The Cost of Free Education

by Anna Stepanova


The state of Baden-Württemberg reintroduced tuition fees for all international students coming from outside the European Union. This is an attempt to narrow a gap in funding higher education. This decision has shocked many prospective applicants, considering the state is home to many renowned universities in cities such as Freiburg, Heidelberg, Stuttgart, and Karlsruhe.


Rising numbers of incoming students has led to significant underfunding over the years. Now Germany has to tackle its €48M higher education deficit, and a south-west state will be the first to aid the government in reducing the debt. From winter 2017, non-EU students will be paying €1,500 per semester. For students earning their second degree, the fee will be reduced to €650.


Reintroduction of payment for international students can be seen as an experiment to test whether charging all students is plausible in the future. This may be fostered by a financial plan to 2020, in which there is an increasing pressure for German states to have a more balanced budget.


The situation surrounding tuition fees in German universities has followed a desynchronized chronology throughout different states. Hesse was the first state to eliminate general fees in 2008. Lower Saxony was last, introducing a new policy only three years ago. At the other side of the spectrum, Baden-Württemberg will be the first state to charge fees again, a rapid and unexpected turnover from their abolishment of all study costs in 2011.


Whether or not this event will affect other fifteen states is uncertain. While the county is successful in attracting international students, critics of the free education scheme are concerned that Germany is struggling to keep the talent it produces and nurtures. Since not everyone is convinced that enough benefit comes back to them compared to the money they invest to educate foreigners, proposals to change Germany’s tuition fee policy may be met with joy from already overburdened taxpayers.


Still, there are several reasons why Germany has kept its stance on providing free education to young people from all economic backgrounds and any country even by putting a strain on its taxpayers.


First, an attempt to marketise the academia in 2005 was met with fierce opposition from German students and some political parties. For many, monetization of higher education was perceived as robbing the population of equal educational opportunities, especially children coming from families with economic difficulties.


Secondly, Germany needed to bring in new workforce, especially skilled workers. Although the country has a long history and lasting reputation of its education quality, so far it has been sending only about a quarter of young population to universities. Majors with a high demand from the industry, such as engineering, weren’t filling up. Naturally, a “demographic time bomb” country had to find ways to support its economy and industry.


Providing free education to all meant a surge of international students to the country, even with a limited number of degrees taught in English. It is not surprising considering tuition fees in English-speaking countries like the UK or USA can reach up to €40K per year.


Dramatic difference in study costs is not the only reason why Germany became attractive for foreign students. Numerous innovative research institutes and strong industry are appealing to students pursuing education in natural sciences or engineering. Also, the country continues to invest in student support, as well as research and development, which amounts to 3% of GDP.


Furthermore, graduates will have a chance to become employed in Germany too, not just in their country of origin. The government is working towards keeping the skilled workers it produced by helping to make the transition from studies to work as smooth as possible. For example, non-EU nationals graduating from a German university are offered an 18-month post-graduation work visa.


Such efforts are slowly paying off: since 2012, the numbers of foreign students have risen by about 30%. Additionally, surveys by German Academic Exchange Service point out that about half of international students plan to remain in Germany after graduation, either temporarily or permanently. Supporters of free education for international citizens also argue that even if students decide to go back to their home country, they will be the key to building stronger network between Germany and the rest of the world.


On the other hands, significant debt in higher education funding is concerning. According to 2015 study by the Higher Education Policy Institute, abolishing tuition fees was affordable only because Germany doesn’t send that many young people to universities. It also spends much less on each student, in comparison to other European states. However, even such strategy wasn’t enough to compensate for rapidly rising student population.


Various European nations have seen a trend similar to the current situation in Germany. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Finland used to offer free university education but have reintroduced their tuition fees for international students in 2006, 2011, and 2017 respectively. That leaves Norway the only country in Europe where higher education is free of charge for all.


It is likely that most German states will be carefully observing how academic and demographic dynamics are going to change in Baden-Württemberg. Potential applicants from oversees, however, should not be alarmed by the possibility of having to pay tuition fees in the near future. Current tuition fees only amount to 9% of the average study costs in the UK or USA.