German students and the European Court of Justice

German students are stretching the scope of European rules in national higher education systems. The last few years have shown a steady increase of German students in its neighboring countries. The number of German students in German speaking countries like Austria and Switzerland have increased. However, the most important destination for foreign students is the Netherlands with almost 14,000 students in 2006 and at least 16,750 in 2007 (pdf), making it also the largest group of international students in the Netherlands.


I recently wrote about a German student, Jacqueline Förster, who claimed Dutch financial support for the period she studied at the University of Maastricht. Now there is a German student appealing for the European Court of Justice in order to be admitted to the Medicine programme at an Austrian University. The case of German students in Austrian medicine departments has been addressed here a couple of times. See the posts on Europeanisation by stealth and the one on more Europeanisation.

Since the last post on this issue, two important developments took place. First of all, Austria got permission to keep their quotas for German students in medicine programmes for a five year period (until 2011). And secondly, the Austrians have abolished the student fees in 2007 – after introducing them in 2000. The quotas are now being contested by the German student. And considering the free education in Austria, universities are fearing an unmanageable rush of German students (‘ein kaum bewältigbaren Ansturm’, as the Vice rector of the University of Salzburg put it).

Of course, the students can’t be blamed for this. They are just exercising the rights given to them. And don’t understand me wrong. I think it’s a good thing that students can make their own choice in the university where they want to study, whether that is in their own country or in another European country. In a European system where higher education is still predominantly publicly funded, and funding is arranged on a national scale, coming from national taxes, this type of mobility however might become unsustainable. That is, if it’s distributed highly unequally.

This doesn’t mean that we have to stop the mobility, but it does imply that we seriously have to look at other funding arrangements. In some countries, like the Netherlands, student financial support is already ‘portable’ for students, meaning that students are eligible for Dutch student support, also if they study abroad. This idea could be extended to student funding.

The portability of student funding within Europe should be a serious option here. In this case that would mean that Germany would fund the German students’ education in the Austrian university. This however would require a common policy, agreed upon by all member states, or at least a large majority of states. Politically it will be hard to reach agreement on an issue like this. But it’s better than the option of doing nothing and letting the ECJ determine the course of higher education in Europe.

Of course it is the ECJ’s job to interpret and observe the rules. But it is about time that the Member States agree on the extent of these rules and put the decision-making process back where it belongs: in the democratic European or national parliaments. The last decades has seen a growth in the higher education related cases brought to the ECJ, especially in the 1980s and in the first part of this decade (see below). This is particularly interesting because formally, the EU has no real authority over higher education. Nevertheless, in these cases, the Court has considerably extended the competencies of the European Union in the field of higher education. And for those that think that this expanding role of the ECJ is just an isolated case for higher education: it clearly is not.


Source: The Emergence and Institutionalisation of the European Higher Education and Research Area Forthcoming in 2008, European Journal of Education  43(4)

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