GERMANY: Late approval of 'elite student' programme

The German government's new National Grants Programme for the Specially Gifted has been rushed through the federal council that represents the federal states. Germany's upper house accepted the new scheme on 9 July, just before going into summer recess.

The states approved the Christian Democrat/Free Democrat ruling coalition's new scheme on condition it would cost them nothing.

Shortly before the session, Federal Education Minister Annette Schavan assured the states the federal government would entirely cover state funding of the programme. How much this will be is uncertain.

A share of the monthly EUR300 (US$378) for the grantees will be paid by industry and private foundations. It is their acceptance of the programme, and the level of their respective share, that will determine the overall level of funding.

But the 2% increase in student support via the BAFöG (Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz - the Federal Student Finance Act), - which was part of the federal government's package, has been referred to the mediation committee for further debating. So there will be no increase in support in the coming semester.

The state governments would have had to find EUR160 million to contribute their share of funding - which they claimed was impossible.

The outcome of the federal council session could well have been different after the summer break. North Rhine-Westphalia's newly elected Social Democrat/Green government, now being formed following lengthy talks on various coalition options, will shift the balance in the upper house even more in favour of the Social Democrats and Greens, which are in opposition at federal level.

Political considerations could then have outweighed Schavan's funding proposal aimed at taking the overall shortage of funds at state level into account.

The Teachers' and Scientists' Union, the GEW, said the council's approval of the grants scheme at the cost of the BAFöG-supported students was scandalous.

"What we don't need is a programme that leaves those in greatest need of support empty-handed," said Andreas Keller, GEW board spokesman for higher education. "The ruling coalition is ravaging the BAFöG system to press through controversial elite grants."

Keller said the public would pay up to EUR430 million a year for the National Grants Programme. The increase in BAFöG shelved by the council would not cost more than EUR350 million.

But Keller was also critical of the decision-making powers in the National Grants Programme: "Although the federal and state governments will be paying up to two-thirds of the expenses for the programme, private funding bodies are to have a say determining which institutions and courses will benefit from the money," he said.

"And industry will even take part in choosing the students eligible for the programme." Keller maintained that students who were unable to demonstrate their studies were directly relevant to industry would "fall through the net". The same applied to students at institutions in structurally weak regions, he claimed.

"The EUR300 the programme awards is not enough to live on," Keller said. "All it represents is pocket money for a small elite who are already financially secure anyway."