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What the Germans Can Teach Us About Tuition Fees

Here's one thing we're definitely not better than the Germans at.

Benedict Clifford

Naked Politics Blogger

In history, Germany and England haven’t always been the best of friends; in wars, politics and especially in football! However, there’s an issue that has been ignored by British Newspapers in recent times where the Germans seem to have got it right – University fees.

On average, students in England are paying the highest tuition fees in Europe. In 2012 the Conservative-LibDem coalition voted in favour for UK universities being able to charge up to £9,000 a year, six times more than countries like Switzerland or Italy. Of course, this excludes Scotland where university is free for those students coming from Scotland, and in Wales and Northern Ireland where it costs £3,000 for the residents of those countries. In comparison to England, Lower Saxony became the last state in Germany to completely abolish tuition fees back in October 2014. This poses the question: why can’t England follow Germany’s example?

England and Germany are fairly similar countries. Both are wealthy and both have Conservative governments, yet, their higher education policy couldn’t be further apart. This is demonstrated by the surprising fact that no mainstream UK party has a free education policy, despite how popular it would be (as seen in Germany). However, to find why the UK haven’t made higher education free we need to look at Germany’s story.

The first student movement against tuition fees in Germany began in 1999 (coincidently, a year after England introduced fees). The German effort was made up of different organisations such as student unions and political parties, and protested throughout the 2000s culminating in a successful petition of 1.35 million signatures from eligible voters in Bavaria causing the state’s premier to make a U-turn and scrap tuition fees. This had a snowball effect and by late 2014 all universities across Germany were free.

On the other side, a few hundred miles northwest, the UK’s student movement has had a very different history. 2010 saw the UK voting for a government that had already promised a rise in fees before the election. As a result of the increase, there was a relatively short-term protest against the rise of university fees that had no genuine effect apart from making newspaper headlines. It simply hasn’t been made a serious issue. Until April 2014 the National Union of Students didn’t even consider free education as part of its policy. Although there are organisations like the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts who have been confronting the issue consistently, the student movement has never sustained mass mobilisation for more than a couple of months.

Now the German system isn’t perfect. A possible reason why Germany can afford to offer free university is because only 27% of young Germans gain higher education qualifications, compared to the significantly higher 48% in the UK. But that doesn’t hide the fact that Germany still spend a higher proportion of GDP on higher education (3%) compared to the UK (1.7%). Yet, those of you wondering where your £9,000 goes, you’ll be pleased to hear that spending per student is about 20% higher in the UK than in Germany.

Statistics come in every year that more and more young people are going to university than ever before, however, this fact doesn’t make the rise in tuition fees right. Germany as well as countries in Scandinavia have proven that scrapping tuition fees can work successfully. On the flip-side, in the USA where tuition charges can be up to over $50,000 has seen an incredible $1 trillion black hole of debt. This is because so many university goers in the USA are unable to pay back their student loan. We must ask ourselves if this is the direction we’re going in if we continue with the current system in the UK.

Despite all the statistics, I feel that Germany have got both the economic and moral high ground; they’ve successfully recognised that education is fundamentally a public good and therefore see it more as a service rather than a business. This is an important distinction which the Conservative party seem to have missed.

There are a large number of politicians such as former Conservative Minister of State for Universities, David Willetts, who have suggested that the fees are likely to rise above £9,000 in the coming years. We are now at a turning point and there are two ways we can go. Do we continue to follow in the footsteps of an American system, which many believe has failed, or do we follow the European route paved by Scandinavia and Germany in offering free university? The answer is for you to decide. If you disagree with the current system find out how to get involved with the campaign against fees at http://anticuts.com.

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