German university tuition fee proposal sparks criticism

Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, is mulling over the introduction of university tuition fees for non-EU students. Critics are aghast, fearing a slump in international enrollment.

Imke Ahlen can't believe it. "Baden-Württemberg has given us a taste of the disaster we are knowingly headed towards in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW)," said the head of the students' union executive committee, Asta, at the University of Cologne. She made no effort to be diplomatic: "This nonsense must be stopped."

The "nonsense" Ahlen is referring to is a proposal by Isabell Pfeiffer-Poensgen, the state's science minister, to introduce tuition fees for non-EU foreign students.

At first glance, this comes as a surprise. The coalition agreement in NRW's state government between the conservative Christian Democrats and the liberal Free Democrats stipulates waiving tuition fees in general. But the idea is that "students from non-EU countries who use German infrastructure and receive a good education can be expected to contribute to the costs," Pfeiffer-Poensgen told the Rheinische Post newspaper.

Extra income

Both Ahlen and the state minister have followed the developments in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, where the government introduced  tuition for non-EU students, earlier this year.

Students unsuccessfully protested against tuition fees in Baden-Württemberg

International students there now pay €3,000 ($3,525) per year. If NRW were to introduce the same annual fees, the state could be looking at a handsome sum — more than €200 million per year for state coffers. Of the 740,154 students in Germany's most populous state, 67,609 are non-EU foreigners. Most of them are from Turkey (14,104), China (8,483) and India (3,957).

Differentiated fees

But Ahlen warned that the issue is not that straightforward. International student numbers could decline in NRW, as they did "drastically" in Baden-Württemberg after international tuition were introduced, she said. Seven universities in the state, including popular institutions in Freiburg and Ulm, have lost a third of their international students this year, Ahlen pointed out.

NRW Science Minister Pfeiffer-Poensgen is aware of the figures. She said she will take a closer look at the situation in Baden-Württemberg and concedes that she might have to rethink her proposal for NRW, which includes exceptions for students from the world's poorest countries.

A glimpse at the situation in Baden-Württemberg shows that enforcing the new tuition rules is proving to be complicated — students in all of the state's four administrative districts have taken legal action against the fees.

Germany's 10 most popular universities for foreign students

University of Cologne (10)

The university in the city that hosts one of Germany's largest parties, Karneval, comes in tenth place. The relaxed attitude of the locals make it a popular destination with international students as does its proximity to other major European cities - it is a train ride from Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris.

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Goethe University Frankfurt (9)

The university is named after German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, just in case you were wondering. Frankfurt, which is often called "Mainhattan" because of its skyscrapers, is one of the country's ethnically diverse cities, and its banking sector offers a lot of opportunities.

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University of Duisburg-Essen (8)

With 37,000 students, the University of Duisburg-Essen is one of the largest higher education institutions in Germany. The university is a result of a merger in 2003 by the Universities of Duisburg and Essen. Studying in this region puts students in Germany's most densely populated region, the Ruhr Valley.

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University of Heidelberg (7)

Founded in 1386, it is the oldest university in Germany. Bearing that title makes the university one of the most attractive destinations for foreign students, not to mention the appeal of Heidelberg - a city with one of the most charming and intact old towns in Germany.

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Humboldt University Berlin (6)

It is one of the oldest universities in Germany. With notable alumni including Otto von Bismarck, Heinrich Heine, Robert Koch and African American activist WEB Dubois, the university also has a great reputation.

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Technical University of Berlin (5)

Berlin isn't only popular with tourists. Students love it. Apart from being known for its high ranked engineering program, Technical University of Berlin's location in the German capital is advantageous because it the cost of living is lower than other large western European cities.

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RWTH Aachen University (4)

RWTH Aachen university is located in the city it's named after, which lies on the German border with Belgium and the Netherlands. As Germany's largest technical university, RWTH's motto, "Zukunft denken" (Thinking the future) , also clearly reflects the university's reputation in the country.

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The Munich University of Technology (3)

The Bavarian capital is also home to another world class institution - the Munich University of Technology. In 2013, just under one in five students were foreign, according to the university's figures.

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Ludwig Maximilian University (2)

Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) is in Munich, which was ranked "the world's most livable city" by Monocle magazine in 2013. It is one of Germany's oldest and most prestigious universities - 34 Nobel laureates are associated with LMU.

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Free University of Berlin (1)

The Free University of Berlin (FU Berlin) was founded in 1948. Its name is a reference to West Berlin because of its status as part of the "free world" unlike its counterpart in then Soviet-occupied East Berlin, Humboldt University. FU Berlin is among the 11 institutions in the German Universities Excellence Initiative.

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