State governments across Germany are introducing fines on "long-term" students to cut down on the money spent on undergraduates who spend too long in higher education.
Under new legislation, students who take more than 20 per cent longer to finish their degrees than prescribed time of eight to ten semesters face fines of up to €510 (£350) per semester. One by one, state governments are following suit and introducing the fine, which will come into effect in the winter semester of 2004-05.
The charge, which is being referred to as a "tuition fee" by politicians, will apply only to students who do not complete their studies within the set time. Exceptions will be made in some circumstances such as illness or for students who have children.
The federal government is planning to introduce Studienkonten (student accounts) - a type of capped state loan payable upon employment after graduation.
Edelgard Bulmahn, Germany's education minister, has proposed that federal funding should be concentrated on national "non-university" research institutes while the states should be solely responsible for the material expansion and maintenance costs of their universities.
State education authorities and some rectors fear the federal government is trying to squeeze the states out of big-league research. Last week, Ms Bulmahn announced that there would be an award of €250 million for five top-performing universities over five years, so that a group of elite universities could emerge.
Support for financial penalties for students who study too long comes from both sides of the political divide. Michael Mueller, faction leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the regional parliament in Berlin, said:
"If students are made to pay fees, it will encourage them to complete their studies more quickly. Those who study for longer than the regular time must pay."
Money raised from the fine will in part be used to recruit more better-qualified professors.
Thilo Sarrazin (SPD), the Berlin finance senator, said he expected the income from the fees to increase university budgets by up to €10 million a year. Bavaria, which will be among the states to introduce the fine in October, has also announced the implementation of an administration fee of €50 per student per semester.
Edmund Stoiber, leader of the Christian Democratic Union, said: "The administration fee as well as the fee for long-term students is an important instrument to avoid cuts to personnel."
Kurt Faltlhauser, the Bavarian finance minister, added that without the extra funds, up to 440 jobs could be lost at universities around the state.
About 9,300 of the 245,000 students studying at any one of Bavaria's nine state universities will be affected by the fine. And, according to Mr Faltlhauser, about 90 per cent of the money will be retained by universities.
University rectors, students and opposition parties oppose the charges. A spokesman for the Green Party in Bavaria said: "These extra charges are merely a disguised form of tuition fee, which will only serve to consolidate the regional budget."
North Rhine Westphalia is bringing in one of the highest fines, up to €650, which, will affect about 25 per cent of the state's 520,000 undergraduates.
Lars Luebben, who is doing his 14th semester at the University of Aachen in North Rhine Westphalia, said: "If I knew that I would now have to pay €650 a semester, then I would have done things differently."