The abolition of tuition fees in Germany cannot be a model for the UK because the two countries’ higher education systems are so different, a report has concluded.
The last of the seven German states that formerly charged fees for university study abolished them last year, leading campaigners to call for England to follow suit.
But Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, told Times Higher Education that the German experience does not offer an “off-the-shelf solution”.
In a comparative study published on 3 September, Mr Hillman highlights that the countries educate very different proportions of their young people to degree level, with 48 per cent of Britons aged between 25 and 34 holding a tertiary qualification compared with 27 per cent in Germany.
German universities receive less funding per student than their UK counterparts, according to Mr Hillman, who cites figures putting the gap at more than £2,000 per head and highlights how German public funding for the expansion of undergraduate numbers has fallen short of the costs.
The report says that, even when parts of Germany did charge tuition fees from 2006 onwards, they were at a very low level compared with the UK – typically, €1,000 a year (£730) – and that these states were inevitably played off against regions that offered free higher education.
In Germany, the concentration of research in non-teaching institutions and the ring-fencing of budgets mean that public universities there do not face the same pressure to cross-subsidise such activity from teaching funding, the study says.
Mr Hillman, who was special adviser to David Willetts, the universities minister at the time when the UK introduced £9,000 tuition fees in 2012, adds that there are concerns in Germany about the sustainability of free university education.
The German Rectors’ Conference, the equivalent of Universities UK, has said that the abolition of fees was “erroneous” and that “the future financing of universities in the present circumstances is hardly conceivable”.
Mr Hillman told THE that it was wrong to assume that the UK could simply follow Germany’s example.
“The trouble with making policy by looking at other countries is that it always becomes a bit simplistic,” Mr Hillman said. “People always imply that other countries have off-the-shelf solutions and, if only policymakers in the UK were more intelligent, they would just implement them.
“My analysis suggests that Germany doesn’t provide the answer for opponents of fees that people sometimes think it does.”
Sorana Vieru, the vice-president (higher education) of the National Union of Students, acknowledged that comparing Germany and England on tuition fees was “like comparing apples to pears, since the systems, funding structures and levels of public funding differ”.
But she said that this also meant that German universities’ calls for fees to be reintroduced “do not neatly translate” into an argument for charging to continue in England.
“Universities in both Germany and England may be pushing for increased fees as they need more income under their respective funding structures, so for policymakers it’s easy to see tuition fees as the solution to plugging funding gaps rather than system reform,” she said.
Use renegotiation of EU membership to make case for research funding, says report
UK universities may be missing an opportunity to protect or strengthen their access to European Union research funding as the country’s place in the group is renegotiated.
That is according to the Higher Education Policy Institute’s report on Germany, which highlights the strength of the research relationship between the two countries.
Nick Hillman, the report’s author, writes that there were more than 45,000 collaborative publications produced by German and UK academics between 2008 and 2012, with only the US proving to be a more popular collaborator for both countries.
Germany and the UK are also the biggest beneficiaries of EU research spending, receiving a combined €14.1 billion (£10.3 billion) between 2007 and 2013.
Mr Hillman therefore questions why the negotiations about the UK’s place in Europe, which are taking place ahead of a referendum on the country’s membership, are only focusing on topics that are not felt to be functioning well and need improving.
The UK and Germany could work together to ask for a commitment that EU research funding should remain excellence-based, or for more secure ring-fencing of the research budget, Mr Hillman suggests.
He argues that this would help to strengthen the relationship between the two higher education systems.
“It is an overwhelmingly positive story, but it could potentially be disrupted by changes to EU research funding,” Mr Hillman said. “The absence of clear demands from UK universities in the run-up to the EU referendum is arguably a missed opportunity to give firmer foundations to things that currently work well.”
The report also highlights how German universities do not figure highly in many global league tables because research is concentrated in non-teaching institutions.
Mr Hillman said that, given the importance of league tables in attracting students and research collaborators, this was a potential case for changing either the league table metrics or the German higher education system.