GERMANY: Another state joins dash to scrap fees

Tuition fees will be scrapped in North-Rhine Westphalia from the coming winter semester. By then, higher education institutions in just four of Germany's 16 Federal states will still be charging fees.

North Rhine-Westphalia's Social Democrat-Green minority government secured a sound majority with support from the opposition party Die Linke when votes were taken on the controversial issue in the Düsseldorf State Parliament.

Tuition fees were introduced in 2006 by the then ruling Christian Democrat-Free Democrat coalition.

Unlike in other federal states with a fee system, under present rules higher education institutions in North Rhine-Westphalia can decide for themselves whether they wish to charge fees or not. Currently, students are paying fees at 32 of the state's 37 institutions. Twenty universities are charging the maximum permitted level of EUR500 (US$697) a semester.

Svenja Schulze, North Rhine-Westphalia's Social Democrat higher education minister, explained that institutions will be compensated for the resulting loss of funding by the government providing them with at least EUR249 million a year to improve teaching and studying conditions throughout the state.

The money is to correspond with what the institutions actually had in total income in 2009. But it will be distributed according to their present individual student numbers. This means universities currently charging very high fees will not necessarily better off than others once the compensation scheme kicks off.

Four federal states, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Lower Saxony and Hamburg, are still maintaining a tuition fee policy. But with the recent resounding Social Democrat victory in the Hamburg senate elections, the city now looks set to abandon fees.

Nevertheless, tuition fees are still seen as the proper strategy to improve funding of higher education by many influential organisations.

Referring to surveys it commissioned in 2010, the Stifterverband, representing industrial foundations supporting higher education, announced that fees were not having a deterrent effect on young people or children from a working class or immigrant background wishing to study.

But according to Schulze, the 2010 Federal Education Report shows that 71 % of children with an academic family background were taking up studying, compared to just 24 % of those from working-class families. She said that the deterrent effect of fees was one of the reasons for these statistics.

"Education opportunities cannot, and must not, depend on parental income," she said, adding that education is something "society as a whole is responsible for".