Germany, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Slovenia, Austria, Slovak republic, and so on.

Why do they allow non-EU/EEA students to have free tuitions?

What is their benefit as a country?

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    Note that while there are tuition fees in e.g. France, they are so low (typically < 1000€ / year, compared to > $10'000 / year in the US) that the cost of education is mostly determined by living expenses. Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 10:53
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    Note that for Norway (and probably others) there are monetary requirements for getting a visa, you need roughly 12000$ in cash to get a visa (to prove that you can sustain yourself). This means that while the education itself is free, it is certainly not open for the world at large. And there is also the "detail" that almost all bachelors are in Norwegian, and you need to pass a quite hard Norwegian-test to be allowed in. So the free tuition is mostly relevant for "rich" (in a global sense) Master students, which might turn out to be a resource for Norway in the end.
    – epa095
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 13:44
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    I sometimes like to imagine what if Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, Dirac, Szilard, Rutherford, Chandrasekhar, and Tesla before them all (or perhaps even only one of them) didn't emigrate to the US. The same for Carl Sagan's parents, or Richard Feynman's, or Michio Kaku's, or... the list goes on and on...
    – Marc.2377
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 7:21
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    I guess just doing good things for the world isn't enough?
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 1:16
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    @Davor there is a major European school of thought (Rousseau, Hobbes, Voltaire etc) going back several hundred years that a country IS a humanitarian organisation. The "country as corporation" approach isn't so heavily entrenched here.
    – Racheet
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 11:44

7 Answers 7


There are at least three benefits:

  • Influence: Some students will go on to become their country's elite and will stay in a touch with the network they build in university.
  • Expanding the workforce: Some students will stay and work in Germany after their studies (there are actually some rules to encourage that in immigration law).
  • Making the country attractive to parents: Coming to Germany specifically to study isn't easy, many of these non-EU citizens are actually the children of immigrants/expats Germany is keen on attracting.

That's not necessarily a strong reason to have absolutely no fees. For example, some Dutch universities position themselves as an alternative to the US and UK for students from China, India, and elsewhere by having lower fees but studying there is certainly not completely free.

Also, you asked about benefits and I focused on that but that's not the only consideration. For example, providing education to foreign citizens from poorer countries can also be regarded as a form of development aid.

Incidentally, strict visa requirements and teaching (mostly) in German means that the number of students in question is any case very limited so there is no risk to see German university swamped by legions of Asian students and costs running out of control.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 8:35

As a former non-EU student at a Czech university who studied free of charge (and in fact received a stipend from the government), I can answer this for Czech Republic.

At current rates, the government spends around 50 thousand crowns per university student per year, which is around 2000 Euros. In 2016 there were 280 thousand students in total and out of those, 38 thousands were foreigners. Of those, around 13 thousand are from non-EU countries, so merely 4.5% of the student population can be counted as completely foreign. Taking those statistics in mind, here are the government's reasons for keeping the education free for all:

  1. There are simply very few non-EU citizens studying in Czech universities. It's not a big expense from the government's budget perspective.
  2. Czech Republic has always had very low levels of unemployment (currently the lowest in the EU) and therefore they're interested in attracting new workers. Most graduates end up staying in the country, so they end up paying back their tuition indirectly in the form of taxes.
  3. Relevant to the point above, the local birthrates are some of the lowest in the entire world. Therefore the country is interested in making sure they have enough people in the reproductive age, to avoid extra stress to the pensions system.
  4. Czech-language programs are simply not that attractive on the global scale in the first place. Most people don't want to learn a minor regional language in order to study in what they see as a second-tier Western country. So keeping things free is helping to attract more long-term immigrants into the country. Note that the government only finances programs in Czech, since those who study in English are seen as short-term immigrants who would leave the country after graduating.

I believe the above points also apply to Germany, Finland, Norway, etc. You can also note that the UK charges extra fees to non-EU citizens precisely because English is the world's most popular language and therefore they have no issues with attracting willing students.

  • (+1) Interestingly, many institutions in the Netherlands are switching to English-language teaching and do charge (higher) tuition fees for students from outside the EU. Together with language, visas also contribute to ensuring the numbers are relatively small in any case.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 10:26
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    @anonymous You have to dig into Polish public discourse to find out. They probably don't find the reasons above compelling enough. Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 10:47
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    This topic might not be actual for guys born with the EU passport, but the education obtained in the CZ also allows the access to the labour market. Otherwise, the foreigner would have to obtain a working permit first (even before applying for a visa which allows working). It takes time and there are no guarantees that it will be issued - which, obviously, freaks most of the companies. (Even companies in the IT industry are mostly not willing to wait). But with a Czech diploma, you just sign a contract & apply for a visa and here you go! Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 12:48
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    @Valentyn I think that's simply a logical way of making sure people have more incentives to stay. Nobody is going to get a Czech diploma just to be able to work without a work permit :) Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 15:05
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    Roughly speaking, when you apply to a company, there is a huge difference between "OK, I lived here for three years, and I have working permit - we sign and I start tomorrow" and "Sorry, I would need to obtain a working permit first, and then apply for a visa..can you wait for me for 4+ months please?" Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 11:01

Counterquestion: Why exactly should people pay for education?

