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Germany’s great tuition fees U-turn

Could England force a similar reversal? Howard Hotson asks

Female student leaning against statue

Source: Getty

England has the most extravagant provision of elite private schooling and some of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world

During the past eight years, university tuition fees were introduced into most west German federal states. Yet in a few months, every single state will have abolished them. These facts raise a series of topical questions that cast current English higher education policy in a fresh and revealing light.

Why did Germany introduce tuition fees in the first place? The answer, in short, is that politicians favoured the idea. Self-styled “modernisers” had been advocating tuition fees since German reunification in 1990. Cultural differences between east and west initially hindered this plan, but the main obstacle was a federal law banning tuition fees, which echoed provisions guaranteeing free education in the constitutions of individual states. In 2005, however, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled that moderate fees, coupled with affordable loans, would safeguard these constitutional provisions. Within two years, a cascade of laws had swept through most of the federal Länder. The attraction of shifting some of the funding burden to individual beneficiaries was irresistible. So was the compulsion to imitate the changes made elsewhere, lest universities in one’s own state should remain less well funded, and the public purse more stretched, than in neighbouring states.

Seven out of 10 states in west Germany introduced fees in 2006 or 2007; an eighth, Bremen, was prevented from doing so by a lawsuit. Only two – Rheinland-Pfalz and Schleswig-Holstein – resisted the tide completely.

If such unanimity had been maintained, policymakers would now be declaring these changes inevitable. Yet within a single electoral cycle, their long-sought policy was comprehensively overturned. The only state still charging tuition fees in 2014, Lower Saxony, will cease to do so at the end of this academic year.

This raises a second and more interesting question: what immovable object blocked this seemingly irresistible force? The answer, in a word, is democracy. In Hesse, for instance, students protested en masse, a citizens’ initiative collected 70,000 signatures, and the ruling Christian Democratic Union party, fighting for re-election in 2008, reversed course in order to retain power. Tuition fees then unravelled at almost the same speed as they had been stitched up. Those state governments that followed Hesse’s lead in abolishing fees stayed in power; those that refused were removed from office at the next election. The U-turns involved were often spectacular. The conservative prime minister of Bavaria, threatened with a fee referendum, arm-twisted his liberal coalition partner into abolishing fees. He survived the election of September 2013 but his liberal partner, the Free Democratic Party, having announced it would return with a better idea on fees, lost power. In a few months, Germany’s brief experiment with university tuition fees will be over.

Universities in Europe in 1650

Click image to enlarge - Note: Adapted from a series of maps published in A History of the University in Europe, Volume 2: Universities in Early Modern Europe (1500-1800), edited by Hilde de Ridder-Symoens (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

A political narrative of this kind raises more fundamental questions. Why did the German electorate react so forcefully to the imposition of annual fees of €1,000 (£824)? And why was their reaction so powerful politically? After all, in the winter of 2010, English student protests on a scale not seen for a generation were in effect ignored by Westminster. Why was popular pressure more effective in Germany? Sketching answers to these questions requires a far broader historical canvas, for they are ultimately rooted in nearly seven centuries of university history layered on top of German political geography.

For most of its history, Germany has been a federal entity. From the late 14th century, many of the leading princes of the Holy Roman Empire wanted universities of their own, not merely for prestige but to train loyal officials and churchmen without draining resources from their territories. The Reformation reinforced this tendency with theological logic: clergy henceforth needed to be trained in the precise local flavour of theology and church polity. By 1630, Germany boasted two dozen universities and another two dozen sub-university institutions of great variety. Within this crowded landscape, oldest was by no means best. Instead, the process of university reform was typically driven forward by new universities: Wittenberg, Halle, Göttingen, Bonn and the Humboldt University in Berlin, to name a few. In short, by the time the third English university (University College London) was established in 1826, Germany had been peppered for centuries with dozens of venerable institutions to which local populations felt a sense of pride, connection and eventually even entitlement (see map, above). When access to these local sources of cultural identity and socio-economic advancement were threatened by the thin edge of marketisation, local people rose up in opposition.

