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EXPLAINED: Bavaria’s plans to introduce tuition fees for non-EU students

The German state of Bavaria could soon join Baden-Württemberg and Saxony in introducing tuition fees for third country nationals - but there is already pushback from student groups. Here's what you need to know.

Ludwig Maximilian University
The fountain outside of Munich's prestigious Ludwig Maximilian University. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Andreas Gebert

What’s happening?

The southern German state of Bavaria is facing a fierce backlash after it set out plans to introduce tuition fees for students from non-EU countries. 

Bavaria’s governing Christian Social Union (CSU) party originally drafted the proposals for higher education reform in the Higher Education Innovation Act (Hochschulinnovationsgesetz) back in 2021, but the plans were then shelved for several months.

In June this year, a second draft of the law, including the plans for tuition fees, was put to the state parliament. It is now expected to be finalised by the start of the summer recess in August. 

In a short paragraph on the option to charge fees, the draft law makes clear that, “for activities financed by the state (in particular, the education of German and EU students and their equivalents), the higher education institutions may not exercise this right”. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Can foreigners apply for student finance in Germany?

“However, this opens up the possibility of charging fees for non-EU foreigners, among others,” it adds. 

There are currently no firm details on how much universities would be allowed to charge. In Baden-Württemberg, where a similar policy was introduced in 2017, students from third countries have to pay €1,500 per semester – equating to €3,000 per year. 

Currently, students in Bavaria don’t pay set tuition fees to study at universities or higher education colleges. However, people who study part-time alongside their jobs in a so-called “Berufsbegleitendes Studium” are expected to cough up €2,000 per semester.

How does the fees system normally work in Germany?

In Germany, each of the 16 federal states is free to set its own tuition fees – but these have to be “socially manageable”, meaning state governments can’t set them so high that some people are unable to afford them.

In reality, all of the states offer free tuition for German and EU students doing a Bachelors or Masters degree, with the vast majority also offering education free-of-charge to non-EU nationals as well.

A handful of states opt to start charging students who draw their degree out over several years, and some also charge students to do a second degree or study part-time.

Others simply leave it up to the universities to set their own fees for things like second degrees or part-time study. To get an idea of which states charge students for various types of studies, this chart offers a good rundown

What are people saying? 

Unsurprisingly, students are furious at Bavaria’s plans to introduce tuition fees, arguing that the move would widen inequality. 

“Tuition fees are a social hurdle to university access; they are poison for equal opportunities,” said Matthias Anbuhl, the secretary general of the German Student Support Association. “There is a broad consensus on this in society and politics.”

In 2013, the state parliament voted to abolish general tuition fees after Bavarians voted overwhelmingly in favour of the move in a referendum, Anbuhl pointed out. 

“It is therefore all the more incomprehensible that the Bavarian state government now wants to resort to this instrument for the group of international students from non-EU countries,” he added.

READ ALSO: German students to get higher grants from winter 2022

Speaking to Migazin, an online migration news portal, Vanessa Gombisch of the Federal Association of Foreign Students also hit back at the proposals.

“With this step, Bavaria is doing a disservice to educational justice,” Gombisch said. “In addition to the already high cost of living in Bavaria, tuition fees at the discretion of the universities will add another financial hurdle that will push social selection even further”.

Meanwhile, Daryoush Danaii from the Free Association of Student Unions said the fees for non-EU students would create a “two-class system in the lecture hall”.

‘We need you in Bavaria’

In light of the the severe skills shortages in the country’s labour market, many federal states look to international students as an important resource for the future. 

Germany is the fourth most popular country for foreigners to study in – and the top non-English speaking destination – after the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. 

According to a study by the German Council of Economic Experts, 70 percent of international students also want to stay in Germany after successfully graduating from university. Around 350,000 foreigners come to study in Germany each year. 

This means that hundreds of thousands of skilled workers who have passed through the German education system go on to use these skills in the German economy. 

In a 2011 brochure aimed at attracting foreign talent into the state, the Bavarian Employment Agency targeted international students directly, using the slogan: “We need you in Bavaria.” 

However, research from Baden-Württemberg, where fees were introduced five years ago, suggests that the blanket introduction of fees can deter international students from applying to university in the state.

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

Students listen to a lecture at Hannover University. International students are believed to play an important role in bridging skills gaps in the economy. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte.

