Tuition fees at German universities are entering their death throes. The last of the 16 Länder (or states) still levying them will soon phase out fees: Bavaria this summer and Lower Saxony in spring 2014.
When they have gone, German students will no longer have to consider “streaking” past political leaders to express their opposition to government policy. They might otherwise have been tempted, to judge from the German reaction to news that Alki David, a film producer and founder of the social network Battlecam, recently promised to pay the fees of any UK student who ran naked past Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister. The gimmick caught the attention of UniSpiegel, a quarterly publication for students under the aegis of the German news weekly Der Spiegel, which reported on it with much amusement in its most recent issue.
But while Germans may share with the English an appreciation of absurd political theatre, the two nations are poles apart when it comes to tuition fees.
Everyone is aware that, under the UK’s coalition government, the cap on fees at English universities has tripled to £9,000 a year, catapulting the cost of tertiary education in the country way ahead in the European league tables.
At German universities, however, tuition fees, which have been allowed by law only since 2005, have remained steadfastly low at €1,000 a year (£845). Now, the country is abandoning them altogether. The Länder that introduced them have, in recent years, dropped them. In future, first-time students will pay only a significantly lower “semester fee” to cover administration costs, to contribute to student support bodies and, in some cases, to pay for local transport passes.
Battle lines drawn
It was just eight years ago that the Federal Constitutional Court rescinded the ban on tuition fees enshrined in the framework law governing higher education. This paved the way for individual states to introduce fees. Until then the German constitution, in deference to the UN Charter on Human Rights, had stipulated that “free tertiary education” was a basic human right, open to all and free of charge, irrespective of background or financial means.
But some conservative-led Länder, unhappy about any implied federal intrusion in education, traditionally a jealously guarded state policy area, successfully challenged the law. After that, North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony, Bavaria, Hesse, Baden-Wurttemberg, Hamburg and Saarland all ignored mass student protests and introduced upfront tuition fees.
But the battle did not end there. Although politicians offered assurances that the extra funds were being used to improve teaching and to cater better to students’ individual needs, protests continued, culminating in mass demonstrations in 2009 that focused public attention on the students’ plight. Meanwhile, the Left provided sustained political opposition: the Social Democrats and the Left Party joined forces to successfully block the introduction of tuition fees in Berlin, for example.
The rising power of the Green Party has also played a part in rolling back tuition fees. After a historic election victory in Baden-Wurttemberg in 2011 that led to the inauguration of Germany’s first Green state premier, the state government abolished tuition fees. It replaced them with an obligatory “quality assurance” contribution amounting to €280 per student; for a variety of reasons, however, 44 per cent of all students are exempt.
The Greens are also making an impact in Lower Saxony, where they and the Social Democrats comprise the state’s new left-wing government, which will abolish tuition fees early next year.
But even Bavaria, where the conservative-liberal (Christian Social Union/Free Democratic) regional government strongly backed fees, finally caved in to voter pressure in February after the Freie Wähler (Independent Voters) movement launched a referendum that drew huge support, especially from university associations, political groups and unions. In the end, about 15 per cent of the electorate signed a petition, which forced a debate on the issue and led the state government to abolish tuition fees by the end of the current academic year. Regional elections coming later this year were another factor in the decision: the state government did not relish the prospect of the region’s students campaigning against it. Last but not least, a federal election looms in September, and conservative-led states such as Bavaria need to mobilise voters - including students - to keep Angela Merkel in power.
Now Bavaria’s state government has pledged to make up the forgone income to the tune of €200 million.