Why can’t we be free of fees?

Copyright: Kate Mitchell

Copyright: Kate Mitchell

Higher education is now free throughout all of Germany, after Lower Saxony became the last of the German states to abolish tuition fees. Even in the least generous states, a student can expect to have an undergraduate degree and a consecutive masters funded by the government free of charge. In fact, this ruling even applies to international students.

Germany now joins Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Greece in offering free university education to their citizens. In other European countries, such as Switzerland and France, tuition fees are relatively low. But here in the UK, we still pay exorbitant rates for our higher education.

So why are we still paying £9000 a year when other European countries are proving that tuition fees are unnecessary? Due to the poor chances of graduates paying back their full student loan before it is written off, the UK government stands to lose 45p for every pound loaned through the current system. This means that it’s not just students losing out – the government itself will actually lose more money than if they had just kept tuition fees at £3000.

Loans were attractive to the Treasury because they replaced direct funding to universities, colleges, and students. The money from loans would go out into the world and be spent, and most if not all of it would then return directly to the government through repayments. Therefore, the loans were supposed to achieve the same effect as direct funding into education, with less expenditure from the part of the government. However, with the government actually losing money, this has clearly failed. Therefore, a system of state funded higher education similar to Germany’s could be a potential alternative.

So how does Germany’s system work? Well, all higher education institutions receive a budget from the responsible ministry of the state in which they are located. There are also agreements between higher education institutions and the state, which say that should they require extra funding for the intake of additional numbers of students or money to compensate the loss of income from tuition fees the basic budget can be supplemented. Also there are additional funding programmes, some funded jointly by the states and the federal ministry, for supporting and promoting research.

However, most higher education institutions in Germany continue to feel somewhat underfunded, as the additional funding is rather competitive. But in comparison to other countries in Europe, especially the UK, these insitutions still receive a very generous amount of funding by their states – an estimated 80 per cent of their overall budgetary needs.

The expenditure of funding higher education in Germany is hence based around necessity, rather than the more risky system used in the UK that relies heavily on graduate repayments. In dealing directly with the institutions, Germany has created a much more functional system than the UK’s, with much greater student satisfaction.

The UK now needs to make a decision – should we continue increasing fees even in the face of defeat, or join the free higher education movement sweeping across Europe.

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