German university rectors have pledged to continue developing their plans for student fees, despite triggering almost universal opposition from politicians and students.
Hans-Uwe Erichsen, president of the Conference of University Rectors (HRK), said the fees plan was "a last resort" to try to solve the financial crisis in higher education.
The model under discussion by rectors of the 240 universities and Fachhochschulen, or polytechnics, is to charge students DM1,000 (Pounds 440) per semester. Only half of Germany's 1.8 million students would be eligible; the state would pay the fees of the less wealthy.
The rectors insist their plan would depend on individual universities being allowed to keep the fees collected from their students and that the country's tax regulations be reformed to ease the burden on families. They claim this would help cut their deficit which they say will total DM6 billion next year, out of a DM31 billion budget.
Supporters claim it would make universities more competitive and encourage students to do their degrees more quickly. One reason for the squeeze in German universities is that students often take more than seven years to do a first degree.
There appeared to be just a slender majority in favour of fees among the HRK's 240 members. During the debate, some rectors, such as Heidelberg University's Peter Ulmer, maintained that fees could help reduce study time.
But others cautioned that fees could be a step in the wrong direction, opening opportunities for government to press for even more austerity measures.
The example of Zurich University, where the imposition of tuition fees resulted in a 20 per cent reduction in enrolments, was cited.
Professor Erichsen admitted that the fees model is hotly controversial, even within the HRK. But he said "we are desperate".
After this "first reading", the fees model is to be reworked and voted on at the next HRK meeting in February.
Anke Brunn, higher education minister for North-Rhine Westphalia and chairman of the Social Democratic Party commission on education, said her party would continue to oppose fees.
She claimed young people had never found it so hard to pay for their studies and that fees would mean many would have to do more part-time work and so study longer.
Jurgen Ruttgers, federal education and research minister, is also an opponent. He wants to find the extra cash by charging interest on student loans. The HRK rejects this claiming that since only the least well off receive loans, it would penalise the poorest.
Bavarian cultural affairs minister Hans Zehetmair, of the right-wing Christian Social Union, called the HRK's proposal an "unnecessary provocation". He said Bavaria had no intention of following it as long as the country's system of grants was not expanded. But tight budgets made this out of the question.
Christian Democrat Klaus von Trotha, higher education minister of Baden-Wurttemberg, said that fee proposals would not be adopted by his government as long as institutions had enough money to manage with. But he also stressed that they could not reckon with additional funds.
Professor Erichsen declared that the public had a right to adequately funded higher education institutions, and that it was up to the state to ensure that this was the case. "It may seem expedient for politicians to reject tuition fees without offering any measures to compensate for funding deficits in higher education," Professor Erichsen said. "But this is simply ignoring the plight the system is in."
One glimmer of support for student fees however came from the University of Witten-Herdecke, Germany's only private university. The introduction of fees there last year has not resulted in the departure of less well-off students, wrote Wolfgang Nowak and Konrad Schilly, the university's rector, in Die Zeit.
But some newpapers have alleged that fees would contribute to widening the rift not only between rich and poor institutions, notably between east and west, but also between large, traditional universities and smaller institutions that were founded only recently.
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