Before you think that it is a ludicrous counterquestion, think hard about it. Would you expect that parents should pay the same amount of tuition fees for their little children? True, a professor earns much more than a primary school teacher, but if you compare the relative amount primary school is still much cheaper.

The overall costs of education are in comparison to other ventures small. You need a place, a teacher which must be supported and teaching material like books. Almost all parents have the desire that their children should have a good life and that their children should be able to reach their goal on their own accord (and not because they do not have the money or connections).

So in the cultures you mentioned where education is almost free, the ulterior motive is simply that the population thinks education is a human right. It's really simple as that. So their country will offer an opportunity to study. It does not mean that you get state-of-the-art teaching, but you will be able to pursue your own education goals. In Germany e.g. there are Volkshochschulen which allow you to get the university-entrance diploma if you are still an unqualified adult in the evenings also almost free.

If, as people suspected, the countries offer it only because they need to attract students, then those instituitions would not exist. It it also contradicted by history because despite free education Germany grew to be the world leader in science, technology and history during the second part of the 19th and the first part of the 20th century. According to Carl Diehl, approximately 10 000 US students studied in Germany from 1815 to 1914, 5500 from Yale and Harvard alone, including Charles Eliot who reformed the Harvard education (I invite to read the Wikipedia article which quite frankly admits that US education during this point was...suboptimal).

If you see it from a pure economical standpoint, free education seems to be counterintuitive. If something exists which is valued, why give it away for free? I think you will run into a wall if you try to understand it from this perspective.

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    While this is a valid philosophical argument, you're not actually giving a reason why "some European countries" do -- they are real, extant polities which are concerned first and foremost with the (perceived) prosperity of their own populace -- or at least concerned with getting re-elected. Despite usually paying lip-service to this "human right" argument, many German states experimented with tuition fees. They scrapped it because of the political backlash combined with the fact that they didn't even know how to charge fees and creating the administration to do so cost a lot anyway. Commented Jul 8, 2017 at 14:01
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    While this certainly is sensible for providing free education to your own citizen, it does not answer the sense in the context of providing free education to foreigners. Free education is not really free, there are costs to providing education and someone has to pay for that cost, or otherwise the system becomes unsustainable. In countries with free education, educations are usually funded by taxpayers, and taxpayers benefits from funding free education of its own citizens by long-term growth to the country.
    – Lie Ryan
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 10:30
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    Why should people pay for education? => because teachers should be payed to earn a living!? Also the labs where students are educated do not come for free... While I totally agree that it is nice and also good to pay via taxes instead of tuition fees , education is IMHO not a small cost. AFAIK, in Germany, the amount the Länder spend on education is ca. 160 k€/ student (24 k€ elementary school + 90 k€ Gymnasium + 43 k€ for 4 years of university) and thus in the same order of magnitude as the total costs of living (ca. 130 k€ till age of 18, 4 years full BAFöG = 35 k€) for the kid in question.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 13:40
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    @errantlinguist "the population thinks education is a human right" seems the correct answer—as you point out, German states scrapped fees also because of the political backlash. I'm confused about the administrative overhead, since I've studied and paid (small) taxes in both Hessen and Baden-Württemberg. Collecting higher taxes seems no harder. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 2:47
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    @Blaisorblade so if UTüb started paying fees after all then you disproved your own "political backlash" argument at least partially (To be fair, BaWü is one of the most conservative German states). Other unis made a right mess of trying to implement fees, which can be found via Google search. Education is indeed a state matter in Germany but it is (or at least was) possible to make some general statements: a generalization, despite what many Germans think, can have exceptions. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 8:04

Why do some European countries provide free higher education to their own people?

In order to answer your question about foreigners it helps to think about the practical reasons why governments are subsidizing higher education for their own people.

The main economic reason for doing so is to improve your workforce so that you have higher productivity, more added value, and a higher tax base.

An alternative to "making your own" highly skilled workforce is importing it. Many European countries want to attract skilled immigrants - immigration of cheap labor is a highly contested political topic, but there mostly is a consensus that with the current demographic situation attracting highly educated workers is desirable.

If you have people who come to your country for higher education (especially for masters and PhD programs), they have stayed here for multiple years, learned local language and habits, obtained a good education, and are quite likely to stay (or leave, but come back in the future). That is as valuable investment as educating your own people, and possibly more effective - since in order to prepare a local student you'd need to pay for 15-20 years of schooling, starting from kindergarten, but to prepare an "imported" student you just pay for the last couple years in university.


