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Countries watch EU court rulings against student discrimination

The European Court of Justice, or ECJ, of the European Union has been ruling against discriminatory practices regarding student financial aid for the children of migrant workers, and regarding discounted public transport fares. But the European Students’ Union has warned that the grant system in several states might be at risk.

In the case of Elodie Giersch and others v Luxembourg, on 20 June the court ruled that three European Union (EU) citizens were entitled to support because their parents worked in Luxembourg. The students could not be discriminated against on the basis of nationality.

“While stating that Luxembourg legislation which excludes the children of frontier workers for entitlement to financial aid for higher education studies pursues a legitimate objective, the court holds that the current system goes beyond what is necessary to attain that objective.”

The court explicitly said that the objective of increasing the number of Luxembourg citizens with a higher education degree could be “attained using less restrictive measures”.

But the ECJ also recognised Luxembourg’s need for control over public finances, and hence the risk of “study grant shopping”, paving the way for “financial aid be made conditional on that parent having worked in Luxembourg for a certain minimum period of time”.

Also, the court opened up the possibility for student aid to be in the form of a loan scheme rather than a grant and that aid could be “conditional on the student who receives it returning to Luxembourg after his or her studies abroad in order to work and reside there”.

Students unhappy

This part of the ruling in particular drew negative reactions from the European Students’ Union, or ESU. Vice-chair Elisabeth Gehrke said in a statement on 30 July:

“Higher education is primarily a national issue, which has also been recognised by the European Union in the past. The best way to enhance student mobility in Europe is to improve the portability of national grant systems.”

Problems with financing were the main obstacles students faced when studying abroad, she added. “This is partly due to the fact that most countries in Europe have not yet made their national grant systems portable for studies abroad at all or have major problems in the portability of their systems.”

The ESU also warned against a tendency of the European court to tie the responsibility of student financial support to states with more attractive social systems.

“This could create pressure on states with more advanced social systems to cut budgets or replace grants with loans. In this case, what today seems like ‘grants for everyone’ would soon turn into ‘grants for no one,” argued Gehrke.

The case of Germany

On 18 July, in judgment on the case Lawrence Prinz v region Hannover and Philipp Seeberger v Studentenwerk Heidelebrg, the ECJ ruled: “Germany cannot make the receipt of a grant for an entire course of studies in another member state, of more than one year, subject to the sole condition of uninterrupted residence for three years in Germany.

“Such a condition is likely to exclude students connected to German society by other social and economic ties,” the court stated.

This ruling contradicted the current situatio, where students may obtain grants for studies in another member state for a period of one year, conditional on having permanently resided in Germany for at least three years prior to commencing their studies.

The court found it justified that the condition of a sufficient degree of integration in German society was acceptable, but that conditions today were “too general and exclusive and accordingly goes beyond what is necessary to achieve the objective pursued”.

Transport fare discrimination in The Netherlands, Austria

The European Commission announced on 20 June that it would take The Netherlands to the ECJ for discriminating against students from other EU countries, who were being prevented from benefiting from the discount fares on public transport offered to Dutch students.

There are around 28,000 students from other European countries in The Netherlands.

“Under the EU Treaty, wherever EU students choose to study in the union, they have the same rights to benefits as local students, unless EU law expressly excludes a benefit from the principle of equal treatment such as maintenance aid,” the commission said in a statement.

It said two ‘reasoned opinions’ had been sent to the Dutch authorities, in 2010 and 2012, advising them that the fares policy was in breach of EU law. In October 2012, the ECJ ruled on a similar discrimination case against Austria for failing to ensure equal treatment by offering discounted fairs to other EU students.

“Since The Netherlands has failed to act on the commission's advice or in light of the court ruling, the commission has now decided to refer the matter to the Court of Justice.”

Other states watching

The court rulings are being followed with great interest in other European states.

In Denmark, the student support system was revised in legislation adopted by parliament in June, following an ECJ ruling on 21 February, in favour of the principle of equal treatment as it pertains to eligibility for student grants or loans in Denmark of citizens of other member states who have gainfully obtained employment before initiating studies.

Minister of Education Morten Østergaard has been demonstrating more political clout than previous ministers, by having a major influence on budgetary negotiations between the government and parliament. The ECJ ruling, which has been calculated to cost Dkr200 million (US$36 million) a year, was a major obstacle in the negotiations in parliament.

Danish newspapers questioned how the Luxembourg and Germany rulings might influence the way Denmark might implement its ruling. The ministry sad it was studying those court proceedings and would issue a statement later.

Finn Arnesen, a professor of European law at the University of Oslo, told the media that the ECJ rulings against Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark opened up opportunities for more students from Europe being entitled to financial support from Norway.

“Children of migrant workers might be entitled to Norwegian financial support, even if they have never been in Norway,” Arnesen said.

Elisabeth Gehrke told University World News: “We need to sit down at a European level and find a reasonable solution before more countries follow Denmark's example. We can’t afford more cuts and loans in Europe.”
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