NRW brings back tuition fees for non-EU students

North Rhine-Westphalia’s new conservative-liberal government has become the second of Germany’s 16 states to reintroduce tuition fees for non-European Union students. Fees were abolished under the predecessor Social Democrat-Green government.

There are about 745,000 students in North Rhine-Westphalia or NRW, around 86,000 of whom are from abroad. The new fee policy affects roughly 30,000 of these international students, and it represents a carbon copy of Baden-Württemberg’s Green-Christian Democrat government approach aiming at raising additional funding for higher education.

According to Christian Lindner, who campaigned for the Free Democratic Party or FDP (Germany’s liberals) in the recent NRW parliament elections and is also party chairman at federal level, fees are “an innovative way to improve the quality of higher education teaching in NRW”. Nevertheless, Lindner maintains that Free Democrats are “committed to a school and education system that provides equal access, prevents discrimination and maintains neutrality”.

However, his fellow party colleagues in Baden-Württemberg criticised government plans to reintroduce fees as of the coming winter semester for non-EU students for being discriminatory and counteracting efforts by universities towards internationalisation.

They also pointed to the impact the fee policy could have on development cooperation, and regard the €1,500 (US$1,670) to be charged per semester as a special challenge for students from developing countries.

Baden-Württemberg’s FDP refers to “a pathetic display on the part of the government given its commitment in the coalition agreement to assuming a responsibility for development cooperation as a key element of its policies”. And it warns that students from these countries will simply seek institutions in other federal states instead.

In Schleswig-Holstein, in Northern Germany, the FDP recently entered a coalition government with the Christian Democrats and the Greens, with FDP head for Schleswig-Holstein Wolfgang Kubicki, who is also deputy FDP chair at federal level, approving the rejection of tuition fees.

In the NRW coalition government, the junior partner FDP argues that tuition fees for international students are only fair because they and their parents are not paying tax, while part of the tax revenue goes into university funding.

However, a 2014 survey commissioned by the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD and conducted by analysts Prognos AG suggests otherwise. The survey found that in 2011, a total of 160,702 international students had spent €1,531 billion on consumption – the highest value for international students worldwide. This expenditure resulted in tax revenue totalling €400 million – around €2,500 each. This value added had a labour market impact the equivalent of 22,000 jobs.

The overall economic effect of international students after graduating was also positive, with public funding of their studies already being paid off in five years through the tax revenue of the 30% of them staying on and working in Germany.

Presenting the survey in 2014, Federal Education and Research Minister Johanna Wanka noted: “It is good to see that more and more students are coming to Germany. They’re welcome here because they contribute to knowledge exchange, ideas and insights. But the survey also demonstrates that international students are creating real economic advantages for us. They invest, consume, pay taxes and protect jobs.”

Christian Democrat Wanka stressed that attracting more international students required more investments in higher education – investments that would soon pay their way.

Michael Gardner Email: