Some American presidential candidates have endorsed free tuition for American public universities. It’s an understandable demand. I attended private and public American universities and had the eye-watering student loans to prove it. However, my experience teaching at German universities for over a decade introduced me to some of the tuition-free model’s drawbacks, many of which may not be obvious to outsiders.
Drastically simplified, the German model is as follows: in their early teen years, the brightest German students are sent to the most prestigious form of German high school, the Gymnasium. Currently, over 50 percent of German students earn this privilege (this number has jumped in the last 30 years, prompting charges of grade inflation). Gymnasium graduates with reasonable grades are guaranteed a place in a German university; there is no entrance exam. 95 percent of German students attend public universities, where they are charged fees, but not formal tuition. All professors at public universities are civil servants. Needy students can apply for a modest stipend. After graduation, students must pay back one-half of the amount, beginning 5 years after graduation. The total repayment amount is capped at €10,000.
The system is popular with students, for obvious reasons. However, many education officials and professors crave the financial flexibility granted by tuition fees. In 2005, the federal government passed a law allowing German states to charge tuition, and some states started doing so, generally charging well under €1000 per year. However, large-scale strikes and protests by students and allies eventually forced a policy change, and no German state now charges formal tuition. Supporters of the tuition-free system note that 65 percent of Germans say university should be tuition-free, “even if this means the quality of education is slightly worse.” Reasons for this support include a long history of exclusionary patrician education in Germany, and Germans’ ingrained aversion to debt. The system also gives students extra freedom: you can study art history or sociology, knowing that you won’t be hounded by creditors if you later find only spotty employment. Tuition-free universities are also seen as an important tool for social mobility, although the picture is more complex, as we will see.
Yet the tuition-free system also has disadvantages. The first difference an American will notice is that most German universities look dingy and threadbare. Many were erected hastily in the 1960s and 1970s to house new students brought in by liberalizing reforms, and these cheap, poorly maintained structures are notoriously ugly (a German magazine recently ran a feature on “German Universities Ranked by Ugliness”). Most classrooms still feature rigid wooden or metal desks bolted into rows. Wireless coverage, library stocks, laboratory gear and classroom A/V equipment lag far behind the average American state university. It’s still possible to arrive to give a lecture and find an overhead projector awaiting your transparencies. Professors’ salaries are much lower than in the United States, and Germany’s problem with “adjunctification” and precarious conditions for aspiring scholars (known by the German neologism Prekarisierung) is becoming as urgent as it is in the United States.
This bare-bones regime also dominates student life and counseling. German universities are sink-or-swim: if you have scholarly or personal problems while studying, help will come only from overburdened counselors with hundreds of cases, or from student volunteers. Along with lax admissions standards, this fact helps explain the high dropout rates; one-third of all students who enroll in German universities never finish. A recent OECD study found that only 28.6 percent of Germans aged between 25 and 64 had a tertiary education degree, as compared to 46.4 percent of Americans (although classification issues mean these numbers must be handled with care). This chronic lack of resources—in addition to the understandable fact that many outstanding German scholars publish in German—also helps explain why German universities punch below their weight in international rankings, a topic of obsessive concern to German politicians.
Eliminating tuition also means that universities become more like primary schools, or public utilities. This changes the dynamic in subtle ways. Universities will become more vulnerable to funding decisions by agencies, leading to more intrusive control and bureaucracy. Gather any group of German professors, and talk will immediately turn to the burgeoning bureaucracy which distracts them from teaching and research. This changed dynamic also makes it harder to get funding from alumni and third parties. Would you donate to the local sewage treatment plant? Hardly; these things should be funded from tax revenue and, of course, user fees. Making universities fully state-supported also raises a host of issues under competition and public-utilities law. For this reason (among others) naming buildings or professorships after private donors is still fairly uncommon at German public universities, and “executive education” or outreach courses may be banned or regulated to prevent unfair competition with private-sector offerings.
Tuition fees also serve as a buffer to interference from politicians who disapprove of controversial course offerings; after all, if students (or parents) choose to pay thousands of dollars to have their children indoctrinated with “left-wing propaganda,” that’s their business. When the state foots the entire bill, however, politicians will have that much more incentive to demand oversight and explanations. Some will surely object to professors’ and deans’ “inflated” salaries, decry “bloated” administrative budgets, and pillory professors with unpopular views. German professors are shielded from explicitly political interference by the principle of academic freedom—enshrined in Article 5 of the German Constitution—and by Germany’s history of self-governing universities. American professors enjoy free speech rights, of course, but lack these powerful shields against interference.
Tuition-free universities also have problems with student motivation. Most Americans who teach ordinary classes in Germany find average German students somewhat less motivated than their dues-paying American counterparts. The top third of motivated students would succeed anywhere, and the bottom third, as we have seen, drop out to join Germany’s justly admired system of technical colleges or apprenticeships. The key group is in the middle: these “average” students are just less committed than American students. Cheating is rampant, and students often brazenly chat during lectures. Exam day invariably brings out dozens of new faces never seen in class before. Students often asked me what the test would be about, and told me they felt entitled to this information. In all my years teaching thousands of students, only about 40, in total, ever voluntarily came by to ask about the course material. Of course, these problems also exist among American undergraduates, but, subjectively, they seemed more pronounced in Germany. Human nature ordains that, all other things being equal, you will care more about something you have to pay for.
Supporters of the tuition-free model claim it fosters social mobility. Yet the proportion of German university students whose parents were “well” or “very well” educated rose from 36 percent in 1991 to 52 percent in 2016, raising the question of whether free university study—especially in financially rewarding areas such as finance, law, or medicine—is often just a gift from taxpayers to the (grateful) middle class. A recent study found that parental wealth still plays a crucial role in social mobility in Germany—and the effect was even stronger there than in the USA. There are, evidently, many factors besides tuition that drive success at university. The sink-or-swim ethos of German universities means that students who are the first in their families to attend university get little or no help, while children of graduates have been groomed for university from a young age. The picture is not all gloom, of course: German universities are increasingly diverse places, and there are thousands of success stories involving students from modest backgrounds. However, the absence of tuition, specifically, does not seem to be the driving factor. An ambitious student will find a way to cope with modest tuition.
American university tuition is too high, and reform is necessary. But reformers should pause before endorsing an absolute ban on tuition. It is unlikely to broaden opportunity as much as they think, and it triggers a host of unintended consequences that will only become evident after the system is in place.
Andrew Hammel is a US-educated lawyer, writer, and translator living in Düsseldorf, Germany. He taught Anglo-American law and comparative law at the University of Düsseldorf from 2003 until 2016, and has taught classes and seminars at many German universities. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewHammel1
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