Fees phased out although arguments remain

All of Germany’s federal states have now done away with general tuition fees at public-funded institutions. However, the view is still held by some that fees ought to provide an extra source of income for universities.

The vast majority of higher education institutions are public-funded and, in 2012, they enrolled a total of 2.3 million students, with others either at private universities (138,000 enrolments) or those run by churches (28,000 enrolments).

Student numbers enrolled in higher education totalled 2.62 million in 2013 although there is no official breakdown. This would have included international students who numbered 253,000 in 2012 or 11% of the total enrolments, and who also do not pay tuition fees.

Charges for students were introduced in post-war Germany as so-called 'Hörergelder’ (money paid to listen to a lecture), but were abolished in 1970 following student boycotts.

The Hochschulrahmengesetz or HRG, the University Framework Act introduced in 1976, provided general guidelines for higher education at the state level while state governments retained far-reaching independence in the context of their constitutionally guaranteed cultural autonomy.

The HRG underwent several amendments, including adoption of an explicit ban on tuition fees. In 2002, the federal states of Baden-Württemberg, Saxony-Anhalt, Hessen, the Saar, Hamburg, Bavaria and Saxony, all of them then with conservative governments, brought a case before the Federal Constitutional Court arguing that the ban on tuition fees violated cultural autonomy.

The court ruled in their favour in 2005 and seven states, accounting for 70% of Germany’s students, introduced tuition fees. Since then, however, the Christian Democrats have lost control of several states in elections through the demise of their junior partners, the Free Democrats, while their sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, has changed its policy on fees.

With its new Social Democrat-led government fulfilling an election pledge, the last of the states, Lower Saxony, scrapped tuition fees in time for the 2014-15 semester. Its government has promised to fill the funding gap created by the loss of the fees and provide money to improve tuition quality and study conditions. Similar steps have been taken by other state governments.

Fees are still required for certain courses, such as bachelor degrees for professionals who hold a full vocational degree. There have also been calls for the reintroduction of fees in a new context.

The Green Party is a junior partner of the Social Democrats in some states, and in Baden-Württemberg it even heads a coalition government with Social Democrats. There, parliamentary party leader Edith Sitzmann maintained last year that non-European foreign students should pay up to €1,000 (US$1280) a semester.

“As a rule, those coming from the US or Asia do not exactly have the poorest family background,” Sitzmann argued. The proposal was discussed at the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, headed by fellow Green Party member Theresia Bauer.

Erik Marquardt, an executive member of the student union Freier Zusammenschluss von StudentInnenschaften, reminded the coalition government of its electoral pledge.

“Not only does the coalition agreement stipulate the abolition of tuition fees, but it also states that the coalition seeks to get more foreign students into Baden-Württemberg’s universities,” Marquardt said.

“In retrospect, the Green Party presenting itself as migration-friendly, anti-discrimination and pro-education has to be seen as electoral bluster,” said Johannes Glembek, head of the Federal Association of Foreign Students.

But so far, such fees have not been introduced. Wolfgang A Herrmann, President of the Technische Universität in Bavaria’s capital of Munich, has also called for tuition fees to be introduced for non-European Union students.

“My proposal draws on a common international experience,” Hermann argued. “The best-talented students from all over the world seek top-level universities in order to prepare their careers and include a university’s reputation in their vita. For this, they are willing to contribute to the costs. It’s as simple as that – so why can’t it happen here?”

* Michael Gardner Email: