With conservatives gaining ground in German politics, the idea of free university education appears to be a thing of the past. But, the idea of tuition fees and even study loans remains anathema to many students.
"Prevent tuition fees" reads the banner
In some countries, saving for a child's education is commonplace. In the US, where the average cost for a year of studying and living at a private college is currently $22,000 (17,921 euros), many parents start socking away money in a college fund even before they've sent out birth announcements.
Until recently, Germans didn't have this concern. The notion that everyone has a right to a cost-free university education has long been a given in modern German society.
But the concept was dealt a blow in January, when the German Federal Constitutional Court decided to overturn a ban on tuition. Each state can now decide whether its universities will charge for their services, and how much.
The result is a political dust storm that has yet to settle. Conservatives tend to support the implementation of tuition fees, claiming the underfunded universities need all the financial help they can get. Liberals oppose it as being anti-egalitarian.
Hundreds of third-semester medical students attend class in Leipzig.
So far, it looks as if nine of the 16 German states -- including North Rhine Westphalia, now that conservatives won power there in recent elections -- will begin charging course fees for an initial round of university study. The fees will not surpass 500 euros per semester.
Already, 12 states impose fees of anywhere from 300 euros to 900 euros per semester for people who take too long to complete their degree, or for career changers who want to take on a second course of study.
While other European countries (England, for example) have already gone through the painful adjustment from free to fee education, most Germans -- who prize their free education system -- find the idea of paying tuition for a first round of study outrageous. Last week, some 10,000 students in five cities took to the streets in protest.
New financial instruments
But the prospect of tuition fees has grabbed the attention of some farsighted financial institutions, who have begun packaging loans aimed at students. The KfW, Germany's state-owned development bank, caused a minor sensation in February when it announced a five percent interest loan available to university students, regardless of their subjects of study or their parents' financial situation.
Deutsche Bank -- unlike the KfW, a private credit institution whose instruments have to make good in the open marketplace -- countered with its own student loan, similar to that of KfW but at a slightly higher rate of interest.
Once the clamor and political wrangling surrounding tuition costs have subsided, even more credit institutions are expected to compete for the student market, experts say.
"The business of financing student loans will become more important in the coming years, so it is important to get into the market early," Lars Hinrichsen, financial adviser at Mummert Consulting told the Handelsblatt newspaper.
Sonja Hüpfner, spokeswoman for the KfW, explained that the aim of their loan is mostly to help students complete their studies speedily and make them more competitive.
"Along with studying, a lot of people have to work to make ends meet, which means it takes them longer to complete a degree," Hüpfner said. Some 63 percent of German students have part time jobs during their studies, according to the Internet site Studis-Online.
German students take an average of six years to complete a university degree, Hüpfner said -- the longest of any European country. "They go on the job market much later, which doesn't help them in terms of competitiveness" she pointed out.
Demonstration in Essen against tution fees. Sign reads Free Education (still) for Everyone
According to Hüpfner, German expectations of free education is a case of misguided values, tied to an overall cultural distrust of debt. "People are afraid to take on debt. But they have to ask themselves: Do I want to invest in my own future? Or should I just take longer to get through my studies, and come on the job market later?"
Judith Graff, a fourth year student at the University of Cologne, sees the loan issue from a practical standpoint. Sure, her studies have been prolonged by the fact that she has to work 20 hours a week to make ends meet -- and that's without having had to pay any tuition fees. But she would rather not finish school in debt.
"Everyone knows right now there are no jobs in Germany. How would you pay the loan back?" Graff asked. "If people come out of school with debt then they would hesitate to start a family ... it's a bad cycle."
People who argue in favor of tuition say the money is needed to boost academic standards at German universities, whose reputations have suffered over the last few decades. A recent ranking of the world's top universities in the Times Higher Education Supplement revealed that only one German institution, the University of Heidelberg, was placed in the top 50.
But opponents say even relatively low tuition fees of 500 euros per semester can make the difference between a given student's success and failure.
"Some people say 500 euros a semester isn't much. But that's 83 euros a month," Achim Meyer auf der Heyde, General Secretary of the Union of German Students told the Suddeutsche Zeitung. "And 27 percent of students live off of 600 euros a month. For that person, 83 euros is a lot."
But Jörg Dräger (photo), Hamburg's senator for science and research, who helped KfW create its student loan, rejects the notion that tuition fees will widen the gap between Germany's haves and have-nots. Instead, he said, giving a college education a monetary value makes it that much more worthwhile.
Fees -- a great equalizer?
"Tuition fees don't only improve the financial framework of universities. They are above all an instrument with which one can more fairly distribute the chances of receiving a university education," Dräger told the Hamburg Media Institute in an interview.
"In the USA, Great Britain and Japan, many more children from (poorer) backgrounds study, despite tuition fees. There, there is stronger awareness that education is also financially worthwhile," he said.
With changing political winds in Germany poised to make fee-based education more widespread, low-income students can only hope that Dräger is right.