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Education: German Universities Free To All Who Qualify

Munich, 14 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In Germany, where higher education is free, every student with sufficient marks can hope to study the discipline of his choice. Even students from poor families -- thanks to special federal assistance to help them pay their living costs as they study -- can manage.

A spokesman for Munich University says "basically, anyone who has the higher school leaving certificate... has a right to a university place". The certificate is awarded only to those who pass a demanding test, called the Abitur.

The competitive nature of the Abitur means that while almost all qualified students can pursue higher education, they may not get into the faculty they want at the university they want. This is because they are accepted at German universities according to the marks they obtained and the number of places available.

The double criteria can mean that some who want to study medicine will find that all the places at their faculty of choice have been taken by students who had better results in the Abitur. The students with lower marks must then either change their course of study or look for another university where there are still places in medicine.

The system tries to assure that financially needy students are not restricted in their ability to study by providing them with federal assistance, known by the acronym BAFOG. The assistance can be available for as many as five years and may have to be repaid or not, according to the student's social circumstances.

There is no standard amount of assistance, since each case is decided individually. But the current maximum is 980 marks a month, which many students say is too little considering the high cost of living in Germany.

Last year, only some 17 per cent of German students qualified for BAFOG. The authorities try to ensure that only those genuinely in need receive the money, giving rise to an application process which many students say can be long and tedious. Many also say that the conditions for receiving the funds are too strict and should be eased to allow more students to benefit.

A student wishing to obtain assistance must apply at least a year in advance. The authorities have four basic criteria: the income of the parents, the savings of the parents, the student's own savings, and the number of children in the family.

Other criteria also may be taken into consideration.

For instance, consider the case of a student who has obtained a degree in engineering and now wants to get a second degree in another subject. If his parents financed the first degree themselves, he will not qualify for federal assistance while studying for the second degree. If he did receive aid for the first degree, the authorities may also provide funds for the period during which he is studying for the second degree. However, the student's getting the repeat assistance would depend on the circumstances, including having a credible reason for seeking an additional degree.

Another factor is the age of the applicant. A spokesman at the University of Tubingen says that, generally, those who begin their studies immediately after leaving school are favored by the authorities. The spokesman says "someone who only begins his studies when he is 25 or older has little chance of qualifying" for assistance.

Usually, the authorities assume that the individual is a full-time student with no time for part-time work. They also usually assume that in addition to federal assistance, students will receive some form of help from parents or others.

However, the University of Tubingen spokesman says that students who can prove they are in real financial need are permitted to take a part-time job in addition to receiving government assistance.

Normally, BAFOG is available for a maximum of five years. The initial term is for two years, after which the authorities review the circumstances of the individual. If they have improved, the student may be denied further money. But if the student is still in need, the aid continues for the remaining three years.

At the end of the assistance-period, there is another review to consider whether the student has to repay the money he was given. Again, his social circumstances are the main criteria for deciding whether any of the money has to be repaid, how much has to be repaid and when it has to be repaid.