Political fragmentation also ensured that their voices were heard. After the disaster of the Third Reich, Germany reverted to its federal pattern. Education became, once again, one of the main responsibilities of individual Länder. Higher education is therefore a prominent issue in local politics, on which politicians cannot afford to ignore the views of local people. So while long-established local universities ensured that people had strong views on the public provision of higher education, Germany’s federal system of government ensured that those views were heard. In the event, traditions of local identity and local democracy were powerful enough to triumph over the neoliberal group-think of Germany’s politicians.

To the English reader, this combination of local universities, local politics and the reversal of seemingly inevitable tuition fees may seem like another world. But the same forces had produced the same result a decade earlier much closer to home: in Scotland. Between 1412 and 1582, this small and thinly populated country founded five separate universities in the localities – more per head of population than any other country in Europe. Even after the merger of the Aberdonian university colleges in 1860, Scotland remained dotted with ancient universities as a source of local pride and identity: if Germany is the land of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), then Scotland is home to “the democratic intellect” and the “lad o’pairts” (lowly but clever youth). When control over higher education devolved from Westminster in May 1999, one of the first major acts of the new parliament in Holyrood was to revisit the £1,000 tuition fees introduced throughout the UK in 1998: tuition fees were replaced by a graduate endowment fee, which was abolished altogether only two years after it came into effect.

The English case could scarcely be more different from the German one. Here, too, geography is key. Thanks partly to its island location, England unified early and then created by far the most unified system of higher education of any major European country. Two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) had a 600-year headstart on the others, piling up historical associations, prestige, buildings, resources, a collegiate structure and a unique pedagogical system, which make them different in nature from all the others. England therefore lacks a cluster of ancient local universities, providing a locus of cultural identity and aspiration. The English can scarcely even speak of their other universities without using vaguely disparaging categories such as “provincial”, “redbrick”, “plate glass” or “former poly”.

Students at Humboldt Universitat zu Berlin

Source: Getty

The German people have chosen to maintain the tried and tested system on which, they believe, their current broadbased prosperity depends

The results of this historical legacy for England’s educational system are profound, unmistakable and mostly regrettable. England has (after the US) the most highly stratified major university system in the world, the most extravagant and rapidly growing provision of elite private schooling, among the most unequal distribution of opportunity, wealth and income, and some of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. And these problems are now being compounded by the highest university fees by far of any public university system anywhere. At the regional level, control over higher education is non-existent. With no domestic basis for comparing different university systems, policy is made on abstract, speculative and, ultimately, ideological grounds. At the national level, universities fall far nearer the bottom than the top of government priorities. The result is a huge democratic deficit, in which politicians impose self-consciously radical policies lacking clear electoral mandate in the face of popular opposition without fear of effective resistance and the whole sector is manipulated by private lobbying and special interests.

During the 2010 general election, Labour and the Conservatives famously conspired to keep higher education out of their manifestos. And after the election, the Liberal Democrats infamously betrayed their most prominent manifesto commitment: to eliminate university tuition fees altogether. No party had a democratic mandate for radical change, yet no party seems prepared to challenge the changes that have been imposed: the Conservatives because they favour marketisation in principle; Labour because they are responsible for the economic debacle that provided the pretext for change; and the Liberal Democrats because of their notorious track record on this issue. If the changes imposed in this electoral cycle are allowed to bed down for another one, they may prove irreversible.

English politicians insist that they are only being realistic, that the public funding of higher education is financially unsustainable, and that the rest of the world will eventually be forced to imitate their bold reforms. Yet Scandinavian countries maintain high-quality, efficient mass university systems, like Germany, without charging students, and so do the Dutch and the Swiss with tuition fees at a fraction of the English level (see ‘University tuition fees in Europe, by country’ table at end of article). How is this supposedly unsustainable arrangement being sustained in Europe’s most economically sound and successful countries?

