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View from here - Surge in students in the land of the free degree

Germany - With many states abolishing fees and military service being axed, universities are beginning to feel the strain

Germany - With many states abolishing fees and military service being axed, universities are beginning to feel the strain

While British universities have been busily working out how much they can charge for undergraduate degrees, increasing numbers of German students are not having to pay fees at all.

Many states abolished fees following nationwide protests two years ago when school pupils, teachers and lecturers took to the streets to complain about botched changes to the German degree system. And the trend towards free higher education shows no sign of abating: most recently, wealthy Baden-Wurttemberg and heavily populated North Rhine-Westphalia have followed suit.

But the fall in income has hit the universities at the same time as they prepare to receive record numbers of applicants, prompting concerns that they will not be able to cope.

Universities are expecting a rush of around 500,000 applicants for places in the new academic year - 60,000 more than last summer.

The spike in applicants has been caused, in part, by an overhaul of the school system that has cut the Gymnasium (grammar school) courses in Bavaria and Lower Saxony from nine to eight years. That means that in those states, double the usual number of final-year students will take their school-leaving exams.

As if that wasn't enough, the offical ending of conscription in Germany on 1 July means that numbers will be further swollen by thousands of young men who would normally have been destined for military service prior to commencing studies.

Margret Wintermantel, head of the German Rectors' Conference, said that universities were "bracing" themselves for this year's run on places, and is urging regional governments to make up any shortfalls in funding.

"We face a double whammy of twice the number of school-leavers plus no more military service," she said.

State governments have all pledged to make up for the shortfall of cash, but for the moment the cutbacks and spike in applications have left some universities complaining of being understaffed and underfunded.

The fees that have been cut were never anything like those faced by students in England or the US, however. Most German universities charged a comparatively modest EUR500 (#163;438) a term - which was used to help modernise facilities and improve conditions of study - and many in the east of the country did not even charge that.

The move to abandon fees has come as German education ministers have hoped to entice more students into higher education. Figures have improved, with 26 per cent of school leavers going on to university, although that is still well below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 38 per cent.

But while the number of graduates remains comparatively low, it seems that German students will continue to benefit from fee-free courses that their British counterparts can only dream of.

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