Proposals for a stance by education unions
Education unions should adopt a clear position in favour of free higher education. The Draft EI Policy Statement on Tuition Fees discussed during the 8th International Higher Education and Research Conference in September 2012 in Buenos Aires (Argentina) is a step in the right direction.
In places where studying is currently free, any suggestions that tuition fees be introduced should be emphatically resisted, and where tuition fees are being charged, unions need to work towards their abrogation.
What are the reasons behind this political achievement?
A decisive role in this reversal was played here by the successful extra-parliamentary alliance opposed to tuition fees, with student representatives, trade unions and associations with an interest in education and research policies all pulling in the same direction.
The campaign was greatly helped by a number of studies demonstrating that the education system in Germany is already highly selective. Research showed that children from “low-education” families (where nobody has studied), especially working-class children, are extremely disadvantaged.
The regular social surveys conducted by the student welfare association, DSW, were particularly useful. Other studies showed that school-leavers who qualified for further education were being deterred from applying to third-level institutions by the discussion about tuition fees.
Because responsibility for higher education policy rests with the federal states in Germany, the issue of tuition fees is not debated in the national parliament (Bundestag). This issue is decided in regional state parliaments.
After critics of tuition fees succeeded in making them an electoral issue, the Social Democrats and Greens slowly took up this concern and presented themselves during election campaigns as being opposed to tuition fees. In Bavaria and Lower Saxony, where tuition fees are still charged, there will be elections in 2013, so that even in these states, they might be abolished.
One crucial result is that the neo-liberal education policy mainstream, still dominant in Germany when the 21st century began, found itself facing a crisis of public acceptance. Only 10 years ago, categorical opposition to tuition fees was ridiculed during panel debates as anachronistic. The mood has now swung in favour of free education.
Good reasons to oppose tuition fees
The Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW), the education union within the German Trade Union Federation (DGB) and one of Germany’s members of Education International (EI), has always been unflinching in its opposition to tuition fees.
It was a co-founder of the alliance against tuition fees (ABS) and has actively supported many protests against them. From a GEW perspective, the following reasons are crucial to keeping higher education free of fees:
- The knowledge society in the 21st century calls for increasing numbers of more highly qualified graduates, not fewer. The GEW wants to see higher education opening up to a broader social basis – expanding higher education institutes to meet needs, granting free access to higher education and including those who qualify through their employment experience rather than school exams. It is also important improving financial assistance to students so that their income does not depend on their parents.
- Tuition fees undermine equal opportunity in the education system.They are anti-social because they make access to higher education and the prospects of a good degree dependent on the financial standing of the individual. Therefore, they exacerbate the existing social inequalities in educational opportunity. That is why tuition fees deter children from low-education and socially disadvantaged families from seeking a university degree. The data also shows that they deter women, who receive less help and encouragement, and for whom the idea of financing their studies through loans constitutes a greater burden as they can expect to earn lower income in the course of their lives.
- We do not need those who profit from their academic qualification to contribute more to the costs of higher education. We need taxation founded on social justice. This will ensure top earners pay their fair share towards an efficient public education system.
- Higher education is not a tradable item but a human right.That is why the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides for a right to education (Article 13) and explicitly enshrines a commitment to the progressive introduction of free education. Introducing or increasing tuition fees violates this Covenant, which was ratified by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1973. Together with the fzs, the German umbrella organisation for bodies representing students, the GEW reported this violation to the United Nations’ Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva. In 2011, the UN Committee condemned tuition fees as a violation of the right to education.
- A university is not a service company and students are not clients. Similar to the teachers in higher education, students form part of the self-governing bodies that run universities, the “universitas magistrum et scholarum” (“teaching and learning community” – Wilhelm von Humboldt). Giving students greater weight as consumers of higher education, as if it were a commodity, is the wrong way to go about strengthening their influence. Instead, the GEW has been calling for students to have more participation in decision-making processes in higher education so that they can bring their influence to bear on improving the courses on offer and the quality of teaching.