Here, contrasting the recent economic history of Britain and Germany is particularly instructive. Thirty years ago, the UK gambled its economic future on the neoliberal promise of a new knowledge economy, in which money could be made without making anything else. There was no point in trying to maintain manufacturing jobs in the UK, our politicians insisted: far better to adapt to the new reality and build a post-industrial economy on a new model. For decades, Germany was treated with disdain by the Anglo-American axis, which boasted that it had found a new high road to growth. The bursting of the US housing bubble in 2007, the meltdown of the international financial system and the revelation of deep-seated corruption in the financial sector has silenced those boasts, and set the UK scrambling to “rebalance the economy”, that is, to reindustrialise more along the lines of the German model. Germans, having resisted that neoliberal fantasy, can still afford public higher education, and are entitled to a bit of Schadenfreude. But having lost its gamble on the economy as a whole, the UK government is now wagering the future of England’s university system on another highly speculative neoliberal experiment. Trying to maintain direct public support for higher education, our policymakers assert, is futile: far better to adapt to the new reality (again) and build a marketised university system on a new model. The Germans contemplated this argument as well, and then rejected it decisively.

Hence the really crucial question: which country will prove more prudent this time around? Once again, it will be 20 or 30 years before the answer is evident, but a comparison of the ways in which these policies have been arrived at, and of their intended consequences, is nevertheless suggestive.

University orchestra playing

Source: Getty

The German policy has a clear democratic mandate. The English policy, equally clearly, does not. Do the English need to learn lessons in democracy as well as economy from their German cousins?

The German policy is based on decades of experience. The German people have chosen to maintain the tried and tested system on which, they believe, their current broadbased prosperity depends. The English solution is self-consciously radical and highly speculative: England’s politicians are conducting an unprecedented experiment on one of the world’s most highly regarded university systems without first studying the plentiful empirical evidence that their key ideological assumptions may be unsound. Do the English also need to relearn the virtues of genuine conservatism, prudent empiricism and their traditional aversion to ideologically driven radicalism?

The Germans aim to maintain a fairly level playing field by funding all institutions roughly equally through progressive general taxation. Equality of educational opportunity is designed to benefit their country economically by nurturing talent and rewarding hard work wherever they are found, irrespective of family background. The explicit objective of the English experiment is to increase educational inequality by further concentrating resources within an upper tier of elite research universities. This will incentivise still greater investment by wealthy parents in the kind of private schooling that provides advantageous access to elite institutions. So the end result will be to distribute lucrative educational credentials roughly in proportion to wealth, as market principles require. With educational opportunity contracting to the wealthy, and the hope of shared prosperity dashed, the ideal of shared funding of higher education will soon appear odious and absurd. To many in England, wealthy or otherwise, it already does. German policy is therefore an act of faith in a future in which opportunity and prosperity are widely shared. English policy is an act of despair, in which the wealthy cloak the consolidation of their advantage in the language of a “competition” that they are favoured to win and a “choice” that only winners can exercise.

Viewed retrospectively, 2014 may well mark a major fork in the road, in which higher education policies were consolidated with profound consequences for cultural health, social cohesion and economic prosperity in England and Germany. For those who yearn for a Germanic change of course, the idea that this case of English exceptionalism is rooted in 800 years of political and intellectual geography is not encouraging. But the German example does indicate the strategy that must be adopted if this course is to be altered: the campaign against fees must be fought out in the localities. If national parties think there are no votes in higher education, individual MPs should be instructed otherwise. That requires a campaign, coordinated at the national level by the National Union of Students in cooperation with the University and College Union, targeted at marginal university constituencies.

Such a strategy puts students back where they belong: at the heart of the debate about the future of the English university system, rather than as passive subjects of a fee settlement imposed precisely because it affects future students, that is, those who are not yet old enough to vote. Like it or not, it is today’s and tomorrow’s students who will be left to pick up the pieces when the results of this radical experiment become clear in 20 or 30 years’ time. The final question, therefore, is whether young people have the maturity and wisdom to foresee and help avoid the outcome that their elders prefer to disregard. That’s a big ask, but one to which their German peers have already responded. We’ll know the answer by the time the British next go to the polls in little more than a year’s time.

