Germany’s attempt to encourage a university scholarship culture similar to that of the US is now in its seventh year, and more students than ever before are being funded through their studies by a mixture of private and public money.
But according to critics, the scheme has failed to take off as hoped, hampered by a high administrative burden and an entrenched view among German universities and companies that higher education funding is a public, not a private, matter.
In 2011, concerned that universities were too reliant on public money, the government launched the Deutschlandstipendium, which matches private money to provide high-flying students with a monthly stipend of €300 (£260).
“Six years after its introduction, the Deutschlandstipendium is strongly anchored in society,” a spokeswoman for the Federal Ministry of Education and Research claimed. Recently released figures show that in 2016, more than 25,000 students received the stipend under the scheme, which attracted more than 7,000 private sponsors, with some universities appealing to alumni for contributions, and others to private companies.
The idea is creating a “new scholarship culture” in Germany, the spokeswoman said. “Private sponsors are assuming responsibility for talented and committed students.”
The German government worries that the state picks up too much of the bill for student scholarships. Just 16 per cent of scholarship funding in Germany comes from private sources such as companies and alumni, compared with an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 30 per cent, and two-thirds in the US, which arguably has the world’s most successful university philanthropy culture.
Yet observers see matching the US as a distant, if not impossible, goal. In the scheme’s first couple of years, the number of students receiving the Deutschlandstipendium increased rapidly but, since 2013, gains have been modest, with numbers rising by just over a quarter. According to an analysis by Der Spiegel, which branded the initiative a failure, just 0.9 per cent of students receive the stipend, far short of initial expectations, when ministers had hoped that the proportion would be something like 10 per cent.
“We’re talking about a very marginal, minor part of students who get a scholarship,” said Stefan Grob, a spokesman for the German National Association for Student Affairs, which represents Germany’s student service organisations.
In truth, the Deutschlandstipendium is somewhat different from scholarships in the US because, rather than going to those from poor families, it is awarded to students who do well academically and can also boast of special “social commitment and special personal achievements”, for example, “overcoming challenges or obstacles in his or her educational career”.
Employers can choose which subject or course they sponsor, and can also advise universities on the selection process. However, the decision about who receives a scholarship “is a matter for the individual institution of higher education”, according to the ministry spokeswoman.
As a result, companies have been reluctant to contribute because they “can't really choose the students they want to” in order to recruit graduates, Mr Grob said.
More widely, he accuses German companies of “cynicism”, for not doing their fair share to pay for students’ education. “These companies are dependent on academics coming from universities. Why isn’t more money being given?” he said. “They just want highly qualified people right after graduation.”
A spokeswoman for the Confederation of German Employers insisted that firms were contributing “a lot” to the scheme, which now sponsored as many students as all other previously existing sponsorship organisations put together. “This illustrates the broad commitment of private financiers – especially companies,” she said.
But universities have also had their doubts about the Deutschlandstipendium. Administrative costs have also been a complaint – they are reportedly as high as 20 per cent – and so some institutions have shunned the scheme, Mr Grob explained.
He also thinks that German universities are simply not used to private fundraising. The idea is “new and uncomfortable”, he said, adding that philanthropy culture in Germany was “very fragile”.
“Our understanding of higher education is very public.”
Indeed, German students who lack the money to cover their living costs while studying already have a long-established legal right to financial assistance under the Federal Training Assistance Act, which provides them with up to €735 a month. This is why the Deutschlandstipendium rewards high-achieving students, not those from poor backgrounds, according to the ministry spokeswoman.
If Germany’s attempt to ape US philanthropy culture stutters, then, it may also be for another very good reason – the state already provides.