A student sits on the stairs at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder. Photo: Getty
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How Germany managed to abolish university tuition fees

Despite the fact that competition for funding and accountability has increased in German higher education, there is still a general consensus that it is a public system and should be state-funded.

If Germany has done it, why can’t we? That’s the question being asked by many students around the world in countries that charge tuition fees to university. From this semester, all higher education will be free for both Germans and international students at universities across the country, after Lower Saxony became the final state to abolish tuition fees.

It’s important to be aware of two things when it comes to understanding how German higher education is funded and how the country got to this point. First, Germany is a federal country with 16 autonomous states responsible for education, higher education and cultural affairs. Second, the German higher education system – consisting of 379 higher education institutions with about 2.4m students – is a public system which is publicly funded. There are a number of small private institutions but they enrol less than 5 per cent of the total student body.

Back and forth with fees

Until 1970-71, West-German higher education students had to pay tuition fees at the level of about 120 to 150 German Marks per semester. There were needs-based exceptions but basically these fees had to be paid by every student.

When they came to power in the late 1960s, Germany’s Social Democrats supported higher education expansion by promoting widening participation and equal opportunities and by increasing the number of higher education institutions. From 1971 onwards, a system of state financial assistance for students was established and tuition fees were abolished. The assistance came first as a grant, later as a mix of half repayable-loan and half grant.

During the peak period of higher education expansion in the late 1960s, exclusive funding of higher education by the states became too much of a burden. New provisions were introduced for a framework law laying down the general principles governing higher education across West Germany. The first law, introduced in 1976, included a prohibition of tuition fees.

Despite a flirtation with the idea of re-introducing tuition fees under the conservative-liberal coalition government in the 1980s, a stalemate ensued over whether tuition fees would lead state governments to reduce their regular funding to universities.

Fees win out in late 1990s

The fall of the Berlin Wall and German Unification put all reform plans on hold for several years until the whole East German system of higher education institutions and academies had been evaluated and reformed. A new discussion about tuition fees then started around the mid-1990s, with their re-introduction seen as a solution to a number of existing problems in the higher education system.

Around the end of the 1990s, the dam of resistance broke by allowing the introduction of fees for so-called long-term students: students who had been enrolled several semesters past the regular duration of their study programme and had not finished.

Those states with a conservative government filed a law suit in 2002 against the framework law of higher education, arguing that its prohibition of tuition fees was an illegitimate intervention into the legal authority for educational matters of the states. The Federal Constitutional Court upheld the complaint in 2005; immediately, seven states introduced tuition fees.

In 2006, the framework law was abolished under wider reforms of German federalism. Tuition fees were capped at 500 Euros per semester, but Berlin and all East-German states refused to introduce them.

Excellence and crisis

Yet the same reform of federalism led the states to reclaim complete authority and responsibility for their higher education. This led the Federal Ministry for Education and Research to refuse any further co-funding with states on higher education. And it left the federal ministry with a lot of spare money. A large part of this was eventually invested into the German Excellence Initiative, a competitive funding programme launched in 2005 to support a group of universities to become global players.

But this also meant that the poorer states faced a funding crisis for their higher education institutions. The problem was aggravated by the fact the a number of the poorer states were located in East Germany, where all states had decided not to introduce tuition fees in the hopes to attract more students.

Gradual abolition

In successive years, as soon as state government elections have elected social democratic or green party governments, tuition fees have been abolished. The state of Hesse, for example, had tuition fees for only a single year. In the end only two states were left with tuition fees: Bavaria and Lower Saxony. The conservative government of Bavaria gave into the mainstream and abolished tuition fees in the winter semester 2013-14, with Lower Saxony abolishing fees in the winter semester 2014-15.

But the heads of higher education institutions negotiated with their ministries, arguing that they could not properly do their job of offering high-quality student experience if the loss of income from tuition fees was not compensated one way or another.

So most states have agreed to compensate their higher education institutions with extra money – not quite covering the loss in fees though – which was to be invested exclusively into the improvement of the quality of studies and teaching. Most ministries decreed that students had to be involved in decisions about how and for what purposes the money was going to be spent.

How funding works now

The present situation is that all higher education institutions receive a budget from the responsible ministry of the state in which they are located, based on annual or biennial negotiations. This basic budget is complemented by additional agreements between higher education institutions and the state concerning the intake of additional numbers of students and the money to compensate the loss of income from tuition fees.

There are additional funding programmes – some funded jointly by the states and the federal ministry – for supporting and promoting research, in the competition for excellence.

Of course, most higher education institutions continue to feel underfunded. The pressure on academic staff to attract external research funding has increased, as has competition for such grants. Still, compared to other countries in Europe, German higher education institutions continue to be rather generously funded by their states – an estimated 80 per cent of their overall budgetary needs. There are also ample opportunities and considerable amounts of external research funding available.

Publicly funded, but for how long?

Despite the fact that competition for funding and accountability has increased in German higher education, there is still a general consensus that it is a public system and should be state-funded. The abolition of tuition fees, even by conservative state governments, reflects this consensus too. In fact, the new Federal Minister for Education and Research, a member of the Conservative Party, recently announced a major increase in the levels of needs-based state financial assistance to students that will start in the 2016-17 academic year.

But funding varies considerably depending on different institutional and regional factors. The winners of the German Excellence Initiative have received and are receiving considerable amounts of additional funding in the hope that more German universities will be able to achieve better positions on world university rankings. There were 12 German universities in the 2014-15 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, up from 10 the year before.

Higher education institutions in the poorer states (most of them in the east of Germany) receive less money and academic staff are being paid lower salaries while higher education institutions in the richer states (typically in the south) are better funded.

The debate about tuition fees – though dead for the moment – can easily be revived in the future. It has not been dropped from the agenda once and for all. Government policies continue to be in favour of tuition fees, most representatives of institutional leadership are as well, though for different reasons. But there is currently a lack of general public support. Once this has changed – and influential advisory bodies and think tanks are working towards such a change – the idea of tuition fees will be introduced again.

Barbara Kehm is a member (and former Secretary) of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) and the German Association of Higher Education Research GfHf). This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.