On the price of (my) higher education

With my higher education studies behind me, I wanted to reflect a bit on the different amount of tuition fees that I experienced moving around European universities.

Stage 1: France

I started in 2008 with a Bachelor of science in Strasbourg, at that time you had to pay around 500€ for a year. In these 500€ around half of it went to pay for health insurance and only around 200€ were actual tuition fees. So with these fees you got one year of university courses plus basic health coverage. Since my parents annual incomes were below a certain threshold I actually did not had to pay any tuition fees and that for all 3 years in my Bachelor. On top of that I got a couple of grants giving me around 300€ per month between October and June. This meant that I could focus on my studies and enjoying student life without having to take a student job during the semester. So many thanks to the French state for that!

Stage 2: Erasmus in the UK

For the last year of my Bachelor I applied and got an Erasmus grant to go study in Leeds. This is how it worked at that time (in 2010-2011): an Erasmus student pays the tuition fees at his/her home university and get a grant (~1200€). For students from a less wealthy background the Erasmus grant will not cover the extra costs of studying abroad especially not in expensive countries like in the UK. So there was at that time (no idea if this is still working) a couple of extra help you could get. My parents income still being below a certain threshold I got around 3000€ from the government and the region of Alsace delivered 1200€ grants for Erasmus students. At the end of the day this meant that I had to pay no tuition fees to go study in the UK and received more than 5000€ in grant money. Again a pretty nice deal knowing that my British classmate had to pay 3000£ of tuition fees a year. So thanks to the European Union, please do keep this great program running, it is capital to build a European society.

It is ironic to note that it was in that same year that the English government passed a law to allow universities to raise the tuition fees up to 9000£, which of course brought a lot of students to demonstrate and express their anger towards these politicians, who got free higher ed but were imposing to their children such a burden.

Stage 3: Germany

After my year in the UK, I went to study in Bonn in Germany. In Germany there is no tuition fees per se. Students do have to pay something for each semester but this is to pay social security and potentially a transport ticket (so called “semester ticket”). So in Bonn in the years 2011-2013 I had to pay around 250€ per semester which gave me university courses plus a transport pass for free travel in trains, trams and buses for the whole region of Nordrhein-Wesftalen. German students can also apply and get grants if they are from low-income family (BAföG), but during these two years I was for the first time without state grants. I tried to get a student job but speaking a halting German did not help, also I was not aware of the massive potential of assistant jobs that most German research groups offer. If you are a foreigner in a German university, do ask around you for “HiWi Stellen”, it is most likely that even basic German knowledge would be sufficient for some positions. Anyhow this meant that I lived on my economies for the three semesters that I spent in Bonn.

Stage 4: Back to France

For my master thesis I applied to a very neat project on distribution modeling of dung beetles in Montpelier in France. In France, since 2010, every internships lasting more than 2 months are paid. The law sets the minimal amount that should be gratified. In 2013 this was around 400€ per month. So I could start my life in research while being financially supported which was great motivation to do some good work.

Some reflexions

I am extremely thankful to all the programs that allowed me to go through my university studies without having to take a loan and without having to fear to pay the bills at the end of the month. Also having no pressure to absolutely get a well-paid job after studying gave me huge freedom to explore what I like, what I am good at and how I can contribute back to the society. If we believe that we need diversity of skills and experiences to tackle some of the challenges that we face, then we should strive to give to students this feeling of intellectual freedom unclouded by financial worries. As a citizen I will fight to keep tuition fees low in France and to maintain the Erasmus program.

Some further reading/visioning on this:

  • Do check the articles under the diversity tag at Small Pond Science for more in-depth reflexion on these issues from a US perspective.
  • Also look at this nice documentary by Arte on the sombre future of higher education if the current trend continues.


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