German taboo breaks on fees

October 27, 1994

Student fees are back on the political agenda in Germany -- this time with more support than ever.

University rectors from the states of Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria prompted the debate last week by producing a discussion paper proposing tuition fees at their conference in Pforzheim.

The paper suggested setting fees at between DM500 and DM1,000 (Pounds 200-Pounds 400) per semester. Money raised from fees should be used exclusively to improve study conditions and to ease overcrowding in German lecture halls and seminar rooms which is crippling the mass German higher education system.

Rectors would only accept tuition fees if they topped up state funding, not as an excuse for the state to contribute less. To make fees "socially acceptable" students would be able to defer repayment free of interest, with the less well-off receiving fee deductions or even complete exemption from payment.

Supporters of the plan also expect fees to be used to boost the idea of funds being linked to student performance.

The paper prompted an angry response from education leaders in states dominated by the social democratic SPD. Anke Brunn, education minister of Northrhine Westphalia and chair of the SPD education commission, emphatically rejected all models for fees. She said state universities had an "educational mandate guaranteed by the constitution" and access to university is subject to qualification, irrespective of ability to pay.

She said the university was "not a casino to which you could gain access by feeding slot machines with cash. Student fees are a social numerus clausus and as far as I am concerned, they are taboo".

Yet it was Anke Brunn's SPD education ministry which only two weeks ago sacrificed this ideal by giving the go-ahead for the private university of Witten-Herdecke to charge fees on the grounds that it was "an interesting model of study reform" that should be given a chance to grow.

Stung by the SPD's reaction, Peter Ulmer, chairman of the Baden-Wurttemberg conference of university rectors, the HRK, and rector of the University of Heidelberg, retaliated by pointing out that they had not voted for the introduction of fees. They merely listed the grounds for and against fees and laid out the conditions under which they would accept fees "should it come to the introduction of study fees on the basis of political decisions", he said.

Some commentators believe it is only a matter of time before fees are introduced at German state universities. Pockets of support for fees exist across the German political parties. They include the SPD finance minister of Brandenburg and the Christian Social Union education minister of Bavaria.

Federal education minister Karl-Hans Laermann, a member of the liberal FDP, is not among supporters of student fees. However, newspapers were this week speculating that he may lose his ministry in the new ruling coalition in the light of the FDP's poor election showing. His party colleague, Jurgen W. Mollemann, has already hinted he would like to be in charge of a new super-ministry combining education, science and research. This could be a signal for the fees question to be raised at national level.

The issue of fees has long been deeply controversial in Germany. Two years ago the Science Council also unveiled a proposal envisaging a DMl,000 per semester fee. Its supporters said then that few European countries relied solely on the state to finance universities. The plan was dropped after heated debate.

The current issue of Der Spiegel reports incredulously the decision to charge fees at the private university of Witten-Herdecke saying: "At any other university the students would have pelted (the president) with eggs and chased him off campus."

But Angela Lindner, co-editor of the German higher education fortnightly DUZ, believes student attitudes to fees may gradually be softening as a response to universities' problems. She said: "The 1968 generation thinks fees are out of the question but they did not suffer under overcrowding as students do today."

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