Complexity of implementing new rules means ‘a lot of effort for little gain’ as most universities opt for status quo Politicians in the German state of Bavaria have granted public universities the right to charge tuition fees to some international students, but there seems little appetite to levy them.
The state’s Higher Education Innovation Act, passed after two years of talks, only allows fees for students from outside the European Union, because the bloc’s rules require that all those from within its borders be treated like domestic students.
It is not the first German state to introduce such fees. In 2017 Baden-Württemberg set a fixed charge of €1,500 (£1,257) a semester for non-EU students. In Saxony universities were given the option to charge non-EU students, but only two music schools decided to do so.
Those that have introduced fees are outliers in a country where demand for skilled labour, local politics and a desire for global soft power protect the principle of free education for foreigners.
Kumar Ashish, chairman of the Federal Union of International Students in Germany, said the declining number of international students in Baden-Württemberg shows fees in Bavaria was likely to put people off too.
He said Germany’s generally fee-free system is one of the things that attracts foreign students, adding: “Even before getting a quality education, the first impression is that they are going to get a free education.”
None of the Bavarian universities contacted by Times Higher Education said they planned to begin charging, although the executive board of the University of Regensburg said it was discussing the idea, and Munich University of Applied Sciences said only that there would be no fees “until further notice”.
Joachim Hornegger, president of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU), said his institution had decided not to charge fees because its typical non-EU students “wouldn’t be able to afford their studies” if it did, and because only 10 per cent of students at FAU would meet the requirements.
International students at FAU have the option of spending up to €9,000 (£7,500) on support packages that can include setting up bank accounts, collection from the airport and the completion of official paperwork, which are not required but “simplif[y] life a lot” he said.
Professor Hornegger said universities will decide whether to charge based on the make-up of their international student cohort. Institutions with a large number of Chinese students who “take advantage of a programme then return to their home country” may feel it is valid to ask “if we should charge them for a top-level education”, he said.
Foreign students have continued to flock to Germany since the pandemic, with up to 350,000 estimated to have enrolled for the 2021-22 academic year, an 8 per cent rise on the previous year, according to DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service.
Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, said Bavaria’s law, which also grants universities more autonomy over faculty hiring and campus construction, offered universities the chance to “experiment” but he doubted whether many would decide to charge.
Ulrich Müller, head of policy studies at the Centre for Higher Education, said administrators would incur considerable costs finding the roughly 5 per cent of students who had to pay, excluding refugees, exchange students and those who went to school in Germany. “I’m even surprised Bavaria did this, because it doesn’t make any sense at all,” he said.
“It is not a well thought-out idea, to establish a tuition fee only for a minority of students. It means a lot of effort for little return.”