A study by the Action Alliance against Tuition Fees (ABS) revealed that applications from foreign students plummeted by 36 percent in Baden-Württemberg between 2016 and 2021 – at the same as figures were rising in other German states.

The results of the study led to a U-turn by North-Rhine Westphalia, who had previously been mulling a similar move.

However, the model being considered in Bavaria is more similar to the one adopted in Saxony, where universities and colleges are free to choose whether they adopt fees for non-EU students or not.

According to reports in Migazin, just two music schools in the eastern state have chosen to introduce the fees. 

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Germany’s Scholz pledges more relief for lowest earners

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has (SPD) promised to support low and medium-income households as he warned of a difficult autumn and winter amid the energy crisis.

Germany's Scholz pledges more relief for lowest earners

With the cost of living spiralling, the government is working on a new package of energy relief measures that will include tax breaks for low- and middle-income earners, Scholz said during the summer press conference in Berlin on Thursday.

“The government is determined to do this,” he added. “We will do everything to help citizens get through these difficult times.”

Asked whether his focus was primarily on lower or higher earners, Scholz said he was focussed on the people “who have very little”, citing the six million workers on minimum wage in Germany, and middle-income households who have been squeezed in the current crisis.

The measures will target multiple sections of the population “so that no one is left alone, no one is faced with unsolvable problems and no one has to shoulder the challenges associated with the increased prices alone,” Scholz said.

The news comes after Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) unveiled a series of tax relief proposals designed to help households cope with the high cost of the living.

Lindner’s plans include measures to ensure that people who get an inflation-linked pay rise don’t see their wage increase eaten up by higher tax – a phenomenon known as “cold progression”. He has also proposed a hike in child benefit and the tax-free allowance for lower earners.

READ ALSO: Who benefits most under Germany’s tax relief plans?

But the plans have been criticised for disproportionately benefiting higher earners: according to experts, people earning €60,000 per annum will gain €471 a year under the new plans, while those on €20,000 a year will get just €115. 

Batting away criticism, Scholz described the Finance Minister’s tax relief plans as a “good proposal”, adding: “I find that very, very helpful, because we have to put together an overall package that includes all population groups.”

Additional measures are yet to be announced but will likely include adjusting housing benefit in line with the current energy prices. 

The Chancellor also revealed that discussions about imposing an oil price cap to limit Russia’s revenues and relieve consumers were still ongoing.

“We’re discussing the possibility of an oil price cap,” he said. “Due to the high technical complexity, it takes a lot of time, but it’s something we’re working on intensively.”

Limiting the price of oil products is “not something you can do unilaterally”, Scholz said. “It has to be done in close cooperation with partners.”

‘Big failures’

Throughout the press conference, Scholz fielded questions on Germany’s prior energy policy, which saw the country develop an ever greater dependence on Russian gas. 

In February, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Germany was still importing 55 percent of its gas from Moscow – though this has since been slashed to around 35 percent.

For me it’s very clear that we should have reached the decision earlier than we did to change our energy policies and diversify,” Scholz said. “If we’d done that sooner, we’d only have the problem of high prices but we wouldn’t have the problem of energy security.”

The SPD politician, who was Finance Minister under Angela Merkel in the former conservative-led coalition, said there had been “big failures” in energy policy in the past. He said there had been joint decisions in the past on phasing out coal-fired power generation and nuclear energy, but no decisions that had sped up the pace of modernisation in Germany. 

READ ALSO: Energy crisis to labour shortage: Five challenges facing Germany right now

Chancellor Olaf Scholz

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) admits “failures” in Germany’s Russian energy policy at a press conference in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

This now needs to be corrected, he said.

However, he defended the EU’s decision to avoid sanctions on Kremlin-linked energy giants, citing the heavy dependence on Russian gas in eastern European countries, as well as in Germany.

Germany is in the process of trying to replenish its gas reserves for the cooler months amid fears that Russia will cut off the energy supply in retaliation for Europe’s support of Ukraine.

The scarcity of gas, which is currently flowing through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline from Russia at just 20 percent of its full capacity, has led to soaring prices on the energy market. 

Asked whether he thought there could be riots due to rising energy prices, Scholz replied: “No, I don’t think there will be unrest in this country in the form outlined. And that is because Germany is a welfare state.”