Universities, students brace for a tough winter semester

Heads of universities and student welfare organisations in Germany have called on the federal and state governments to ensure that both academic programmes and social services for students can be maintained in the coming semester despite possible power and gas shortages.

“Institutions are already making energy-saving preparations for a possible gas crisis in the winter, which could also mean tangible restrictions.

“However, the continuation of both long-term research processes which are often linked to acquiring qualifications and face-to-face teaching has to be guaranteed as far as possible,” says Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference or Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (HRK).

Avoiding full-scale online learning

“We have learnt from the corona[virus] pandemic that going back to full-scale distance learning has to be avoided at all costs – both for didactical and social reasons.”

Alt adds that students need secure livelihood prospects for the coming winter semester, warning that on their own, they will be unable to cope with the considerable price hikes Germany is reckoning with in the energy sector.

“Here, it is essential to introduce special compensation for all students,” he says. “And if there really is a gas crisis, it has to be ensured that the programmes run by the student service organisations, in particular student restaurants and day-care centres, are maintained and that halls of residence can stay available.”

In particular, Alt stresses that the huge increases in gas and electricity charges the country is bracing itself for require urgent support via the state governments. “If necessary, this will have to be supplemented by an emergency federal government programme,” he says.

“A further full-scale online winter semester, this time because of power and gas shortages, would put students under enormous psychological and social pressure,” warns Rolf-Dieter Postlep, president of the German National Association for Student Affairs or Deutsches Studentenwerk (DSW), the umbrella association of the student service organisations.

Cost of living worries

“And then there are the worries about the cost of living, given the price hikes and the rate of inflation. Students have to be considered when relief measures are discussed for tenants and consumers. They are just as severely affected as others, and as a rule, they cannot reckon with government support like employees or job-seekers.”

Postlep stresses that the student service organisations are unable to and have no intention of passing on higher energy and food costs to students, although he notes that in some cases, they are left with no option but to raise residence hall rent because of the huge increases in gas rates.

“It is essential to counter this cost spiral politically,” Postlep demands. “Here, the student service organisations urgently require government support via the federal states – in the interests of the students.”

Ukrainian students

On top of this, universities are reckoning with large numbers of Ukrainian students seeking to study in Germany. According to the HRK, around 21,000 students from Ukraine had already expressed an interest in enrolling at German institutions by June, although Alt notes that figures are constantly changing because some of these students have since returned home.

“There may be a substantial group of students who would like to study in Germany and also stay for a longer period,” he says. “But there are others who clearly state that they want to go back to Ukraine as soon as possible.” Nevertheless, language courses, housing and additional teaching staff will be required for those staying.

The German Academic Exchange Service refers to about 100,000 refugee students from Ukraine who could be coming to Germany. Before the war, Ukraine had a student population of nearly 1.6 million. A large number of the students coming from Ukraine are international students from other countries.