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During the past eight years, university tuition fees were introduced into most west German federal states. Yet in a few months, every single state will have abolished them. These facts raise a series of topical questions that cast current English higher education policy in a fresh and revealing light.

Why did Germany introduce tuition fees in the first place? The answer, in short, is that politicians favoured the idea. Self-styled “modernisers” had been advocating tuition fees since German reunification in 1990. Cultural differences between east and west initially hindered this plan, but the main obstacle was a federal law banning tuition fees, which echoed provisions guaranteeing free education in the constitutions of individual states. In 2005, however, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled that moderate fees, coupled with affordable loans, would safeguard these constitutional provisions. Within two years, a cascade of laws had swept through most of the federal Länder. The attraction of shifting some of the funding burden to individual beneficiaries was irresistible. So was the compulsion to imitate the changes made elsewhere, lest universities in one’s own state should remain less well funded, and the public purse more stretched, than in neighbouring states.

Seven out of 10 states in west Germany introduced fees in 2006 or 2007; an eighth, Bremen, was prevented from doing so by a lawsuit. Only two – Rheinland-Pfalz and Schleswig-Holstein – resisted the tide completely.

If such unanimity had been maintained, policymakers would now be declaring these changes inevitable. Yet within a single electoral cycle, their long-sought policy was comprehensively overturned...

Germany’s great tuition fees U-turn | Features | Times Higher Education

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