Is Germany’s Tuition-Free Higher Education System Under Pressure?


ReichstagHigher education in Germany is widely reputed to be of an excellent standard. It’s the world’s most popular non-Anglophone study destination, and home to more universities featured in the

The German higher education system offers tuition-free degrees, with only administration charges and some postgraduate courses costing money. It’s held up as a model of successful, publicly funded tertiary education by supporters worldwide, and any attempts at introducing fees are usually swiftly rebutted. In fact, when they were introduced, student protests led to them being abolished very quickly.

Is tuition-free education damaging the sector?

Student in Berlin
However, a new report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests that the tuition-free German higher education system is “not sustainable” due to a lack of public funding in recent years.

The number of students in Germany grew by nearly a third between 2008 and 2013, according to the OECD’s note on the country. However, the increase in funding only grew by 16% during the same period, an insufficient amount when compared to the growth in students.

The report states:

“Although Germany increased total expenditure in tertiary institutions by 16 per cent between 2008 and 2013 (reaching $16,895 per student in 2013), the increase in expenditure has not kept up with the increase in the number of students, resulting in expenditure per student at tertiary level that is 10 per cent lower than in 2008.”

Essentially it argues that the rise in funding does not match the rise in student numbers, leading to a shortfall when compared to previous years.

The reliance on public funding for German higher education is significant. On average, tertiary education in OECD countries is 30% privately funded; in Germany it’s only 14%.

These figures have been challenged by the German Ministry for Education, however, which found that when taking financial assistance into account, the amount of money spent on tertiary education in the country is average for OECD nations.

Does public funding help socioeconomic mobility?

Cologne, GermanyDespite the open access to German higher education, socioeconomic mobility in the country has lagged behind many of its OECD counterparts. Only a tenth of people between the ages of 21 and 44 whose parents were not educated to a higher level have a degree themselves, a number which is lower in only six other OECD nations.

The report suggests that while German higher education is tuition-free, pre-schooling is almost entirely privately funded, suggesting that the more financially well-off are able to kick-start their children’s education.

Despite this, the report was generally very positive about tertiary education in Germany. The country has some of the highest rates of enrollment and youth employment in the world, with less than 10% of young Germans not in employment or full-time education, the fifth lowest amongst OECD countries.

While Germany sticks with its tuition-free status, how are students adapting to the UK’s increased fees? We explore.

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