40 years and he's back for more

May 2, 1997

A German court has ruled that a university cannot bar a student even though he has been studying for 40 years without ever obtaining a degree.

The University of Freiburg, in southwest Germany, had refused to reregister the 61-year-old student, who has been enrolled since 1957. It claimed the man, who has not been named, was not a bona fide student but was just using student status to take advantage of preferential welfare benefits.

But an administrative court in Freiburg ruled that university regulations did not stipulate that people could only study with a view to obtaining a degree. Simply by reregistering, the student had signalled his intention to continue his studies, and he did not need the university's authorisation, the court concluded. A spokesman for Freiburg University, Thomas Nesseler, confirmed that the man was now free to re-enrol.

But he said this legal battle had now been overtaken by political events in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, which last week agreed a controversial law to charge students who outstay their welcome study fees of DM1,000 (Pounds 400) per semester. "We'll see if this student stays on," Dr Nesseler said.

The state of Baden-Wurttemberg, which administers the prestigious universities of Heidelberg and Tubingen, as well as Freiburg, is to impose the penalty fees on students who exceed the minimum study period by more than four semesters. Around 30,000 students in the state, including a quarter of university students, are likely to be affected by the new rule, which will come into effect in 1998's winter semester.

Theoretically, most university degrees can be obtained in eight or nine semesters, but the average is 13, and many students stay more than 20 semesters. Some are bogus students, enrolled only for welfare benefits such as lower health insurance premiums. But students' passage through higher education is also slowed by low student support payments which force many to take on time-consuming part-time jobs. High graduate unemployment also encourages many to keep studying.

In the face of overcrowding and tightening budgets, many German universities are now looking for ways to shake off their long-stay students. Baden-Wurttemberg, ruled by a conservative-liberal coalition, is the first state to demand penalty student fees. It believes it is leading the way for the planned federal higher education reform law. Baden-Wurttemberg's education minister, Klaus von Trotha, said the new rule was socially fair and was aimed at shortening study times and improving universities' responsibilities towards their students.

However, federal education minister Jurgen Ruttgers and the states run by Social Democrat parliaments have rejected study fees, which are politically highly controversial.

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