A few years ago, Germany’s Supreme court declared that tuition fees were constitutional, thus paving the way for some states to experiment with fees. Seven of them (containing over half of all students) did so: Baden-Wurttemburg, Bavaria, Hamburg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Saarland. The fees varied a bit from place to place, but most settled on a modest €500 (Hesse was €1000) – though in some places waiver systems meant that as many as a third of students paid nothing at all.
Gradually, the Länder have reversed their decisions, and this fall the final Länder (Lower Saxony) got rid of fees. Hence a raft of stories in the last couple of weeks about Germany “going tuition-free”, and questions from some quarters, asking: “could Canada do the same”? To which the answer is: of course we could.
It would be trivially easy for us to eliminate tuition. Heck, we already pay net zero tuition, in that what we charge domestic students is more or less equal to what we spend on various forms of non-repayable aid. If we got rid of all our student aid and scholarship programs we could have free tuition. It would be a bit rough on low-income students, students with dependents, and college students (who for the most part would lose money on the deal); it also would be a windfall for wealthier kids who go to university, but I’ve yet to meet anyone in the free-tuition camp who seems to care about that. Of course, that too would make us more like Germany, where direct funding for living costs is pretty meagre: only about 20% of students there qualify for student aid, and it tends to be for far less than what our students get.
At another level, of course, it would be even more trivially easy for us to “do a Germany”. All we need to do is stop spending so much public money on higher education. Their expenditure on higher education is about half of what ours is: per-student funding to institutions in Germany is about $10,000 (€7,000); in Canada, it’s about $15,000. And that has impacts as well: professors there, on average, only get paid about 60% of what ours do. When education costs are so low, it’s not difficult to keep tuition down.
German participation rates in higher education are also lower than ours, in part because they have no money to accommodate more students. They could have kept tuition fees and directed institutions to use that money to expand access, but they preferred not to do that. And so, as a result, the German student body is much more socio-economically selective than ours is – indeed, it is one of the most selective anywhere in Europe, and was so before fees were introduced.
So ask not if we could become like Germany, ask why we’d want to be more like Germany. Why would we want to spend less public money on higher education? Why, when the private returns to education are so high, would we want to exempt the beneficiaries from paying for the privileges they receive? Why would we want to give a windfall benefit to children from wealthier families who quite clearly have the capacity and desire to pay? Why would we spend all that money when the benefits to the poor – whose net tuition is already close to zero – would benefit barely at all?