Lots of university students sat up and took notice of a report that the German government was abandoning the practice of charging tuition for university students. Not a few here in Canada immediately asked why Canadian universities couldn’t do the same thing. First, however, it needs to be noted that German Länder (provinces or states) only introduced tuition charges relatively recently, and not all of them did. Alex Usher explains why the cases are not parallel and that getting rid of tuition here would be an outright gift of money to the wealthy and would not benefit the poor at all:
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.