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Free higher education: a fantasy or a human right

7 februari 2016 - 10:13

Student activists think it’s about time the Dutch government makes higher education free for all. By abolishing tuition fees, the government would fulfil a promise it made fifty years ago, and follow the example of many European states.

‘We cite Germany as an example for so many things, why wouldn’t we do so now?’ Teun Dominicus asks. The political science student and activist with the Maagdenhuis occupation group, De Nieuwe Universiteit is in favour of the newest idea in town: free higher education.


And maybe there’s hope. The Dutch government announced last month that it would start experimenting with a plan in which students need only to pay for each course they’re enrolled in, instead of paying the fixed amount of 1900 euros a year. The national pilot will include 1,000 students at the UvA and HvA, and will start in the next academic year. In a debate on this issue last week, however, organised by ASVA, Amsterdam’s student union, student activists didn’t show much support for the idea, calling for the university to abolish tuition fees all together.


‘It’s a step we need to take,’ Dominicus says. Germany did it: Lower Saxony abolished all tuition fees in October 2014. The state’s move came after six other German ‘Länder’ already decided to abolish their annual tuition fees for university students the year before. Now the country has finally been reconciled with its constitutional tradition of tuition-free, higher education. But it, too, travelled a twisted road. After Germany’s reunification in 1990, politicians argued for the introduction of tuition fees. Their biggest obstacle, however, was that these were banned by a federal law, on top of which some German state’s constitutions’ guaranteed free education. But with a 2005 ruling by the constitutional court in Karlsruhe declaring that moderate fees, when coupled with moderate loans, would still uphold these constitutional rights, Germany started to experiment.

‘This is not a “free beers for all” issue’

‘It took them a while to introduce the fees, but then they decided to abolish them anyway,’ Berkhout says, ‘because it didn’t work.’ In fact, states started to abolish their tuition fees after a wave of protests spread over the country. Students occupied university buildings in Hessen, and in Hamburg, students simply refused to pay. A protest group in Bavaria collected 1.35 million signatures for the abolition of tuition fees, forcing the prime minister to abolish them a few days later. The student protests in Germany echoed those of Québec a few years ago, where mass student protests halted the proposed raise of tuition fees. Why are students so sensitive to this issue?


Free is the standard in Europe
‘This is not a “free beers for all” issue,’ Berkhout says, ‘it deals with the fundamental question of how best to spread wealth.’ ‘The idea that higher education should be accessible for all is not an idle wish, it is a social right,’ Teun Dominicus emphasises, referring to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a treaty to which 164 countries, including the Netherlands, are a party. The Covenant calls for ‘the progressive introduction’ of free higher education since its introduction in 1966.


According to Berkhout, fifty years later, it is pretty much the standard in continental Europe. ‘The Germans have abolished tuition fees, students don’t pay in Austria, and in France, higher education is almost free.’ These may be good examples, but in no country is the situation as ideal as in Denmark: ‘There it’s not only free, but students even receive a grant,’ Berkhout says. Does Berkhout have an opinion on how free higher education should be introduced in the Netherlands? ‘No, I don’t.’ Isn’t that the first thing one should consider? ‘It is a principal point,’ Berkhout says, ‘we shouldn’t consider education only as an investment in yourself, it is an investment in society.’


Dutch national student union LSVB thinks that the abolition of tuition fees would cost 2 billion euros. ‘Free higher education is the ideal situation, but you cannot change the system from one day to the next,’ its chairman Stefan Wirken says. That’s not so big an amount Dominicus and Berkhout counter. Dominicus: ‘Certainly not when you compare it to a GDP of 650 billion euros.’ Dominicus casually suggests asking businesses for an extra contribution because they benefit from the higher educated, or to use gas revenues.


Or… look at Sweden, another country where universities are tuition-free. According to the OECD report, Education at a Glance, the Swedish government pays 10,589 euros per student per year, whereas the Dutch pay 12,505 euros per year. ‘Are the Swedish more efficient?’ Aleid Truijens, a columnist for Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant asked recently. ‘There are so many different ways countries can do this. Let’s study these to identify best practices and then implement them to abolish tuition fees in the Netherlands,’ Teun Dominicus concludes.


Willem van Ewijk

'One can’t call studying in Germany entirely free…'

No tuition fees?

The numbers surrounding tuition fees, grants and loans vary greatly across Europe. According to EU education agency EACEA the highest tuition fees are paid in England (around 10,000 euros), which is also one of the most expensive countries to live in. Relatively high fees are also paid in Spain (up to 4000 euros), Ireland (up to 6000 euros), Switzerland (5000 euros) and the Netherlands (1900 euros). ‘Cheaper’ countries include Belgium (up to 620 euros for the Flemish community) and France (up to 260 euros). Estonia links fees to study performance: only students who do not achieve the required number of credits each year have to pay. Fees are similarly linked to poor performance in countries including the Czech Republic, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Poland and Slovakia.


In some countries, students are not required to pay for their studies at all, apart from a one-off administration or registration fee. This is the case in Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Malta, Slovenia, Finland, Sweden, Scotland, Norway and Germany. Germany abolished its tuition fees in 2014, although students who fail to stay on track are still charged in a few Länder (up to 500 euros per semester). Also, students are required to pay a contribution, varying from 50 to 300 euros each semester, so one can’t call studying in Germany entirely free…


In Norway, only a small contribution is required (between 40 and 80 euros per semester). In exchange, students get a free travel card that also provides them with free health insurance. Students in Sweden are entitled to a subsidy of 70 euros per week to support themselves. If they need more, a loan is available, which they are required to pay back at the end of their studies. England made dramatic changes to its higher education system in 2012. Now, fees are not paid immediately, but on graduation and only when the students’ earnings exceed a defined threshold – a unique model in Europe. In Scotland, however, students are charged no tuition fee at all, thanks to a subsidy from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS).


Almost every country in Europe, except Iceland and Turkey, provide loans and grants. In Cyprus, Denmark and Malta all students get a grant; in Finland, Norway and Denmark, only some of them. The Netherlands used to have a basisbeurs for every student. But since September 2015 that grant is no longer available and students need to request a loan.


Only time will tell what will happen in the Netherlands but for now, let’s be grateful there are people whose memories reach back to promises made 50 years ago.


Nina Schuyffel