German students: Nein on tuition fees

Stephen Beard May 4, 2009

German students: Nein on tuition fees

Stephen Beard May 4, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Last week was a big one for a lot of high school seniors. They had to make a final decision about which college they were gonna go to. Now they and their parents have to figure out how to pay for it. Tuition at a U.S. public university can run more than $15,000 a year. For a private school, it’s more than $25,000.

In Germany, universities were only allowed to charge tuition at all a couple of years ago. Now though those fees are rising. Students are protesting. In the southern state of Bavaria, they’re going to take to the streets next week and call for fees to be scrapped entirely. As Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports from Munich.

STEPHEN BEARD: The first day of term at Ludwig-Maximilian University. Sebastian Urchs and his friends are staging a symbolic protest.

They’ve put up a series of steel hurdles by the university cafeteria, and they’re inviting their fellow students to jump over them.

SEBASTIAN Urchs: We’re trying to say: “You’re here at the university. And there are guys that actually don’t want to have you here so they’re putting hurdles in your way.

Tuition here costs $1,300 a year, the legal limit in Germany. Not much of a hurdle by American standards. But many of the students emphatically reject the American model. Stefan Liebl, who’s studying politics.

STEFAN LIEBL: I don’t think American universities are better. Some very famous like Harvard or Yale, only better for very rich people. The system in America, I don’t like it.

The protesters claim that tuition fees deter thousands of young Germans from coming to university. There is not the same range of scholarships available here as in the U.S. And unlike American students, Germans are very reluctant to take out loans. Maria Dangwerra has to work two days a week to help pay for her studies.

MARIA DANGWERRA: It’s kind of annoying that other persons who don’t have to work because their parents are rich, they can sit in library and study. And I have to go to work and sometimes I feel that I should study more, but I don’t have the time to.

BEARD: But education has to be paid for. Who do you think should pay for your university education if you do not pay it yourself?

DANGWERRA: I will pay. I mean I will pay in the future when I earn money, and I will pay my taxes. And I think it’s the state who has to pay for education.

But others argue that higher education in Germany suffers because of its overwhelming dependence on the state. They say the German government doesn’t invest enough. Strolling through the university’s shabby main building confirms that impression. There’s a dearth of teaching aids like projectors and DVD players. The American Studies department couldn’t afford maps of America. But with tuition fees that’s beginning to change, especially in the School of Medicine.

ELIAS SCAPARRO: This is an arm, artificial arm, a model of an arm to train how to take blood.

Elias Scaparro — a third year medical student — is showing off some of the departments recent purchases funded by tuition fees. A dozen skeletons, an ultrasound imaging machine, and a life-size model of a child.

SCAPARRO: Where you can train your re-animation skills, your basic life-support skills.

BEARD: Resuscitation.

SCAPARRO: Resuscitation. You can…

BEARD: So you’re quite happy about tuition fees yourself?

SCAPARRO: Yes, I am because it is improving my learning. And I can learn better with all these equipment.

Even with tuition fees, this university is spending — per student — around $11,000 a year, that’s half what many public universities in America spend.

Professor Wolfgang Herrmann is president of the Technical University in Munich. An ardent supporter of tuition fees, he sees them as part of a wider plan to wean German universities away from their total dependence on the state.

Wolfgang HERRMANN: What we have to learn from the American system is competition. Competition is the number one thing to have to become successful.

Herrmann wants to get away from the traditional German idea that one university is as good as another. He wants his university to be part of a global elite, and that requires a lot more money from private as well as public sources.

HERRMANN: We are the best funded German university still. But we need to triple our budget in order to safely compete with places like Stanford, MIT and Georgia Tech.

To Germany’s student protesters this is anathema. The path to higher tuition fees, to ever increasing student debt, and a widening gap between rich and poor. They’ll be out on the streets of Munich again next week calling for the fees to be scrapped.

In Munich, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

RYSSDAL: Tomorrow we’ll have a look at no frills universities here in the United States, as American schools try to cut tuition by cutting back on amenities.

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