Let’s say Auf Wiedersehen to England’s embarrassing tuition fees

There was fury when Cologne’s vice-chancellor’s salary rose €55,000 in six years. It didn’t happen again. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

As pay scandals continue to embarrass British higher education, with university chiefs receiving eye-watering salaries and golden handshakes, it’s time to ask: why can’t we be more like Germany?

A scandal erupted there a few years ago when the vice-chancellor of Cologne University increased his salary from €78,876 (£69,403) a year in 2006 to €133,781 in 2012. In 2014 a table revealing this was leaked, prompting outrage. Since then top salaries in German universities have been held in check. Germany is far from perfect, but we can only wish we had its problems.

Vice-chancellors’ pay has soared since the introduction of £9,000 annual tuition fees throughout the UK, except for Scottish students studying in Scotland. Meanwhile, in Germany, where universities are supported through general taxation and there are no fees, vice-chancellors seem to survive on relatively modest remuneration. Globally, the US has the highest senior pay levels in universities – and a large student debt bubble. As in Britain, the richest students in America do not take out loans; instead their parents pay up front. Is this a system to emulate?

Recently the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank suggested that the most important reason to support the English student loan system was that it had allowed an increase in student numbers. But those numbers are not at German levels.

In 1995 some 732,000 babies were born in the UK and 765,000 in Germany – just 33,000 more. And yet 21 years later, in 2016, in Britain there were 2.28 million students at higher education institutions, of whom 1.75 million were undergraduates. In Germany in 2016 there were 2.81 million students – 530,000 more than in the UK. Of these German students, 1.78 million were at traditional universities and another 0.96 million at universities of applied sciences. The number of German students rose by almost a million in the 20 years to 2016.

Since 1995 German universities have been making considerable efforts to recruit more foreign students, even though they don’t pay fees either. Numbers have more than doubled in that period to 0.36 million. The recent German coalition government aimed for 350,000 by 2020, and the target was reached three years ahead of time. The reason was the recognition that universities are better and more interesting places if they are diverse. When it comes to spending money and the public good most mainland Europeans think differently from Britain.

In Germany, education is a devolved matter of the federal states so specific conditions vary slightly, but there are no fees in any state aside from a general payment of a few hundred euros for administrative costs. In many cases this covers a free public transport pass, discounts on food in university canteens  and other perks that students in most of the UK have to pay for on top of their tuition fees.

Education in Germany is seen as a public good, something that benefits society as a whole, rather than a product that can be sold to enhance an individual’s career prospects.

Some federal states have started a debate about introducing tuition fees for non-EU students. This year, the state of Baden-Württemberg introduced an annual €3,000 fee for those from outside the EU, provoking considerable controversy and leading to a drop in international student numbers. It seems unlikely it will become a trend – several German states began charging small tuition fees for all students about a decade ago, but one by one abolished them again.

Britain is very different. One group of researchers has suggested that since higher student fees enable high pay for vice-chancellors, this results in better university education. As with healthcare, however, the best education is provided when profit is not a motive. If that principle is not accepted, the risk is we’ll get a “Trump university” system.

In 2015 the Higher Education Policy Institute said: “People in England, Wales and Northern Ireland often ask, if Germany can abolish tuition fees, why can’t we? Part of the answer is that Germany sends a lower proportion of young people to university and spends less on each one.”

This was, and still is, not true. A larger number and higher proportion of young people in Germany go to university than in the UK. Additionally, according to a report from Ucas last week, the proportion of poorer students going to university in Britain has fallen compared with the richest (many of the wealthiest fifth will incur no debt as their parents pay their fees up front).

The new “multiple equality” measure of deprivation Ucas now uses is the best way of gauging trends in the social equality of a university’s intake. Its new data is a strong indication that the introduction of high student fees and loans has not widened access – it has done the opposite.

Talking about pay is embarrassing. Making simple numerical mistakes can be embarrassing. Not understanding how young people can be so well educated for free in another European country is embarrassing. Student fees in the UK cannot be defended – they’re just embarrassing.

Danny Dorling is professor of human geography at Oxford University. Ben Hennig was educated in Germany and is a lecturer at the University of Iceland.


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