Two German states hope to unravel Germany's muddled debate over student fees by introducing higher education "study accounts" from 2004.
Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia claim to have found a socially acceptable form of fees, which guarantees students a free first degree if they complete their studies efficiently. But once they have used up their study credit, they will have to pay €350 (£217) a semester.
"The study account will make it possible for every student to attain a free first degree," said Jürgen Zöllner, the Social Democrat education minister of Rhineland-Palatinate.
The model envisages giving every student an account on a smartcard at the start of their studies. The account would provide the amount of teaching hours necessary to complete their studies plus an extra 20 per cent. The credits would have to be used within double the regular study period of their degree subject.
Unlike study fees for slow-lane students who stay longer than 14 semesters, the study accounts will be flexible. They will not penalise students who work their way through university or who take maternity leave. Yet those who finish quickly will be able to carry over their remaining study credit to help pay for postgraduate studies or for continuing education in professional life.
The accounts will be valid up to the age of 55. The details of the system are yet to be ironed out with the universities, which will control the accounts. Any fees collected would go directly into their coffers.
Professor Zöllner said his system would make shorter BA, MA and Fachhochschule degrees more attractive, and would also encourage the development of continuing education. "We must encourage people to return to the universities for further training and prompt universities to come up with more attractive offers."
If the other 14 states join the study account model, students will be able to spend their education credits wherever they choose.