Fees get grip in Germany

February 4, 2005

Germany's federal constitutional court last week lifted a nation-wide ban on university fees. States will now be able to levy fees without having to get approval from Berlin, as is currently the case for even minimal enrolment charges.

The decision signalled another defeat for Edelgard Bulmahn, the Social Democrat's Education and Research Minister, who saw several of her innovative reforms knocked back last year.

Ms Bulmahn said the move would "change the higher education landscape", maintaining that both low-income and middle-class youth would be "frightened away" by large debts.

"We will be checking this finding very thoroughly," she said after the judge announced his decision, which warned that the "user pays" system would work only if economically disadvantaged groups were catered for, and when fee revenue was channelled directly into universities.

The court's decision opens the floodgates for an American-style education system where a majority of school-leavers will be forced to borrow money to finance their tertiary studies.

Two proponents of the fee system, the Christian Democratic Union Party and Christian Social Union, argue that students will not be disadvantaged and should take out loans if they are not in a position to pay about €500 a semester.

Thomas Goppel, Bavaria's science and research minister, said students could cope financially if they saved €100 a month by giving up an expense, or else took up tutoring for a couple of hours to cover their expenses.

The national student union pointed out that, on average, German students survive on between €600 and €800 a month and that 63 per cent already work during the semester, while many jobs pay only €10 an hour.

Student groups have reacted angrily and national demonstrations were planned for this week in Essen, Duisburg, Hamburg, Leipzig and Mannheim, with more protests due later in the year.

About 1,500 students have already demonstrated in Bamberg, a medieval university town in the heart of Bavaria.

A Bamberg student union spokesperson told a German daily newspaper that school- leavers would be scared away from tertiary studies and "social selection" would increase.

Ms Bulmahn reminded the pro-fee states that "a responsibility exists towards those people who don't have a golden credit card but still want to send their children to university and that, by the way, is the majority of Germans".

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