Tuition fees, student grants differ widely in Europe

Levels of student tuition or administrative fees, grants and loans continue to highlight stark differences across Europe, according to a new report published by the European Commission's Eurydice network.

The report, National Student Fee and Support Systems in European Higher Education 2014/2015, covers 33 European countries and reveals that fee systems have remained relatively stable across the continent, apart from some notable exceptions.

Germany is the only country to recently abolish tuition fees – despite introducing them only in 2007.

Estonia significantly changed its funding system in 2014, linking fees to study performance. Only students who fail to stay on track with their studies – that is, do not achieve the required number of credits each year – are charged.

Fees are similarly linked to poor performance in other countries including the Czech Republic, Spain, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Poland and Slovakia.

The highest tuition fees in Europe are in England, following a major overhaul of its higher education system in 2012. The fees are not paid immediately, but only after graduation when students' earnings exceed a defined threshold – a unique model in Europe.

Relatively high fees are paid upfront by students in Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and the Netherlands.

“Europe desperately needs to improve access to higher education for our young people. Not only does this greatly improve their chances of getting a good job, but it also enhances our economies, which are in need of the innovation and creativity that talented graduates bring,” said Androulla Vassiliou, European commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth.

“Where member states decide to introduce tuition fees, they should always have measures in place, including grants, to ensure equal access to higher education for all, especially students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Great variation

The report highlights great variation in the number of students paying fees in publicly funded higher education institutions.

A number of countries – Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Malta, Slovenia, Finland, Sweden, United Kingdom (Scotland), Norway and Turkey – do not charge any fees for full-time students.

At the other end of the scale, all bachelor students pay fees in 11 countries.

Small administrative fees are charged in the Czech Republic, Germany (though the situation differs between länder), Poland and Slovakia, while tuition fees are required in the Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), Iceland (in private dependent institutions) and Liechtenstein.

In most European countries only a minority of students receive grant support. In nine countries, all (Cyprus, Denmark, Malta, Finland) or a majority of students (Luxembourg, the Netherlands, United Kingdom – Scotland, Sweden, Norway) receive grants. Iceland is the only country that offers no public grant system, although this is currently under debate.

In 35 education systems – some countries have more than one system – grants are awarded on the basis of financial need to some or all students.

Denmark, Finland and Sweden offer universal grants for full-time students provided that basic requirements for study performance are met while 23 systems offer grants on the basis of merit linked to an assessment of academic performance. Nearly all of these systems combine need-based and merit-based grants.

Publicly subsidised student loans play a significant role in student support in around half of the countries covered. Similarly, also in around half of the countries, some aspects of support depend on overall family circumstances and are not paid directly to students but as tax benefits to parents or as family allowances.

A separate report published by the European Commission in June showed that introducing tuition fees usually increases the total amount of resources for higher education, though new income from fees is not always invested in ways – such as additional teaching posts – that directly improve the student experience.

It also showed that tuition fees do not have an overall negative impact on enrolments, even among students from lower socio-economic groups, unless the magnitude of change is exceptional. However, increases in fees can result in falling enrolments among older students.

That report underlined that grants and-or loans are crucial for offsetting the potentially negative consequences of fees or fee rises on university enrolments, particularly from vulnerable groups.