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Opinion: How Germany’s higher ed model holds true to the real value of universities

Germany may not top worldwide university ranking charts, but holds true to values of education - especially in contrast with fee-seeking university in countries such as the U.S. or parts of the U.K.

Opinion: How Germany's higher ed model holds true to the real value of universities

Earlier this year, I received an account summary from student finance reminding me of my outstanding debt of £33,000 (somewhere around €37,000) for the degree I finished in 2017. Having so far stubbornly avoided looking at my balance online, it was an unpleasant shock to the system.

All the more depressing, however, was the fact that the letter was posted to my flat in Germany; a country where I could have completed my bachelor’s completely debt-free.

The first time somebody told me that university was free in Germany, it took some convincing before I believed them. Although in parts of the U.K. such as Scotland, higher education is usually free to those living there, in England where I grew up tuition fees have risen year-on-year since 1998. I always thought of free tuition as a distant fantasy; a lost privilege of generations past. 

Yet in Germany, students from home and abroad still reap the benefits of free undergraduate and master’s education, with only small administration fees, around €200 to €300 per year and often contributing to free public transport and other services, to pay out for each semester.

SEE ALSO: Foreign students in Germany: Why they come and if they plan to stay

Completing courses at their own pace

Instead of being rushed through an intense three years, which is usually the case in England, students at German universities are also able to complete courses at their own pace. And best of all, amid the marketization that has swept across so many other universities in the western world, Germany continues to hang on to education for education’s sake, rather than ruthlessly prioritizing its fiscal or vocational value.

Campus of the University of Mannheim in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Photo: DPA

Unlike in England, where mass student pushback against tuition fees has been largely unsuccessful in halting the price hikes, when a ban on tuition fees for public universities in Germany was lifted in 2005, protests and boycotting of newly-introduced fees saw them gradually scrapped again after their brief appearance.

Dr. Dieter Dohmen, Managing Director at FiBS (Research Institute for the Economics of Education and Social Affairs) explained to The Local that Germany’s commitment to free tuition “is a political one,” calculated to “reduce economic and financial barriers to Higher Education as much as possible”.

Where as in England and the US, disadvantaged students might be put off or totally shut out from the best universities as a result of tuition fees, Germany’s universities are free to all who want to use them. Indeed, after tuition fees were scrapped in the country, the Ministry of Education and Research saw enrollment rise by a whopping 22%.

Not swamped with applications

It’s naive to suggest that the system is totally perfect, however, and there’s a reason why – in spite of more students enrolling this year than ever before – German universities aren’t everyone’s top choice.

Wim Weymans, a researcher with extensive experience in the field of higher education points out that one of the downsides of Germany’s models is that “the quality of teaching is arguably not as good in the U.S or the U.K., with student to professor ratio being less advantageous”.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why Germany still lags behind when it comes to worldwide university rankings, with the U.K.’s Oxford and Cambridge Universities and the USA’s MIT, Stanford and Harvard consistently lingering around the top of rankings.

On the 2018 QS World University Rankings, the first German university to appear is the Technical University of Munich, at number 64. It’s also been suggested that, in spite of low or no tuition fees, some students still struggle with the demands of living costs in more expensive German cities.

Banners marking 150 years 'of excellence' at the Technical University of Munich in April 2018. Photo: DPA

Yet, by and large, this possibility hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of international students, with Germany topping a survey taken earlier this year which looked at the attractiveness of attending universities in different countries.

The high number of courses taught in English, low tuition fees and career prospects were all cited as reasons for Germany’s outstanding performance in the survey. Somewhat contradicting the notion that the quality of teaching at German universities is suffering as a result of the country’s higher education model, teaching scores in the survey actually trumped those of U.K. universities.

Avoiding the 'constant pressure of falling behind'

Roberta Huldisch, who is currently completing her masters in Berlin but studied her undergraduate degree in the U.K., sees both positives and negatives to the German model. The flexibility, she told The Local, “allows people to work alongside their studies, to take some time out to do an internship, go abroad or just deal with personal issues, without being under constant pressure of falling behind”.

It’s a system that’s proved attractive to foreign students, the numbers of whom have grown by 53% since 2009. Year on year, more of those numbers are made up by American and British students alike, with a 20% increase in enrollments from American students between 2013 and 2015. As a whole more foreign students are enrolling at German universities every year.

SEE ALSO: In graphs: Number of international students in Germany quickly growing

Yet at the same time, Roberta suggests that this does make it easier “for people to get lost in the system, because no one really notices if you're not going to seminars”.

The campus of the University of Jena in Thuringia. Photo: DPA

And though she suggests that German universities “have become more career-focused”, a “transactional” attitude towards education is something she believes is embedded into UK policy and discourse “to a far stronger degree” than in Germany.

