In Germany High School Students and University students are on strike. Well, some of them. At the moment it really does not look like a mass movement :-).
Reasons: what I got from the radio stations, the university students are protesting against the introduction of university fees and against the "Bologna Reforms" which introduced the split of German University curricula into Bachelor and Master Courses. The High School Students are protesting against too big classes and the shortening of the secondary schooling from 9 years to 8 years.
In details there might be some reason for protest. Some of the new university courses are ill conceived and do not work out. The shortening of the High School was done without revising the curricula sufficiently so that the program is too packed now. But would a rollback be sensible. Is it really good and defendable that Germans who leave University are all well over 25?
This blog is specifically about university fees which I support in principle. I am supporting university fees out of a sense of social justice. I find it unjustly that the community has to pay for the privileges of a minority. Only global goods, used by everyone, should be free and paid for by the community. This is not always easy to define. Are roads a global good, necessary for and used by everyone?
In a way yes, because public transport, emergency services, delivery of goods, all this need roads.
In a way not, because many of the roads are necessary only because of a very specific conception of individual traffic by private cars. Therefore I am in favor of taxes on cars and petrol, very high taxes, much higher taxes than we have at the moment. Who wants to drive car should correspond for all the costs that this causes, private costs and public costs.
Back to universities. Which are the arguments to keep them free of charge, means paying them completely from the tax budget?
a) Recht auf Bildung" ("right to education"). This is the most often argument used by the protesters
b) Cultural generosity. A society is so rich that it considers it possible to invest money into higher education without asking if this is in the interest of everyone...we also invest in museums...
c) Necessity: a society needs a certain amount of intellectual capital, of engineers, lawyers and philosophers for its functioning and this is in the interest of all.
I am questioning strongly the validity of a) Does this mean that we should send everyone to University? This would be not only economically a desaster, but it is also a misconception regarding humans and their different talents. Behind that I sense the 68 arrogance to consider an intellectual more worthy than a plummer.
There is a lot of truth in both b) and c). The paradigm of the neo-liberals to change everything in a society into a commodity, giving it a prize tag and thinking to regulate it through the market is not something I like. I am also convinced that it is part of human nature not to monetarize everything in life. Investing in common culture is part of human societies since the neolithicum.
Also argument c) is correct. The society needs a certain amount of intellectual human capital to work. But it would be dangerous to overstress this argument. It would give the society (obviously through the state) the right to completely manage and channel what should happen at the universities. And so it happens. A lot of discussion is about how to direct the universities to the labor market.
I would dare to say that today there is more academic freedom at the high prized US universities than in a German Bachelor course.
I forgot another argument against university fees: University fees would close the universities for children from poor families. This is simply wrong. The percentage of children from poor families at universities is higher in the United States than in Germany. University fee does not mean at all that a student has to pay them. On a merit based system a gifted and talented student would get the fees back through a scholarship.
There are also various arguments in favor of university fees:
a) people, who have the privilege to be out of the productive process and to learn and to study contribute to the costs
b) a direct income for the universities to improve their offers
c) a kind of incentive to use the time well at the university
The solution for me is a mixed model. University fees yes. But backed by a system that gives merit based scholarships to poor families and backed by a mechanism to lend the capital to other students who want to take over the risk to study - similar to the Bafoeg Credit system with which I am still paying back the money the society gave me to survive when I was at university.
The economist article On shaky foundations (http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13914669) ppoints the attention on another important matter: the underfunding of German universities. And this refers not to public funding but to private funding