Red face for red minister over fees to cover admin

December 4, 1998

When are student fees not student fees? When they are just "administrative contributions", according to Thomas Oppermann, education minister of the state of Lower Saxony, in northern Germany.

That is how he explained the decision by Lower Saxony's ruling Social Democrats (SPD) to charge students DM100 (Pounds 35) per semester from next year - even though Germany's new SPD- Green government has promised to outlaw student fees.

"These contributions are not a prelude to fees," Mr Oppermann assured critics. They are simply to cover personnel and administrative costs such as course guidance and foreign students' offices, he said.

But they are a double embarrassment for Edelgard Bulmahn, Germany's education minister. Not only has she promised to insert a nationwide ban on fees into the new higher education reform law, but she has also just become leader of the Lower Saxony SPD.

In an interview with Der Speigel this week Mrs Bulmahn said: "Lower Saxony's decision sends out the wrong signal. But student fees are a rather different thing. They serve to keep young people out of higher education."

She indicated that she was softening her earlier demand for a ban on fees and now plans instead to propose a treaty with the 16 states to rule out fees.

Students have been less generous about the SPD's definition of fees. Ulrike Gonzales of the student association FZS told one newspaper: "A lot of students had great hopes for the change of government. If they are disappointed, the red/green coalition will quickly lose face."

Fees are highly controversial in Germany. But a recent survey by research institute Forsa found that nearly half of students would support fees if the money went directly into improving university quality.

The state of Berlin already charges students DM100 per semester re-registration fees. Baden-Wurttemberg charges students who stay longer than 13 semesters DM1,000 per semester.

In Bavaria and Saxony, students taking a second degree have to pay fees. And law students in Berlin and Baden-Wurttemberg have to pay for state exams.

Lower Saxony could now face a legal challenge to its proposal for administrative costs. But Mr Oppermann warned if the state was not allowed to raise the extra DM30 million a year through this charge, cuts would have to be made in education.

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