GERMANY: 10,000 gifted students to get monthly top-up

The Deutschland-Stipendium (Germany Grant) has been officially launched, supporting up to 10,000 highly gifted students by the end of the year. Simultaneously, however, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has scrapped a special bonus for students from poorer backgrounds.

Amid a shower of fake banknotes 'issued' by demonstrating students, the Federal Minister of Education and Research, Christian Democrat Annette Schavan (pictured), proclaimed a "new culture of grants in Germany that will support young people with outstanding abilities and thus improve our standing in international competition for brains".

By the end of the year, a total of 10,000 talented and well-performing students are to receive a monthly sum of EUR300 (US$412) provided half by the federal government and half by private sources.

Originally, the state governments (Länder) were to co-finance the deal, but money is hard to come by in the aftermath of the financial and economic crisis. Originally, too, Schavan was aiming for around 160,000, or around 8%, of all students to benefit from the programme by the end of her period in office in 2013. Reaching this ambitious goal has now been deferred by eight to 10 years.

The new programme has received a positive response from the Stifterverband, an initiative by Germany's industry to promote science and the humanities.

Its secretary-general, Andreas Schlüter, stressed the potential the scheme has to involve small and medium-sized companies as well as private citizens and alumni in sponsoring, and stated that "the success of the Deutschland-Stipendium is very important to the Stifterverband, and it will lend its active support to make this happen".

Nevertheless, industry's commitment has as yet been far from outstanding, with only a handful of companies and foundations pledging support, among them just two major firms, Deutsche Telekom and Bayer AG.

This is despite the considerable benefits the Deutschland-Stipendium offers industry. Not only can sponsors claim substantial tax relief, but they also have a say in where their money goes. Not surprisingly, Telekom will be supporting students in mathematics, computer science and engineering.

Initially sceptical, Margret Wintermantel, President of the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (HRK), representing the heads of German universities, now welcomes the new scheme and called on politicians as well as potential donors to do all they can to support students.

"More civic engagement on the part of enterprises but also private persons will be required if we wish to maintain our innovative potential and take up future challenges in society," she said.

However, response among institutions themselves has been mixed. At the launch ceremony, Humboldt University could already boast pledges for a number of grants, also from chemicals giant Bayer AG, which is supporting Berlin's other major universities as well. However, there have been reports from institutions in Berlin and East Germany in general that they are having difficulties in finding sponsors owing to the region's weak economy.

Berlin's Free University was sceptical whether enough students in areas that are not so lucrative for industry will benefit sufficiently from the programme. The sponsors themselves can decide which departments and which subjects in an institution are funded. This is an issue that student organisations have also been wary about.

Several institutions are reluctant to engage in the programme because this would imply officially announcing their funding sources, an attitude that the Stifterverband sharply disapproves of. The organisation plans to set up a consulting centre bringing universities and sponsors together.

Now the federal government has announced that the special bonus for some of the students in the Bundes-Ausbildungsförderungs-Gesetz (BAFöG) federal grants system will be scrapped. In the BAFöG programme, which is based half on loans and half on grants, students showing excellent performance have so far been entitled to a substantial reduction in repayment levels for the loan element.

This step has been sharply criticised by the German Student Welfare Service, which argued that performance-related bonuses give the BAFöG system additional value. However, Andreas Keller, of Germany's Education and Science Union (GEW), said it would be better to scrap the performance-related element and lower the loan share from 50% to 40%.

Meanwhile, the opposition Social Democrats claim that the new cuts in the BAFöG system are clearly linked to the Deutschland-Stipendium, on which the federal government is spending more than EUR5 million for advertising, developing and administration. Without the BAFöG bonus, the federal government will be saving around EUR12 million on higher education.