Financial Sturm und Drang if German fees are jettisoned

President of top institution fears funding doldrums as student numbers skyrocket. Jack Grove reports

December 1, 2011

Credit: Getty
Step change: the drive to ditch tuition charges throughout Germany may have an adverse effect on budgets at institutions such as Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität

Plans to abolish tuition fees in Germany as student numbers surge could put universities under severe financial pressure, the president of the country's top-ranked higher education institution has warned.

Bernd Huber, president of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, said the drive to scrap tuition fees in all parts of Germany, which currently stand at €1,000 (£860) a year, could adversely affect institutions unless replacement funds are guaranteed.

Only two of Germany's 16 federal states - Lower Saxony and Bavaria - still charge upfront fees after the south-west region of Baden-Wurttemberg became the latest province to scrap the charges.

Hamburg and North-Rhine Westphalia have also removed fees in the past two years shortly after the Social Democrats won control at state level.

But in an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Huber said that the tuition fees levied in Bavaria were important for improving facilities for students at Ludwig-Maximilians, despite making up just 6 per cent of the university's €480 million budget.

"It is very clear that we badly need the revenue from the tuition fees," he said.

"We have used these funds to improve services for students by, for instance, extending library opening hours, giving more tutorials and improving facilities in medical education.

"These are very low fees of only €1,000 a year, but we do recognise that the burden on students is quite high."

He added that he would not be surprised if Bavaria scrapped fees in the near future, but argued that replacement funds were vital.

A one-off surge in student numbers caused by the shortening of secondary education and the suspension of military service, resulting in double cohorts of school leavers, has made the need for funds all the more pressing, he added. "We have quite an increase in student numbers - about 25 per cent," said Professor Huber.

However, Ludwig-Maximilians has benefited significantly from investment under Germany's Excellence Initiative - in which leading research universities are rewarded with extra funding - which has left it well placed to expand its recruitment of doctoral candidates.

Any such expansion is likely to be watched closely by other research-led institutions in Europe, from which doctoral candidates could be poached, particularly those in the UK, where there are deep concerns about the state of postgraduate funding.

"We have significantly increased the number of PhD programmes and we want to further this strategy," Professor Huber said.

"We try to attract the best PhD and postdoctoral students and we offer them some very good programmes. PhD students do not pay fees and we also have a research fellowship system, where they get funding for two years on very attractive terms."

The job prospects available to graduates in a strong German economy could also aid recruitment of top young researchers, he added.

"Five years ago, everyone was saying Germany was the sick man of Europe, so I am rather amused that Germany is now seen as so strong," he said.

"But the perception of Germany as having well-funded and strong research institutions will help us a lot."

Professor Huber also welcomed Ludwig-Maximilians' performance in this year's Times Higher Education World University Rankings, in which it claimed 45th place.

This made it the top-ranked German institution and the eighth highest-ranked university in Europe, with a particularly strong rating in teaching.

"I am no rankings junkie, but I am very pleased," Professor Huber said.

Founded in 1472, the university has around 44,000 students and offers degrees in 150 subjects, employing some 3,600 academic staff.

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