Angela Merkel’s election win in Germany in September sparked a long battle to form a “grand coalition” with the opposition Social Democrats, her reluctant bride-to-be.
Student accommodation will not have been top of the agenda in the negotiations, but it has become an issue that the federal government will have to address, as protests and stories of students crammed five to a room draw attention to a growing problem for Germany’s students and universities.
Efforts to resolve the matter could lead to changes to the entire funding system for higher education students in Germany.
The loudest complaints have come from the German National Association for Student Affairs (DSW) complete with shocking statistics: 230,000 student residence places are available for a total of 2.5 million students registered at German universities as of this year.
“What we need is a major programme, with both government and Länder [states] working together, to create another 25,000 reasonably priced places in student halls of residence,” says Achim Meyer auf der Heyde, secretary general of the DSW.
The DSW, which represents 58 student associations throughout Germany, administers about 184,000 of the total 230,000 places in student accommodation.
Supply of places, obviously, has not kept up with demand. “The amount of student accommodation available has increased by only a few thousand places in recent years,” Meyer auf der Heyde continues, “although student numbers have shot up.”
In 1999, Germany had about 1.7 million university students, he says, and today’s figure of 2.5 million is expected to keep rising over the next decade.
Places in student halls of residence, costing about €220 (£184) a month, are much sought after, especially as about half the students in such accommodation receive less than the maximum monthly grant of €675. Those not lucky enough to secure subsidised accommodation face alarming consequences, as a DSW-commissioned survey in August this year revealed.
Of the 12,000 online respondents, about two-thirds were first-year students who said they “found it difficult” to find appropriate accommodation, while overseas students claimed they found it “very difficult”.
“In Germany, we have around 400,000 new students every year,” says Meyer auf der Heyde, “in addition to around 95,000 overseas students.”
The unlucky ones among those struggling to find affordable accommodation may end up sleeping five to a room in hostels, for a few euros a night.
“This is far from luxury, of course,” admits Niclas Zumholte, a student in Heidelberg sharing a room with several others in emergency accommodation. “But I don’t expect more,” he admits. “I started looking for a room [only] in mid-September.”
At the University of Cologne, the student association ended up having to provide temporary accommodation in a church hall.
Germany’s university admissions system does not make it easy for first years. Students often receive unconditional acceptances from universities only at the last minute or after term has already begun, depriving them of the chance to organise accommodation in advance.
At some universities students have even staged protests. In Berlin, for example, students with sleeping bags and blankets camped in front of the famous red-brick city hall to draw attention to their plight.