German university rectors have overwhelmingly rejected plans to introduce student fees, throwing open the debate over desperately needed reform of higher education funding.
Student fees are "not a suitable remedy to underfunding in universities," said Hans Uwe Erichsen, president of the Conference of University Rectors (HRK). "As far as we are concerned fees are now off the agenda," he said, adding that politicians should not shirk responsibility for higher education.
"Under present conditions fees are not suitable to check the underfunding of higher education."
Eighty-nine of 102 rectors meeting in Berlin last week voted against fees - all the more surprising because they had been working out a plan of how a fees system could work for more than two years. Six were in favour and seven abstained.
The issue has triggered enormous controversy in Germany where fees had become the focal point of the debate over how to reform higher education funding. Under the current system anyone with a school-leaving certificate is generally entitled to a place at the university of their choice. This has led to overcrowding, underfunding, and long study times. Many policy-makers saw student fees as a way to fill the funding gap, and encourage students to finish earlier and raise standards.
President Roman Herzog has now intervened in the debate, urging the university rectors to consider fees as a first step towards rethinking higher education policy. He reminded them that politicians had agreed to reform higher education in this legislative period.
But the rectors ignored the president's recommendation, not least because they fear extra money from fees would flow into the state coffers rather than back to universities. Some finance ministers have already admitted as much. And the hard-up state of Berlin will this autumn charge all its students DM100 (Pounds 44) reregistration fees - a move dismissed by Professor Erichsen as "totally unacceptable".
Instead, the university rectors have simply thrown the ball back into the politicians' court. At the end of their conference they called for funding allocations to be tied to student numbers.
The rectors' suggestions for filling the funding gap, casting an envious eye on their United States counterparts, include more private capital, leasing, closer contacts to alumni and sponsoring. Yet the experience of Germany's only private university, which relies on such funding, has demonstrated that Germany lacks such a sponsorship culture.
So the HRK's rejection of student fees appears to have taken Germany's higher education funding debate a step back rather than forward. However it has managed to unite usually deeply opposed newspaper leader writers. Both the left-wing daily taz and the conservative Die Welt claimed the fees debate was about far more than university funding.