It’s a sentiment that has been echoed by others like Brigitte Göbbels-Dreyling, deputy secretary general for the German Rectors' Conference, who suggested to Deutsche Welle that German discourse and policy still views higher education as “a public good, a way to train specialists that then benefit the public”, while the Anglo-Saxon world focuses on “individual benefits, such as better career prospects and a higher income”.

U.K. universities: pushing out students more quickly?

While German students take their time pouring over books, universities in England are debating the introduction of two-year degree courses to push students through the university mill as efficiently as possible, with little care given to the nurturing of intellectual development.

It’s worth noting, too, that the systems surrounding Germany’s higher education centres is also designed with the intellectual needs and wants of the population in mind. For years, students in the U.K. have been pushed incessantly towards university, leading to a massive over-saturation of graduates in the job market and in some cases, the declining quality of degree courses.

Germany, meanwhile, still has low numbers of students enrolling in higher education courses relative to the rest of Europe, with more enrolling in the country’s vocational education and training system.

“Even if some discussions in Germany suggest something else”, says Dr. Dohmen, “the VET-system is still the larger sector compared to universities.” While many unsuitable candidates in England are pushed into universities greedy for profit, in Germany, students are given more careful and appropriate choices.

SEE ALSO: Why Germany remains 'best country for international students,' above UK and France

While Germany’s universities might not feature at the very top of standard world rankings, the country is certainly still home to world-class universities with excellent teaching and facilities that won’t leave students burdened with debt.

It’s a stark contrast to other models around the world – particularly in parts of the U.K and the U.S. – where universities have fallen prey to the pressures of profit making and marketization, losing sight of the real intellectual value of education in the process.

Germany’s free, accessible higher education meanwhile continues to proudly carry the torch for education as a worthwhile pursuit and a public good.

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EXPLAINED: Can foreigners apply for student finance in Germany?

Germany has a system of financial support for students known as BAföG. In many cases foreigners are just as entitled to apply as Germans. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: Can foreigners apply for student finance in Germany?

What is BAföG?

Bafög is an abbreviation for a word that would surely be the longest in pretty much any other language expect German: Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz. This tongue twister breaks down to mean Federal Training Assistance Act. 

Ever since the 1970s it has helped Germans from poor backgrounds to take up a place at university to at a training colleague, with the idea being that financial hardship should never prevent someone from entering higher education.

In its current form the law provides for students form poorer families to receive €853 a month, half of which is a stipend and half of which is a loan that you will need to pay back once you’ve entered the workforce. 

The maximum you are expected to pay back is €10,000.   

Some 460,000 students were being assisted with Bafög payments in 2020, the last year for which there are numbers.

READ ALSO: How to finance your master’s studies in Germany as an international student

Who is entitled to BAföG?

There are two basic conditions attached to BAföG: you have to be under the age of 30 to apply and you parents have to be low-wage earners.

There are some exemptions for the age restriction. If you can show that you were not able to start a course of study before your 30th birthday due to health or familial reasons then you might still be eligible later. Also, if you are applying for support for a Masters degree then you can apply for Bafög up until the age of 35.

According to German law, your parents have an obligation to financially support your education. This means that German authorities ask for evidence of their income to assess whether you are in need of state support.

And this applies whether your parents work in Germany or abroad, the Education Ministry confirmed to The Local.

“Income calculation under the BAföG rules takes place regardless of whether one’s parents live in Germany or abroad. This applies both to German nationals and to people with non-German nationality who are eligible for support under BAföG,” a spokesperson for the ministry confirmed.

What about foreigners?

Bafög is by no means only available to Germans. A whole variety of foreign nationals can also apply.

The rules on which foreign nationals are entitled to financial support are fairly complicated. But the following list on eligibility is somewhat exhaustive:

  • If you are an EU citizen, or from an EEA country, and you have lived in Germany for at least five years
  • If you are married to, or are the child of, an EU citizen who has lived in Germany for at least five years
  • If your are an EU citizen who lives and works in Germany and whose intended course of study is connected to your current job
  • If you are not an EU citizen but have obtained permanent residency in Germany
  • If you have received refugee status
  • If you have lived in the country for at least 15 months as a ‘tolerated’ person (ie you applied for asylum and weren’t given full refugee status)
  • If at least one of your parents has lived and worked in Germany for three of the past six years
  • You are married to a German national and have moved to Germany.
  • You are the spouse or child of a foreign national who holds a permanent residency permit.

Due to the relative complexity of these rules it is advisable to speak to local organisations that support students such as the Studentenwerk Hamburg, the StudierendenWERK BERLIN or the Studentenwerk München.

READ ALSO: Essential German words to know as a student in Germany

How do repayments work?

The Federal Education Ministry states that you are expected to pay back your loan even if you return to your home country after completing your studies.

Repayment begins five years after you received the last installment of the loan at which point you are expected to pay back €130 a month. Although this amount can be reduced if your salary is low.

If you haven’t paid everything back after 20 years then the rest of the debt is dropped.