Germany is a welfare state: its constitution declares "human dignity is inviolable" and this has been interpreted as guaranteeing a state-provided minimum living standard for any human residing under German jurisdiction. So unemployable residents cause permanent costs that could possibly be averted after a temporary investment in education.

Now there are a number of education "tourists". It turns out that enough of them stay after completing education to offset the negative impact of those that leave before a significant net contribution to the economy. Now for one, those education tourists more often than not are dedicated, meaning that they finished their primary education outside of Germany and invested into learning the language. As a consequence, their total in-country stay causes a fraction of the costs of a native.

A number of those are engineering students. When they leave, they are schooled in German standards, language, and products. When they return to their home country and are able to work in positions with significant acquisition and trade responsibility, they will be most comfortable doing trade with Germany.

Germany is an export-oriented country. So they don't even lose a lot on such education tourists when looking at the grand bottom line.

Things are different for people moving to Germany without much of a motivation or talent for serious study, basically goofing around. They don't actually have a lot to win in Germany (as their education is not likely to help them a lot in life), and their number is limited. So while they don't constitute a net win, figuring out rules to make things harder for them while not hitting either constituents or others for which the education is not regaining the costs is likely to cause more damage than good.

There was a time when the U.S. was the land of opportunity and self-made men. This is history. Being born with a silver spoon in your mouth or not has an influence on where you make it in life much more than your intelligence and thirst for knowledge.

In Germany, a factory worker with mother at home can send four children to university if they are aptly talented while paying off a house. Yes, this will have an impact on the quality of life and take a long time.

And the respective tax rates make it much harder to move from well-off to wealthy to rich. But the nature of welfare state and public health support and others make moving from well-off to wealthy to rich a much less significant target than it is in the U.S.

  • What does the 3rd from last paragraph mean? Despite what the media and democratic party says, there are no barriers to becoming successful in the USA other than the choices each person makes in their own personal life. The poorest of the poor can become obscenely wealthy on a regular basis. Not so, in the EU where people are held back by family heritage. Europeans need to start getting their news from other sources because their view of the USA is warped and out of touch with reality. I have online gamer friends from Europe and their views of the USA frequently astound me at how wrong they are
    – Dunk
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 17:15
  • 3
    @Dunk That paragraph is written confusingly, but there's data about social mobility. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 2:39
  • The penultimate paragraph is wishful thinking, though: school success is highly correlated to social background in Germany, studies say, and that is a huge problem (not that it could be solved by tuition fees) Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 5:08
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    @Dunk The typical "dishwasher to millionaire" story for the USA is largely a myth which seems to be still perpetuated. The 2009 study of Wilkinson and Pickett shows that in fact the USA is the developed region with the lowest chance to hop over social boundaries in contrast to the scandinavian countries. A dishwasher will remain a dishwasher. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 19:23
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    @Dunk I understand that you're responding to what you see as an unfair (and, perhaps, unhelpfully phrased) part of the answer, but I'd nevertheless invite you to look for the statistical flaw in what you're saying. I don't doubt that your friends are real. And I don't doubt that they came from rags to riches. But even if anyone can, that doesn't mean everyone can. Anyone can win the lottery if they buy a ticket (compare: the "little bit of motivation" in your comment), but that doesn't mean everyone who puts that effort in gets the comfortable-life jackpot.
    – owjburnham
    Commented Jul 17, 2017 at 9:46

I participated in a program when I was younger in Germany.

From their website:

DAAD supports the internationalization of German universities, promotes German studies and the German language abroad, assists developing countries in establishing effective universities and advises decision makers on matters of cultural, education and development policy.

and this:

DAAD actively fosters partnerships with its alumni, German universities and institutions of German language instruction. Here you will find links that describe the various connections the DAAD utilizes to promote study abroad and German studies

Both those are pretty reasonable explanations for why they want to do such things.

In addition, while participating I frequently heard about opportunities to work in Germany when I was finished with the program. There are a few reasons for this:

  • People attending university/doing research are generally a benefit for your labor force
  • Germany has a relatively low birth rate
  • It increases Germany's standing in the world, many of my fellow DAAD programmates have gone on to work in Germany since participating in that program (or have desire to do so)
    • I both worked in Germany and also desire to move there longer term, so... it worked on me I guess?
  • Knowing German can be beneficial for business relationships (even if 90%+ of those you may interact with from other countries also speak English)

Ultimately, that entire program is effectively a giant recruiting program geared towards people that Germany wants to have there - PhDs, masters students, people who speak German, etc.


In the case of Hungary, due to historical reasons there is a large number of ethnic Hungarians in many countries neighbouring Hungary. In these countries these Hungarians are often second class citizens in the following sense. They pay the same amount of tax as the people from the majority, but they do not receive the same services, even if these countries signed international treaties to treat all their citizens equal and to give linguistic minorities the opportunity to study in their own languages. In particular, the higher education options for them these ethnic Hungarians are very limited in their native country, if there exist at all. Hungary tries to help them by providing free access to its higher education.

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