You get what you pay for

Maria-Xenia Hardt

Imagine a university where you did not have to pay any fees other than around $300 a year for administration costs and your bus ticket. Universities like this exist, and I’ve been a student at one of them. I studied Freiburg University in Germany before I came here as an exchange student.

Imagine a university without Gregory Gym (or any other well-equipped gym, for that matter), without a Student Activity Center, without academic advisers. Imagine that many rooms are still equipped with an overhead projector instead of a computer. Imagine sitting in a lecture hall with 700 or 800 people most of the time, especially in your introductory classes. Imagine considering teaching assistants who give tutorials in these lectures a luxury.

How do European students manage without the luxuries American college students have come to expect? Well, we go running outside. We hang out in the lobbies of libraries. We look at our exam regulations and figure out for ourselves what courses we have to take that semester. Instead of preparing PowerPoint presentations, we give presentations that work without them, and maybe print out important graphics on transparencies.

We wanted it that way. Several states (Germany is a federal republic and education is managed by the 16 states themselves, not by the federal government) introduced fees a couple of years ago. Students went on strike. Even professors told their students to go out on the street to protest instead of attending lectures. The 1,000 euros (about 1,300 dollars) students were supposed to pay per year might not seem like an awful lot to American students, but people were afraid that fees, once introduced, would be easy to raise.

State elections came, and governments changed and got rid of the fees. Right now, there are two states with fees left, and one of them decided last week to have a popular vote on the issue.

In the absence of fees, our universities are financed by taxes. The taxes are assessed relative to income while fees do not take into account if your family makes $20,000 a year or $200,000.

Universities without fees are not as nice as their expensive American counterparts, but they have their benefits. I think European college students are more independent, less afraid of failing and more likely to study what they are actually passionate about than some of the students I encounter at UT. At a German university, you have to take care of yourself because no one is going to do it for you. You learn how to look after yourself, what strategies you have to use to be successful, and also that it is okay to fail. You can repeat any course the next semester without having lost hundreds of dollars. People have more freedom to study what they are passionate about because when you know you will not have debts after finishing your degree, it is much easier to live with the risk of not snatching a well-paying job because you studied, say, English literature.

Education should not be a question of money. It’s certainly nice to have a computer in every room, but it’s not necessary. After all, the success or failure of any education depends on the quality of the professors, not the fancy convenience of the school’s amenities.

Hardt is an English major from Freiburg, Germany.