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 program, 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 ($300) a month, are much sought after, especially as about half the students in such accommodation receive less than the maximum monthly grant of €675 ($910). Those not lucky enough to secure subsidized 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,” says 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 organize 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.
“Berlin wants to attract high-profile academics and researchers,” says Petra Mai-Hartung, who heads Berlin’s student association. “Well, let them invest in student accommodation first.” Berlin has a waiting list of 1,500 for places in halls of residence, which can mean a wait of up to two years for some applicants.
Desperation can drive innovation, as a recent move by the student association at the University of Hannover has shown. It set up a service whereby a student could offer to let a fellow student sleep on their sofa – free of charge, naturally.
But one of the most inventive responses to the dearth of student accommodation at German universities came from Philip Röder, aged 25, living in a basement room at his parents’ house in Munich. “I noticed one day that a room in a student flat I’d applied for was being advertised again. I hadn’t been turned down; in fact, I had been confident I would get the room.”
Disappointed, he wrote a protest song entitled "Living Despite Munich." He had access to a recording studio where he had a student job, and he and a friend created a video and posted it on YouTube. After a week, he started to get offers of accommodation, along with positive feedback from students in similar situations.
“When you’re a student, you don’t have a lobby,” explains Röder, “so it’s important to get your message across, whichever way you can.” Friends rallied round, posting new photos of him online daily, to keep public interest up until, after three months, he finally got offered a room in a student flat.
Less spectacularly, but with similar determination, the DSW board of trustees, led by Horst Hippler, chair of the German Rectors’ Conference, is demanding that the incoming federal government, together with state governments, provide more, affordable accommodation for students.
In a bid to secure greater financing for students’ living costs, the DSW, together with the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB), is pressing for reforms to higher education funding. It wants sweeping changes to the system of student loans in order to make studying cheaper and also to make higher education more accessible to a larger section of the population.
First and foremost, the DSW wants the current age limits for grant entitlements abolished: at present, the maximum age for starting a bachelor’s degree is 30, and 35 for a master’s.
In addition, both the DSW and the DGB want all grants to be fully government subsidized, as they were in the 1970s. At present, two kinds of state benefits are given: half in the form of grants that need not be repaid, the other half in the form of government loans. “Government grant policies shouldn’t be dependent on how much money is in state coffers,” says Dieter Timmermann, president of the DSW.
Elke Hannack, chair of the DGB, adds that “students from poorer families who depend on government loans shouldn’t be at a financial disadvantage just because political parties can’t agree on how they want to increase student grants.”
A working group focusing on education issues, headed by Johanna Wanka, the Christian Democrat federal minister of education and research, has announced that there will be “substantial increases” to existing subsidy levels. Planned changes will include aligning loans and grants, as well as rental allowances, to the cost of living; means-tested benefits will also increase.
A decision could come quite quickly, as coalition negotiations have now concluded. The nation will be watching the new government to see if it fulfills election pledges and starts legislating on key policy areas. Increasing student loans is on the agenda, and students and their representative organizations will be hoping that there will also be more, affordable accommodation on the cards.