Students in ‘dire financial straits’, warn German universities

In a country where students are heavily dependent on part-time jobs, the pandemic shutdown has devastated incomes, leading to calls for government help

April 25, 2020
Empty wallet

German universities and student groups have issued an unprecedented joint warning that the coronavirus pandemic has left many students on the brink of financial ruin, as the shutdown has largely wiped out the part-time jobs on which they rely.

The U15, comprising 15 of the country’s biggest research universities, plus the Free Association of Student Communities (FZS), an umbrella body for about 80 student groups, warned on 22 April that government measures so far have been inadequate and students had become a “plaything of political disputes”.

In Germany, where universities are virtually tuition-fee free, only a small minority of students receive means-tested state aid for living costs, explained Jan Wöpking, director of the U15, partly because this aid – a mixture of grants and loans − has a reputation for being bureaucratic and restrictive.

This means most students normally fund themselves through part-time jobs, money from parents or scholarships, he explained.

But this means that the shutdown of bars, restaurants and shops has devastated student personal finances. The U15 is particularly worried about the impact on students who are the first in their families to attend university, he added.

Many students are in “dire financial straits” because of the crisis, the joint statement warns, as “student jobs have been cut” and “parents’ income has been reduced or even eliminated”.

On 22 April, German lawmakers debated a draft law proposed by the government that would allow students to earn money in a broader range of fields impacted by the crisis, such as the food industry, without a reduction in their state aid.

The U15 supports these measures, but “we just think it’s not enough”, said Dr Wöpking, as this will only help a small minority of students.

One idea proposed by the federal minister for education and research, Anja Karliczek, is interest-free loans for students who have lost their jobs but are still not eligible for state aid (she has urged newly unemployed students to reapply for assistance).

But the prospect of loans is opposed by the U15 and FZS. “It is unacceptable that students who are already in financial distress should have to take on debt,” their statement says.

“The main objection is that a lot of students would be reluctant to take the loan,” explained Dr Wöpking. “It might not be effective.”

In such a bleak economic environment, some students will conclude they have little chance of ever paying back the loan and, instead, just decide to drop out of university, he said.

To remedy the situation, several universities have set up their own emergency grants for students in desperate financial need.

Individual states have also offered their own help, Dr Wöpking explained. In Hamburg, students who have lost their jobs can receive an emergency loan of €400 (£350), for example – but this would not stretch far in such a costly city, he added.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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