German state set to scrap international fees

The only German state to charge international students tuition fees across the board is set to drop them after a significant fall in recruitment.

An independent panel has advised the government of Baden-Württemberg to scrap the fees for students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), introduced in 2017 to top up the local education budget and pegged at €1,500 (£1,294) per semester. 

The state’s Green and Christian Democratic Union coalition government had in April signalled its intention to abolish the fees, citing a need for skilled workers. The reversal would blow a €30 million hole in the local education budget, which the government has yet to rule on.

Antonio Loprieno, the former rector of the University of Basel who chaired the panel, described introducing tuition fees in Germany as being like raising the retirement age in France – best not to bother unless you’re seeking civil unrest.

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Professor Loprieno said that evidence about the impact of the introduction of fees in Baden-Württemberg had initially been ambiguous, with a 19 per cent drop in international recruitment in the semester after their introduction followed by a partial return to growth.

More conclusive data came in the winter of 2021-22, when Baden-Württemberg posted an almost 10 per cent decline in international students relative to 2016-17 against double-digit growth in every other German state. 

For Professor Loprieno, the war in Ukraine and climate migration from the Global South made international-only fees a political impossibility for a Germany that sees itself as open and welcoming. “Either there will be student fees for everyone or for nobody,” he said. 

This raises the wider question of how Germany should fund teaching in the longer term. Professor Loprieno predicted that a state with particularly attractive universities, perhaps Bavaria, will take the plunge and introduce fees for domestic and international students in the coming years, leading to an “avalanche” as others follow suit.

“I cannot imagine that this German specificity of having zero student fees remains an eternal feature,” he said.

Germany’s short-lived experiment with fees from 2007 to 2014 has left a long shadow, with parties entrenched in a left-right divide.

Last year, Bavaria granted public universities the right to charge tuition fees to international students, but institutions have shown little appetite to levy them. In Saxony, universities were given the option to charge non-European Union students, but only two music schools decided to do so.

For Frank Ziegele, executive director of the Centre for Higher Education, a thinktank, what Professor Loprieno called Baden-Württemberg’s “well-meant experiment” never really made sense. Eighty per cent of the income went straight to the state budget, leaving little incentive to improve services that might cushion overseas students’ landings.

Professor Loprieno acknowledged that token levies would be unlikely to make up much of universities’ budgets as research costs continue to spiral. At Basel, international fees made up 2 per cent of total income.

Unlike Professor Loprieno, Professor Ziegele was sceptical that German universities would eventually turn to charging fees. Instead, German universities should continue down “the path of financial diversification”, he said. 

German law allows universities to levy fees for adult learning, for example, with other private sources like technology transfer available for further development. “I think it’s an end to these kinds of experiments,” said Professor Ziegele, referring to non-EEA fees.

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