University fees are set to rise in England. But do the neighbours fare any better? Jasper Rees goes on a European tour and meets the students of Generation Skint ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2011
From the hilltop castle which looms over Heidelberg the view is captivating. The river Neckar thrusts through forested hills. On the north side looms the Heiligenberg, up whose flank slithers the so-called Philosopher’s Walk, sylvan haunt of many a strolling professor. At its foot are free-standing villas which speak discreetly of shockproof wealth. A gated bridge tiptoes over the gliding waters and leads to the old town with its elegant streets and important churches. What a gorgeous place to study.
Germany’s oldest university doesn’t come cheap. The cost of living is roughly €10,000 a year, not including tuition fees. Stefanie Schmidt (not her real name), a 25-year-old student with thin-framed specs and long auburn hair, is nearing the end of her studies in biology and English. Such is her parents’ income that she did not qualify for a BAfÖG, or student loan, but her parents have been unable to give her further financial support, and so she has had to work. A lot.
“I have three to four jobs to pay for it,” she says. “I was working as a lifeguard, I’m a research assistant in the faculty library, and on weekends I work at the football stadium.” She doesn’t officially list the fourth job—private teaching—because that’s cash in hand, part of the campus black market. And she still can’t afford Heidelberg rents, so she and her boyfriend live 45 minutes away by train. Thanks to a niggardly law, German students have to pay extra if they earn more than €400 a month. Nor can they work more than 20 hours a week. “You need really good time management,” she adds. “I really have to calculate every month how often I can work so that I won’t reach the limit.” Students of recent eras have been labelled Generation X or Y; this lot look like Generation Skint.
One might think that Germany would be good at this sort of thing. In fact its system for funding education is so confused that it can stand as a microcosm for Europe as a whole. Until the middle of the last decade, tuition fees did not exist in Germany. Then they were introduced by some states, mostly those where the Christian Democrats and Liberals were coalition partners. “There was a general understanding that many universities are underfinanced,” says Dr Thomas Pfeiffer, a law professor in his 50s who is also Heidelberg’s vice-rector for international affairs, “and it was thought to be a good idea to have students or their parents take some responsibility for financing the programmes, and also to put an incentive on the students to study more efficiently, more industriously than some were thought to.” Now only three of Germany’s 16 Länder are sticking with tuition fees. Others have opted for payment after graduation. And some have no fees at all. It’s a Land lottery.
In the state of Baden-Württemberg, where we are now, there is a remarkable law based on a kind of birth-order roulette. “I am lucky,” explains Faris Bidier, a lanky 22-year-old in his third year of a BA in English and geography. “I am a third child and only the first two children have to pay in Baden-Württemberg.” On top of which his parents are wealthy enough to pay both his rent and a monthly allowance. No wonder he has looked for work only “half-heartedly”. It’s possible that the Land’s new government will be abolishing tuition fees anyway.
After a tour of the old town on a warm early evening, we have repaired to a subsidised student bar where the sun slants into a large grassy courtyard. Julia Klein (pictured above), in her first year of a master’s in English, could have had her tuition free too. All she had to do was stay the other side of the river. “The state where I am originally from, just across the Rhine, doesn’t have tuition fees,” she says. “I have friends who study there because it’s free, although some universities are rubbish.” But she wanted a prestigious education in Heidelberg. Britain is not the only country where some universities are more equal than others.
Her parents’ income is such that she passed the forensic annual means test for a BAfÖG, so Baden-Württemberg picks up half her tuition fees. The rest she has to pay back after a decade and only once her earnings reach a certain level. To make ends meet—rent in Heidelberg is around €300 a month, but can be much more—she works in the library and also does web design and private tuition. “I’ve been in debt for my entire time as a student,” she says. “Even though I have a job, I am in the red every month. It’s a huge pressure. You’re not going to die, you’re not going to starve. But it’s not certain that you’re going to get a job.” Like Stefanie and Faris, Julia has set her sights, with a touch of pragmatism, on the teaching profession. No matter who pays, people will still need educating.