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    Germany Stands Alone in Offering Free University Tuition, But For How Long?

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    While the cost of university is high and rising in many countries, most notoriously the UK and US, Germany has been found to be unique in offering completely free university tuition - will the country follow in the footsteps of others and saddle graduates with lifelong debts?

    The study, issued by the nonprofit Korber Institute, shows Germany's higher education regime is internationally exceptional. Not only are no German students charged for their studies, international students can also pursue degrees at German universities for free. The findings challenge the widespread perception university tuition is free in Scandinavian countries — universities in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden all charge for at least some courses.

    While noting there are many countries where tuition is very cheap, and/or generous scholarship budgets mean many can attend for free, and higher education is no longer an elite privilege — in many countries "over half a year group went on to study," the report found — the authors expresses concern about the general trend of rising fees worldwide.

    The group found that chronic underfunding of higher education, particularly in rich Western nations, has left a funding gap, which the private sector is eager to fill — although the authors question the worth of effective university privatization, saying private providers "vary drastically in quality and usefulness."

    The obvious impact of escalating fees is ever-rising levels of student debt the world over. In the US, 44 million students owe a total of almost US$1.3 trillion, with the average graduate shouldering US$37,172 in student loan debt in 2016, a six percent year-on-year rise.

    The average cost of tuition in the US has risen dramatically since 1985. Between then and 2015, the average cost of a degree rose from US$12,716 to US$31,231, a 146 percent leap. By contrast, in the same period, US median household income rose US$6,710.

    The situation is even more severe in the UK, where students leave university with average arrears of at least £35,000 (US$43,900) — leading many to use alcohol and drugs to ease their pecuniary anxieties. According to education charity Sutton Trust, UK students have the highest debts in the English-speaking world. Moreover, there are suggestions this figure will rise due to Brexit.

    UK students protesting against the hike in university tuition fees.
    © Flickr / Denni Schnapp
    UK students protesting against the hike in university tuition fees.

    While the phenomenon of spiraling student debt is by no means restricted to the UK and US, the report notes other countries have established programs for dealing with the issue. For instance, in Canada, students are relieved of their student loans after 15 years under the National Student Loan Repayment Assistance program. The government effectively writes off a student's remaining debt after a decade and a half, and offers debt reduction plans that can reduce a loan balance by as much as US$26,000.

    In Australia, debt is based on potential earnings for a student's degree or area of study. Furthermore, Australian students only repay loans after they start earning an income in excess of US$39,000, after which they pay a mere 4 percent of their annual income. Payments for student loans are automatically collected through income taxes too, meaning loan defaults are virtually non-existent.

    Nevertheless, despite German's exalted status, there are suggestions the country has not seen the last of tuition fees.

    Dieter Dohmen, director of Germany's Institute for Education and Socio-Economic Research, has said that many education ministers in Germany privately believe phasing out tuition fees was a "wrong move," and fees will be reintroduced by 2020.

    Scrapping fees in Germany sent student numbers soaring, universities are having to shoulder the cost. Angela Merkel has pledged to pass a "debt brake" resolution by 2020, which would stop German states from racking up structural deficits — if that goes ahead, tuition fees could quickly be reintroduced.

    Related:

    Brexit: UK to Face Cuts in Research Funds, Increased Fees for EU Students
    Who Controls the Past? Turkish Education Reforms 'Rewrite History'
    Hard Brexit May Cripple UK Higher Education, Benefit Other European Universities
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    free education, universities, Brexit, loans, privatization, debt, education, students, Germany, Europe, United Kingdom
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