German leaders, not students, reject charges

Opposition to tuition fees among German students is waning as they reap the benefits of extra educational funds, a conference has heard.

May 10, 2012

Stephan Bierling, professor of international politics at the University of Regensburg, told a British Council conference on the UK and German higher education systems that opposition to upfront fees came principally from politicians, not students.

Undergraduate concerns revolved around overcrowded classrooms, lack of contact time and inadequate facilities, Professor Bierling told the conference in Wildbad Kreuth, near Munich, on 3 May, an event co-hosted by the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Centre for British Studies, University of Bamberg.

Students were anxious that the quality of their university studies should not be diminished, he said.

Only two German states allow universities to impose "student contributions" - Bavaria and Lower Saxony. Most provinces have scrapped upfront fees, which only usually amount to around EUR500 (£406) a semester.

Professor Bierling, a former vice-president at Regensburg, which charges fees, said the revenue gained (which must be spent directly on students and during the semester it is received) had been vital in improving the academic experience.

"For the first time, my university has created an income that is not subject to political interference," he said. "If you do not generate income of your own, you cannot have autonomy." He added that fees had allowed Regensburg to offer humanities classes with fewer than 20 people and to buy journals and textbooks.

"I would say we were maybe third or fourth division in terms of our equipment. But we are now close to the Premier League and are knocking on the door."

However, Professor Bierling observed, German politicians were unwilling to make the case for fees because of voters' deep-seated commitment to equality.

"No politician will say: 'Because of these funds we were able to hire people and have a more formalised approach to university studies.' Politicians in regions that introduced tuition fees were voted out of office," he said.

"This [opposition] is deeply rooted in our culture. The value of equality is much more appreciated than the need for [university] freedom or performance."

Dieter Mehl, emeritus professor of English at the University of Bonn, added: "For political reasons, [fees are] sabotaged and it is voters who decide as they influence politicians.

"It is very unlikely that universities will be able to introduce tuition fees. It is paradoxical because we have fees for kindergarten, but universities are expected to be free."

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