German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder has tackled the growing controversy over student fees among his ruling Social Democrat Party by clearly rejecting fees - at least for first degrees.
"The standard period of study should continue to be free of charge for social as well as political reasons," he told an SPD education conference in Bonn, which laid out the government's future education policy. He said the German economy could not afford to waste a single talent in the face of international competition.
He promised the government would act over the next few months to ensure that free higher education "remains a political reality". But he left open whether this means the government would ban fees under the higher education framework law.
Mr Schroder's comments provided backing for education minister Edelgard Bulmahn, a strong opponent of fees who has been unable to agree a treaty with the federal state education ministers for a general fees ban.
The state of Baden-Wurttemberg already charges fees to students after their 14th semester and some SPD colleagues are also openly lobbying for fees. Lower Saxony premier Sigmar Gabriel has spoken out in favour, and Rhineland Palatinate's education minister, Jurgen Zollner, recently unveiled a proposal for a new model under which students would have "higher education accounts" providing a specific amount of free education.
The Christian Democratic Union, the main opposition party, wants to keep the option of fees open and would be likely to try to block a legal ban.
But CDU education spokesman Annette Schavan said her party would not block the SPD's plan to reform the federal education assistance act (Bafog). Mr Schro- der promised the Bonn conference an extra E256 million (Pounds 156 million), which will mean the numbers of students receiving financial assistance will rise from 15 to 20 per cent.
He called this a "reform dividend" of the government's savings policy. However, Mr Schro- der recently vetoed the SPD-Green coalition's original reform plan for a basic grant for all students regardless of parental means. This would have envisaged channelling child benefit, currently paid to parents, directly into students' pockets.
The Greens remain committed to a general overhaul of the Bafog. Spokesman Sabine Keil said the SPD had "lost a great deal of credibility" by backtracking.
At the Bonn conference, Mr Schroder also indicated the government is planning a swift reform of pay and conditions for university lecturers. He said professors should no longer be state employees with lifelong tenure. He said lecturers should play a role in future bodies assessing pay and performance.