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Cost of higher education in Germany

Should we follow the German way of free higher education?

University in Germany is free for all citizens, why isn’t it free for us?

Against the international trend, Germany has announced it will abolish tuition fees and higher education will once again be free for its citizens. Could the same happen in Australia?

In a shortlived experiment, Germany’s public universities - funded by state (Länder) governments - introduced fees in 2005. But as early as 2008, following public outcry, individual states started backtracking. The last two of the Länder still levying them will phase them out this year.

Fee-reversal could happen in Australia. We have only one government funding 37 public universities, compared to Germany’s 16 Länder funding more than 100. But perhaps the question for Australia is: should higher education be free?

The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights supports the implementation of free higher education on the basis that higher education should be equally accessible to all. But free doesn’t necessarily mean equal.

What’s the point of having a free education if only a few can access it? Or if the quality of higher education is sub-standard? On the other hand, what if a country charges high student fees, but ensures that anybody needing financial support gets it?

Australia’s history with free higher education

Serious attempts to support poorer students into university began in 1944 with the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. As well as ensuring people had jobs in the post-war economy, it was a deliberate social engineering attempt by the Curtin-Chifley government to encourage people from working-class backgrounds – mostly men - to study.

Prime minister Robert Menzies expanded the system into the merit-based Commonwealth Scholarships scheme. Between this and state-based teachers’ scholarships, a majority of university students from the late 1950s to the early 1970s did not pay fees. However, the overall student demographic remained urban, middle class and white.

When Whitlam made education free in 1973, it still didn’t help many more students from more diverse families go to university, though mature-age women did benefit. The practical difference under Whitlam was offering income support for students. The introduction of HECS in 1989, however, shared the cost of higher education more evenly between government and the student.

Australian higher education is now fairer and more accessible than it was previously. Nonetheless, participation is still unequal for many groups of Australians, such as for Indigenous, regional and disabled students.

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