Bavaria to scrap tuition fees

Germany’s Free State of Bavaria is now set to phase out tuition fees. Its Christian Social-Free Democrat coalition government has worked out a political deal that would compensate higher education for losses.

The Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavaria’s leading political party, introduced tuition fees for all students in 2007, and universities have usually charged around €500 (US$656) per semester.

But in a recent popular initiative, 1.3 million votes were cast against fees.

With both federal and state government elections looming on the horizon the CSU, a junior member of the federal government’s current ruling Christian Democrat-Christian Social-Free Democrat coalition, opted for an anti-fee policy rather than risking a full-scale referendum.

However, despite their poor standing in opinion polls, Bavaria’s Free Democrats clung to their anti-fee stance, which threatened the coalition.

The issue has now been resolved with a deal incorporating a €219 million package for higher education to make up for losses through a phasing out of tuition fees. The money would come from the state’s reserves plus greater tax revenue thanks to Bavaria’s favourable economic situation.

Also, part of the agreement is a pledge that the whips be taken off when the issue is put before Bavaria’s parliament in March. This would spare individual Free Democrats the prospect of changing their political approach, while the CSU could vote against fees together with opposition parties.

Not surprisingly, the opposition Social Democrats and Greens are speaking of a “dirty deal”, and Munich’s Lord Mayor and top Social Democrat candidate Christian Ude said that “all that is keeping the coalition together is their fear of losing their jobs and their official cars”.

But the student union Freier Zusammenschluss von StudentInnenschaften has rather more substantial concerns. Official Erik Marquardt said that in 2011 alone, fees accounted for almost €182 million, so that the package proposed by the ruling coalition for two years would fall far short of requirements.

Marquardt demanded that funding be adapted to current student numbers.

The developments in Bavaria come as an embarrassment to new federal Education and Research Minister Johanna Wanka, of the CSU’s sister party the Christian Democratic Union.

Last year, when Wanka – an outspoken supporter of tuition fees – was still Lower Saxony’s higher education and research minister, she predicted that all 16 federal states would be charging tuition fees again by 2016.

She also maintained that the rejection of fees by the opposition Social Democrats, Greens and ‘Die Linke’ (The Left) in other federal states was for “purely ideological reasons”, adding that “populism has arisen in the other states under pressure of upcoming elections”.

Lower Saxony itself has since had a change of government, and under its new Social Democrat-Green government, it is expected to phase out tuition fees by 2014, the last of the German federal states to do so.