What can we learn from German HE?

Keeping up with the Germans? – a report released today by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) explores the similarities and differences between the higher education systems in the UK and Germany, and asks whether the UK could learn from a country that offers free tuition to all students.

Tuition fees have been completely abolished in Germany since 2014/15 after a short period with fees from 2006/7. Between 2006 and 2015 only around half of Germany’s 16 states charged fees and they were typically €1000 a year.

There are no undergraduate tuition fees for public universities anywhere in Germany but there are administrative charges. “While some English academics see Germany as a model for abolishing fees, some German academics worry about underfunding” says the report, penned by HEPI director, Nick Hillman.

While there are a similar number of students in Germany and the UK (2.5 and 2.3 million respectively), Germany’s larger population of 81 million to the UK’s 65 million means that proportionally there are less students in higher education. There are also less first year enrolments in Germany compared to the UK as degrees have historically taken longer there.

Nick Hillman 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.”

Annual spending on educating each undergraduate in Germany and the UK was very similar in 2011 at a little over $10,000 (USD), according to the Organisation for Economic Co-orperation Development (OECD), though courses in Germany tend to be longer. But looking at the moving picture, spending per tertiary student in 2011 in the UK was 67% more than it was in 2000. In Germany over the same period, spending grew by about 40%.

There is similarity between England and Germany in terms of financial support for living costs. A mixture of means tested grants and loans are offered to students in Germany, with an average of €5,352 received in 2013. Repayments on loans do not begin until five years after graduation and are capped at £10,000.

The report highlights the differences in the UK and German higher education sector from an international perspective; noting that “Germany is moving forwards while the UK risks moving backwards”. Tuition is free even for international students in Germany whereas in the UK non-EU students are subject to higher fees than home and EU students.

While there is less demand for international students to study in Germany, the report points out that Germany’s more welcoming approach “encapsulates a wholly different attitude to the contribution international students make to their host nation”. When calculating the benefits of international students, Germany includes the income tax contributions of international students who stay in the country. If 30 per cent of international students remain in Germany to work for five years, the cost of educating all international students is recouped according to calculations from the DAAD. The report says that “the UK Home Office regards it as a failure that so many – actually possibly fewer than one-in-five students – are thought to stay in the UK”.

The report mentions EU research funding and the ‘depth of research collaboration’ between Germany and the UK as a “prime example of cross-boarder links working to the benefit of all”. It goes on to say that it is a missed opportunity for British universities to launch a pro-EU campaign “lacking specific requests on the future of EU research spending”.

Comparing research in the UK to in Germany the report says that the German research base is relatively well-funded but “characterised by non-teaching institutions and looks complicated. Its structure also leads to underperformance in the global league tables, making German research appear less good than it really is.” If the Max Planck Society were included in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University league table, the report says that they could “displace Cambridge as the top placed European university and knock Oxford out of the top ten.” The report also notes that there appears to be some convergence between the way research is undertaken in the UK and Germany.

Finally the report suggests there are stronger parallels between Scotland and Germany than England and Germany on tuition fees as well as “demographic concerns and the autonomy of higher education.”

Read the report in full here.

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