Germany may have to abandon its nationwide ban on tuition fees if the Government is told to amend a law on higher education it passed several years ago.
The federal constitutional court is to hear a case for the abolition of free higher education. The states of Hamburg, Bavaria, Baden Wurttemberg, Saarland, Saxony and Saxony Anhalt decided to launch the case against Berlin more than a year ago. If they are successful, the states will have the right to determine how much universities can charge for degrees.
The states believe that fees would help to increase overall funding for institutions, provided Berlin sets a ceiling and that the universities consider the social issues involved.
Sabine Baun, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education and Research in Berlin, told The Times Higher that Education and Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn had wanted to provide "reliability" for students. "The only effect fees would have is to reduce the number of students and we don't have enough of them in Germany as it is," she said.
Ms Baun said the Government feared there would be no guarantee the states would plough the money raised from fees back into universities. Its research on other countries has shown this is not necessarily the case.
She said Australia was often held up as a model of the "pay later" system, but claimed this was not working because 50 per cent of Australian students were now paying up front, so "they are buying their way in".
The spokeswoman added: "We are looking at the Scandinavian models, which don't have fees, and France, which, like Germany, has only a small enrolment charge."
A loans scheme operated jointly with banks would not be equitable, as "we all know to whom the bank gives loans and who misses out", she said.
Jörg Dräger, Hamburg's senator for science, is leading the group of states, and has demanded a general fee of about E1,000 a year (£660). Mr Drager, who spent many years at a US university, said: "We strongly believe it is part of competition to allow the levying of tuition fees."
He said that Germany spent more on its universities than the US in terms of state funding, but US institutions "triple that through private means, such as alumni and industry sources".
The ministry disputed Mr Drager's claim that fees would serve as a catalyst for universities to reform poorly performing departments and encourage them to set up alumni groups and secure industry funding.
The constitutional court has already ruled against a ministry decision to replace the Habilitation - a postdoctoral thesis - with the "junior professor" scheme, a fast track to tenure.