German university rectors have expressed cautious support for fees as the Bonn government seems to be backtracking on electoral promises to block any such move.
In Berlin recently, the president of the University Rectors Conference (HRK), Peter Gaehtgens, said that German graduates might be asked to contribute to the expected personal return that a university degree brings.
But he stressed that social equity issues were still important and that student fees should not be used as a panacea for a lack of government funding.
The German rectors had been invited by their Australian counterparts to discuss the virtues of the upfront and deferred fee Higher Education Contribution Scheme (Hecs). More than 100 German experts from higher education, policy-making and industry attended the two-day Berlin event run by the Australia Centre last month.
The threat to Germany's free higher education system has spawned a number of protest groups that are launching a national campaign against student fees.
Nele Hirsch, a committee member of the national student union, said: "It is not reasonable to expect students to pay for the incompetence of politicians. We don't want to buy our studies and so be forced into the role of customers. We want to be accepted as members of the tertiary institution and to actively take on this role."
A minority rightwing student organisation, the national Association of German Students in Berlin, seized on the rectors' flirtation with Hecs to voice its support for the introduction of university fees.
"We are not opposed to the idea of university fees from the very start," Christoph Neuberg, a committee member of the student organisation, told The THES . "On the contrary, we are recommending this type of regulation in view of the increasingly precarious situation for teaching and research at German tertiary institutions, and the now unavoidable need to reform the financing of education."
He said fees would be acceptable only if they were used to increase funds for the government scholarship system.
But the National Union of Students in Bonn, the official organ of the many campus-based "parliaments" elected by students, said that increasing the amount and number of scholarships would not prevent students from sinking into debt.
The national union maintains that the Australian model has failed its students because universities have less money than in the time of free education, while the Australian government has distanced itself from its financing responsibilities.
The rectors' conference's formal position is that although "the Australian model was an interesting approach", it would have to be evaluated in light of conditions specific to Germany.