Medical students in lecture hall

Source: Getty

University tuition fees in Europe, by country

CountryProportion of GDP invested in tertiary education in 2010 – public and privateProportion of GDP invested in tertiary education in 2010 – public onlyTuition fees at publicly funded universities (£ per year, home students, latest available data)†
*No data. † Year may vary. Source: OECD, Education at a Glance, published June 2013, and other sources. Note: Figures from Education at a Glance given in $. Other figures calculated in £ and obtained from universities and other sources. Figures on GDP predate England’s 2012 fee rise.
UK1.4%0.7%Fees of up to £9,000 in England, covered by student loan repaid on graduation
Ireland1.6%1.3%A student contribution of £2,080. Tuition fees are levied but the cost is generally
met by the exchequer
Netherlands1.7%1.3%Fees of around £1,600. Average fee $1,966 in 2010-11
Italy1.0%0.8%Fees average around £1,000. Average fee $1,407 in 2010-11
Switzerland*1.3%Between £400 and £2,700 a year depending on university attended. Average fee $863 in 2010-11 
France 1.5%1.3%Start at around £160, with higher fees for engineering (around £500) and medicine (varies). Fees ranged from $200 to $1,402 in 2010-11
Denmark1.9%1.8%No tuition fees 
Sweden1.8%1.6%No tuition fees 
Finland1.9%1.9%No tuition fees 
Germany**No tuition fees from 2014

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Readers' comments (5)

  • An excellent piece of analysis, flawed by one ill-thought-out aside: 'Labour because they are responsible for the economic debacle that provided the pretext for change'. This is a myth, or at best a gross oversimplification. Labour's responsibility here is much more directly related to the issue at hand: they introduced tuition fees (and withdrew grants) following the Dearing Report, which opened the door and leaves them with no basis of principle on which to oppose further marketisation.

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  • It is not as if German universities were charging equivalent of £9000 euros per year was it? Hence not a news even if one argues about dropping the principle of tuition fee charging.

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  • 'That requires a campaign, coordinated at the national level by the National Union of Students in cooperation with the University and College Union, targeted at marginal university constituencies.'

    This grossly underestimates the extent to which the NUS is under labour party control. This was evident in the 2010 protests, where all the marches after the first one had to be organised without them. Not to mention the lamentable conduct of the NUS president of the time through the whole process.

    Labour don't want to abolish tuition fees, or to encourage extra-parliamentary modes of political mobilisation, so the NUS won't act on either.

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  • Fanis Missirlis

    Thank you. Solid analysis well put.

    I was in Göttingen, Germany doing a Ph.D. when they first introduced the 50 Euros fee. I campaigned German students - via a local Greek student organisation - warning that it would soon become 1000 Euros and bring about the disaster of approaching knowledge as a commodity.

    Not all is rosy on the other side. I quote from a recent message I received: "The [German] university is directed by the bureaucrats, who manage to block everything, and the scientists are treated like a lower class, especially if they happen to have been born outside of the national borders. It's sad to see how a university that used to be prestigious is going down in free fall."

    I now repeat Howard Horton’s question: “…whether young people have the maturity and wisdom to foresee and help avoid the outcome that their elders prefer to disregard".

    I see a contradiction here. Instead, I suggest: the elders who can see should reach out to their audiences and take associated risks (i.e. receiving the wrath of the establishment). There are hints to that when suggesting UCU should work together with NUS. But, in the spirit of the author's proposals, let me also add: Colleagues who understand, reach out (= educate) your students. On all matters that are required to bring about a higher education.


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  • The author makes a link between the reversal of the German tuition fee policy and Germany's apparent success as a manufacturing country. The recent English admiration for all things German might thus suggest that England should emulate German free HE. I would suggest, though, that this link is unwarranted. Germany's manufacturers may be world-leading but its HE is not. Germany's HE is appallingly underfunded and students are mostly left to their own devices. Smart (read: middle-class) students get what they need but many give up and drop out. Would you prefer to have a degree at 21 while having £40 debt or having no degree at 25 while being debt-free? I'd even say that Germany's HE is at least as socially selective as England's; free tuition doesn't change that.

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