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In Germany the great experiment with tuition fees is coming to an end. Seven of the 16 states introduced tuition fees after a federal court ruling in 2005 freed them to do so, but one by one they have undone them. The last two states to charge tuition fees, Bavaria and Lower Saxony, are expected to abolish them in the coming months, making Germany an outlier amid a global trend toward the introduction and increase of tuition fees.

Tuition fees in Germany are by an American standard modest --  €1,000, or about $1,300, per year -- but the imposition of them in a country with a tradition of “free” public higher education has proven politically divisive. The more conservative Christian Democratic Union and Free Democratic Party have championed tuition fees, while the leftist Social Democratic and Green Parties have brought about their revocation. The German Rectors’ Conference, the association of universities, supports modest tuition fees, while the student and faculty unions stand opposed.

“Right now, the German Rectors’ Conference sees the issue of tuition fees in Germany as -- how should I put it -- politically dead,” says Gordon Bölling, the head of the association’s North America section. “It’s a topic which at this moment you cannot raise because public opinion in Germany is dead-set against it.”

That said, the German Rectors' Conference remains in favor of the Australian student contribution model, in which students defer tuition payments by taking out income-contingent loans. “The most important issue is the adequate funding of our universities, and we find it difficult to secure this funding,” Bölling says. “Tuition fees would be one additional source of funding.”

Granted, in Germany it is a minor source: at the Technical University of Munich, in Bavaria, tuition fees make up less than 2 percent of the budget. “But it’s had very important consequences to our university,” says Ulrich Marsch, the university spokesman. “By law, tuition fees had to be spent only on improving teaching, not for constructing buildings, not for large-scale efforts or machinery for research, but only for teaching: teaching assistants, offering more classes, offering more tutorials and so forth. So it is difficult to uphold our high quality of teaching if we’re missing something like €20 million a year.”

It is anticipated that in abolishing tuition the Bavarian government will make up for the lost revenue, as has been the case, more or less, in the other states. But it’s an open question whether this supplemental funding will be sustained indefinitely. Frank Ziegele, the managing director of the Centre for Higher Education, a German think tank, points out that German states are approaching a period of austerity, as the so-called “debt brake” will constrain them from deficit spending. When the effect is felt in a few years, Ziegele expects the debate over tuition will be renewed.

"When these fiscal constraints come, there will be competition between higher education and other education needs, and it will really be a tough time for all the actors in higher education,” Ziegele says. “We prepare for that situation by abolishing a very modest private contribution. This is completely crazy, from my point of view.”

However, Malte Huebner, an economist at the German Council of Economic Experts who has analyzed the effect of tuition fees on student enrollment, is not convinced that tuition fees will be brought back for financial reasons; rather, he suggests that even if the states are fiscally constrained, the federal government will step in. Huebner has found that the introduction of tuition fees initially had a small but significant effect on enrollments at German universities. “There was no crisis, like a sudden drop in absolute enrollment figures,” he says. “In general, we had rising student numbers in all states. But what I found is without tuition fees they would have risen even faster in the fee[-charging] states.”

The proportion of the population in Germany that is entering and graduating from higher education is increasing, but the country still lags behind Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development averages in these regards. “Tuition fees have had a negative effect on higher education access,” says Andreas Keller, a member of the executive board in charge of higher education and research at the German Education Union. “They bring insecurity for young people who are considering if they should go to university or not.”

The German Education Union argues that higher education is a human right -- a belief enshrined in the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The covenant, which Germany is a party to, stipulates that “[h]igher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”

“You can fund higher education institutions without tuition fees if the government will put enough priority on the funding of higher education,” says Keller, who also cites data showing that the proportion of German national wealth invested in education, and in higher education specifically, falls below OECD averages. 

“There is nothing inevitable regarding tuition fees,” says Pedro Teixeira, an associate professor of economics at the University of Porto, in Portugal, and a co-editor of the 2006 volume, Cost-sharing and Accessibility in Higher Education: A Fairer Deal? “It’s really a question of what is the social contract.”

The introductory chapter of the above-mentioned book notes that “Worldwide, the most common (albeit deeply contested) approach to the need for increasing revenue is some form or forms of cost-sharing, or the shift of some of the higher educational per-student costs from governments and taxpayers to parents and students.”

The authors cite increasing tuition fees in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the fairly recent implementation of tuition fees in several Western European countries, including England and Austria. After first introducing tuition in 1998, England’s universities now charge up to ₤9,000, or about $13,750, annually -- the highest rate in Europe. Like Germany, however, Austria has since backtracked: tuition fees were first introduced in 2001 and abolished for most students in 2008, according to partisan dynamics that mirror those of Germany.

New regulations going into effect for the summer term call for fees, but only for international students from outside the European Union and for Austrian and other EU students who exceed the normal term of study by two semesters (i.e., if they’re enrolled in a three-year bachelor program and it takes them more than four years to complete it).

A 2012 European Commission study identified nine countries that do not typically charge any tuition fees for students from within the EU – Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Malta, Norway, Scotland and Sweden.

“It’s a question of how much a society can continue to afford subsidizing non-tuition fee mass higher education, but also what are the social perceptions of what higher education is about and what are the missions of higher education,” Teixeira says.

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