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5th October 2016

How Europe tackles tuition fees

With tuition fees on the rise in the UK, how are other European countries managing university costs for their students?

Tuition in the UK costs a solid £9,000 per year. In an earlier issue we were shown just how much that money is worth. One year’s tuition could pay for a year at the University of Freiburg in Germany for 35 students. It would pay 90 student’s yearly tuition in Norway. In Denmark, a student would just be £9000 richer. A year’s worth of university fees in Freiburg is €290 per year, €100 in Norway and completely free in Denmark. The UK is home to the highest tuition rates in the whole of Europe according to the BBC. In addition, the UK has the highest costs in the industrialised world according to The Guardian, with the U.S. not far behind. Europe has some of the best universities in the world and while the UK is raising fees more each year, other countries are choosing to handle tuition costs with different methods.

I sat down with several Erasmus exchange students just starting their semester at the University of Manchester. Countries like Germany, Norway and Denmark focus on students and their education in more ways than one—without indebting them with student loans. If this is the case, are such high tuition costs worth it?

In Norway, “students pay €50 per semester and there is a variety of student welfare services,” says Marie Dahl Slaastad, a Norwegian Erasmus student in Manchester. “This is the tuition for public universities, which are the best ones in Norway.” When asked if she had noticed any differences in education between her home university and the University of Manchester she said that she had not noticed a difference “when it comes to lectures and courses, but the campus is much bigger and the facilities, social fairs, societies and cafés are a lot bigger here.” Slaastad also added that since public schools do not have tuition costs, but more of an administration fee, the state spends much more money on the universities and schools because “it’s a large part of the Norwegian welfare system and everyone should have the opportunity to have an education, regardless of what their parents earn or save.”

Amalie Noer, a Danish Erasmus student explained how the university system works in Denmark, given that there are no tuition costs or administration fees to be paid. “The state gives a grant of about £600 per month” she said, and this money offsets the costs of living for students. “Denmark is a very expensive country” she said, “the money most often just covers rent and food costs.” I asked why there were no costs, not even the bare minimum for paper used and Noer responded that “the philosophy behind it is that it makes it equal for everyone to attend university.”

Of course, countries like Norway and Denmark are financially more stable than most other countries within Europe. Their countries are wealthier and their taxes are higher, so they can focus on education as much and as graciously as they want. Countries similar to the United Kingdom, however, have also found a way around colossal university fees. Countries like Germany, who are similar to the UK in population size and economy, has managed to abolish tuition fees and keep their standard of education. This set up a great precedent for countries with high tuition fees. According to the BBC, Germany spends up to 3 per cent of its GDP on higher education whereas the UK spends 1.7 per cent GDP, billing students and not the taxpayer for higher education.

I sat down with two German Erasmus students at the University of Manchester for a more extensive look at Germany’s tuition system. Larissa Wehrle, a student at the University of Freiburg, pays €145 per semester for administration fees and Milena Rüschendorf, a student at Humboldt University in Berlin, pays €307 per semester, with all transportation costs included.

When asked if they could notice the difference between their home universities and the University of Manchester, Rüschendorf said that yes she could notice the difference “with the classrooms especially. Here the audio and technologies are much better, and the classrooms are nicely built and modern, whereas the buildings and rooms in Berlin are quite old.” Although she noticed the difference in the role of technology and development throughout the campus, she added that “the libraries are the same, though, and that’s the important part.” Wehrle said that “the buildings in Freiburg are just as beautiful as the buildings here and I find it crazy that students here have to pay.”

They started talking about how odd it seemed to them how much guidance they received from the University. University services in Manchester have the ability, monetary and otherwise, to focus on the students, especially the first year students. During Welcome Week, it was clear to see the number of students volunteering to make the progression into university life much easier. The German students stressed how much more independent one has to be in university while in Germany. “The German standard is more independent, in work and research, whereas if I would have had my first year here I don’t think I would be as independent in finding my own research” says Rüschendorf from Berlin.

Wehrle, from Freiburg, also stressed that in Manchester “the professors are more motivated and more professional in what they say, mostly because they do research in their own fields” while in Germany “professors want you to be more independent.” I asked her whether she had different expectations in going to a university where students pay tuition, she answered “I’m not reaping more benefits as much as I thought I would.”

I also spoke with Rudolf-Werner Dreier, head of Public Relations at the University of Freiburg for a better look at how the German higher education system works. “The university used to charge €1000 per year, but the government and the people decided to abolish tuition and now students pay administration fees of €145 per semester while each individual state substitutes the rest,” he informed me. This fee is used towards the university dining hall, transportation, and the Students’ Union.

Mr. Dreier emphasized that “first and foremost education must be free and affordable for everyone, including those who cannot afford it by scholarships.” He also explained that there are student loans in Germany where students are only required to pay back half of their loan, and only once they have started to work. “If compared to the status of higher education in the U.S. or the UK, people cannot afford to study at all and education becomes a dreaded product in these countries and that should not be the case.”

I finally asked both Wehrle and Rüschendorf what would happen if they had had to pay tuition fees in Germany. “I would be much more stressed,” said Rüschendorf, “since we don’t pay, students are more open and have more freedom to study want they want to and broaden their horizons and have the opportunity to earn more degrees.” She ultimately concluded, “I wouldn’t have studied English if I had tuition fees; they make you feel more locked down because of the money you invest.”

Wehrle added that she knew many people who had started studying one subject and changed to different degrees. “The system is prepared for this, it makes education accessible to everyone.”

They both emphasized the fact that since education is free, the atmosphere is more competitive and that makes public universities better and therefore makes the education better.

Meanwhile in Manchester, second-year student Jocasta Davis said, “many people can’t afford tuition, even with loans.” The increase of the £9,000 tuition is “becoming for the elite”.

From a distance, the idea of no tuition costs and a low administration fee seems utopian, but is it at all feasible for British youth? At the moment, these prospective students seem to have to leave the country in order to find such an ideal situation.

I spoke with Katy Ridsdill-Smith, a London native who is a third year student at the University of Freiburg studying her Bachelors in Liberal Arts and Sciences—a degree completely taught in English. “I think to start with I had lower expectations because money usually brings with it better equipment and resources,” she reflects about the beginning of her education in Germany. “I really don’t think this is the case. I have a lot more contact time with my professors than all my friends studying at English universities.” Although the focus on extra-curricular activities such as societies and social functions are not as frequently seen in German universities, Ridsdill-Smith says, “I am 100 per cent satisfied, I won’t have debts and will have a good university degree which is internationally recognised.”

The UK is lucky to host some of the best universities in the world, ranked at the top in various charts and lists. This, however, has been the case for years—even when the tuition rate was much, much lower.

Calling for an end to university fees is not an extreme or unfeasible thought, as some would think. It is a policy that many other countries have already put into action, and they are now reaping the benefits of a better educated society. This kind of change comes with much motivation, higher taxes and less funding for social aspects of student life.

The one factor that all the students who were interviewed shared was the philosophy of having an accessible education. A kind of education that keeps external financial pressures to a minimum, creates a more innovative environment and grants an additional freedom of a passionate career. In the meantime, we will take in the benefits that tuition at the University of Manchester does grant us—a beautiful campus and an extensive list of societies.


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