Foreign university students have long been attracted to Germany as an inexpensive alternative to pricier America and Britain. But a court ruling this week clearing the way for German tuition fees could change that.
Germany's Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe on Wednesday struck down a law that had made university tuition fees illegal, arguing it violated the right of the country's federal states to set education policy.
Besides revolutionizing higher education for Germans, the impending fees could radically alter the makeup of foreigners studying at the country's universities as they look for less-expensive alternatives.
“Since there are no tuition fees here I thought I’d come and give it a shot,” said Kim Dong-Young, a 29-year-old Korean studying product design at the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam, near Berlin. Like for so many overseas students, Germany's attraction for Kim was a combination of quality instruction and affordability.
"Obviously the standard of education was important to me, but so was the cost," he said.
While states run by Social Democratic governments said on Thursday they will resist charging college students, conservative-led states want to quickly implement a system of fees.
Strapped for cash
German universities are chronically underfunded and overfilled.
Proponents of charging tuition argue Germany's cash-strapped universities need the extra revenue to halt their decline into mediocrity. But those against fees fear poorer students will find it harder to study with the added costs. That problem could be especially acute for foreign students from the developing world.
Germany’s tuition-free universities have long been attractive to those students unable to afford more prestigious yet more expensive institutions in the United States or Britain. Whether foreigners will still be willing to learn German to study at universities that are often considered at best average internationally is unclear.
But some German academic officials remain confident foreign students will still come if the tuition fees are used to improve the quality of education on offer.
"We don't want to earn anything from foreign students, but rather we hope to finance better service that has to be offered to compete internationally: language courses, alumni parties, more student housing for our guests," Christian Bode, head of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), told Der Spiegel newsmagazine.
Better education, better students?
Fees could also have the unintended effect of increasing the quality of students from abroad that come to Germany. Dismal graduation rates for foreigners have prompted criticism that the country is failing to properly select and prepare prospective overseas students.
According to a recent study by a non-profit education organization, only a quarter of all foreign students manage to graduate from German university. Those lucky enough to get a degree normally take an average of eight years to do so. Countless more fail to enroll, unable to pass university entry exams.
Bode from the DAAD said he expected the best-qualified students would be ensured access to German universities through scholarships and educational grants. Still, there are sure to be those that fall through the cracks if the fees come.
Hussein Berjavi, a 22-year-old from Lebanon currently taking preparatory classes in Berlin in a bid to study engineering, said he didn't qualify for financial aid elsewhere, so he likely wouldn't in Germany."America, England, I could never afford to study in those places," he said. "Things are a lot cheaper here."