German students protest as pandemic squeezes finances

Despite a government loan scheme, unions say students have no choice but to drop out in order to claim unemployment benefit

June 13, 2020
Plastic covers wrap around check-out counters in the closed restaurant and dining area inside a store in Berlin, Germany, on Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Source: Getty

Students in Germany have protested in more than a dozen cities over an estimated 1 million lost part-time jobs.

With German students particularly reliant on part-time work to finance their studies, unions have decried what they see as a lack of support from the government, and they say students now have no choice but to quit university to stay afloat.

“We hear it from all over Germany, from every university city,” said Amanda Steinmaus, a board member of the Free Association of Student Communities (FZS), an umbrella body for about 80 student groups. “They [students] cannot get money any way except breaking off their course of study and receiving unemployment benefits. It’s bizarre that the minister doesn’t act on that.”

By in effect shutting down the hospitality sector − which is only just beginning to reopen − the pandemic has dealt Germany’s student financing system a particularly heavy blow.

German universities charge almost no fees, but compared with countries such as the UK, relatively few students receive state support for living costs. In 2018, just 12 per cent received support from the Federal Training Assistance Act (BaföG), which offers a mix of grants and loans to students from low-income families.

Instead, students rely on their parents and part-time jobs. Nearly nine in 10 receive money from parents, and 61 per cent are employed, according to recent data.

“The system is built on the idea that you have financing from either the state or your parents,” said Ms Steinmaus. “But that’s not the reality. Not all parents can support their children even if the state thinks they can.”

Now, following the pandemic, 40 per cent of students have lost their jobs, according to a survey released at the beginning of the month. More than a fifth are unable to pay their rent and bills, and have had to borrow money from family or friends.

The government has responded by making it possible to reapply for the existing BaföG support scheme if students’ parental income has slumped owing to the pandemic.

It has also started providing emergency loans of up to €650 (£584) a month to students to tide them over, which will remain interest-free until the end of March next year.

In a country traditionally averse to debt – let alone hefty repayment burdens for the recently graduated – this has not appeased student organisations. “They have to pay back that loan during their studies,” said Ms Steinmaus.

International students have also been hit, said Ahmed Samy Khadr, a spokesman for the Federal Union of Foreign Students.

“For a lot of international students their first source of income is their part-time job,” he said. With these gone, “some have to take loans, some have to borrow from family and friends”.

The national loan scheme is “nice on paper” but will barely cover the basic unavoidable costs of rent and health insurance, he said. Meanwhile, with the exception of refugees, international students are generally not eligible for the BaföG grant scheme.

The combined stress of financial hardship and worries about family back home had already forced some students in Germany to halt their studies, he added.

Under increasing pressure from student groups, the government announced further aid on 15 June, in the form of emergency bridging grants to students in dire financial straits. Students – both German and international – will be able to apply for up to €500 a month in June, July and August. "I am aware that many students have lost their jobs, and for many of them the support of their families has been lost," said Anja Karliczek, federal minister for education and research, announcing the move.

But the FZS has said this latest tranche of help is still too little, too late and too restrictive. Students have to have less than €500 in their accounts to apply for any aid at all, and less than €100 left to get the full €500 grant. 

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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