Abolishing tuition fees: lessons from Germany

Students must mobilise on the streets and build alliances to win free education, says Deborah Hermanns

November 19, 2014
Duesseldorf, student demonstration against tuition fees
Source: Alamy
Fee-free zone: no tuition fees have been charged in Germany since last year

Source: Sang Tan/PA

When I was growing up in Germany, the free education movement was happening all around me. The question of tuition fees dominated whole state elections and it was routine for school students like me to join the many protests. This autumn these protests came to their conclusion when the last remaining state, Lower Saxony, abandoned tuition fees.

During the same period, students in the UK mobilised on the streets in their tens of thousands – but here, the student movement has been repeatedly defeated, from the introduction of tuition fees in the late 1990s to 2012, when the cap on fees was tripled to £9,000. We must ask how the British student movement has managed to fail seemingly so spectacularly.

The German student movement won in large part because it kept going and didn’t compromise. Since the foundation of the “alliance against tuition fees” in 1999, it has fought consistently for free education. The alliance and the movement at large consisted of a number of student groups as well as political parties, major trade unions and community organisations. However, it was the political character of the roughly 100 local, regional and national students’ unions within it that played a large part in the mobilisation and politicisation of students and society at large.

The German conception of student unionism is relatively simple: it is to politically represent the student population to the university, to advise on issues such as financial support or visa questions for international students, and to take on wider political questions. These aims are reflected in union structures, which allow for much direct democracy and very little bureaucracy. For example, at Freie Universität Berlin, the student population elects a parliament which in return elects the executive committee. Decisions about campaigns and allocation of funding are made at a weekly meeting which is open to all students.

In contrast, students’ unions in England are at best under the control of sabbatical officers, many of them elected on an apolitical platform, and at worst in the control of non-elected and non-student managers (“Process of elimination”, 10 July).

Students’ unions have adopted corporate structures – much of which is bound up with charity and trustee law – and the National Union of Students has grown into a large organisation employing over 200 members of staff, with a chief executive officer paid over £100,000, and a commercial wing (NUS Services) with an annual turnover of around £100 million.

By contrast, the FZS, the largest national federation of students’ unions in Germany, representing one million students, has just two staff members of working in its central Berlin office. Everyone else is an elected student representative.

In the UK, many have come to feel that, despite representing 600 students’ unions and seven million students - more than any single trade union in the country and seven times more than Germany’s biggest student union - NUS has simply lost the imagination to develop grassroots movements and has instead in many ways become a service provider.

Since 2010, its only intervention into mobilising students was to call a demonstration in 2012 which marched to Kennington. Every other mobilisation – from the fight against the higher education white paper in 2011, to #copsoffcampus in 2013 – has been run by less formal outfits with almost no resources, such as the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.

The line between a lack of imagination and betrayal is a thin one. When Jim Murphy - now a senior Labour MP - was the union’s president, NUS turned away from free education and effectively supported the principle of fees as they were introduced. When students mobilised in 2010, its then president Aaron Porter – now a higher education consultant for university management – condemned the storming of Milbank and opposed days of action which attracted as many as 120,000 students. When students taking part in protests were attacked and hospitalised, NUS said nothing. The key cultural problem, which has resurfaced again and again, is that NUS is an organisation that is largely run by people who are or aim to be part of the political establishment, rather than fight it.

This week NUS has released a detailed “roadmap” for free education, funded by progressive taxation. This is an encouraging sign, but if it is to mean anything, it must be part of a strategy of action as well as policy briefings.

That is why the NUS leadership’s stance on today’s national demonstration for free education has been so infuriating and telling for many activists on the ground. Citing concerns with a risk assessment exercise, the NUS pulled its support for the protest, and many students’ unions reported receiving calls and emails from NUS leadership figures, encouraging them, in effect, to cancel their coaches.

But today students will be marching - and rightly so. On every occasion where it has been successful, winning free education has been about mobilising on the streets, building alliances, and putting political pressure on the government. If NUS wants to remain a part of this movement, it must wake up to this – and if it doesn’t, the movement will happen without it.

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