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.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.