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Austrian university students campaign for education reform, 2009
Beginning in 1999 the Austrian government has made several large changes to the traditional higher education process, which had existed for hundreds of years prior. In 1999 Austria signed off on the Bologna Process, a European Union-wide initiative to standardize education throughout Europe. This meant that universities required students to complete degrees in between three and four years, when Austrians had traditionally had five or six. Despite a decrease in the time period for degree completion, syllabuses were barely touched, and so students were overwhelmed by work. Tuition fees were also introduced for the first time in 2001. Beginning in March 2009 and ending in December of the same year, thousands of students from around Austria protested these changes in the educational system.
Thousands of students marched in Vienna on March 11, protesting against the Austrian government’s adoption of the Bologna Process. Protestors carried banners, sang songs, and chanted slogans. Students also marched at many universities around Austria, employing similar methods. On the 28th, there was another round of protests in Vienna. Around 15,000 activists marched under the slogan “we will not pay for your crisis”, in reference to proposed cuts in state-funded education due to the economic downturn. While students made up a large majority of the protests, union members and other pro-labor groups also marched. On April 24, there were again large demonstrations throughout Austria. This time, the government had cancelled holidays, angering students. 60,000 students protested around Austria, with 25,000 of those in Vienna. Students marched from the Stephansplatz to the Parliament, and later to the Ministry of Education. Protestors turned out not only in major cities, but also in smaller towns around the country. Demonstrators carried a variety of homemade banners demanding more funding for education.
The Internet was an important communication medium for students throughout the protests. Students wrote songs about the protests and posted them on facebook and youtube. Students also posted videos of demonstrations on the Internet, and this helped spread word of the campaign around the Austria. Students were able to copy methods utilized at other universities by watching these videos. The American band Anti-Flag performed in front of students occupying a lecture hall at Vienna University, and the protestors circulated the video on the Internet.
After the widespread protests in March and particularly April, there was a lull in activity until October, partly due to summer vacations. On October 20, students at the Academy of Fine Arts, the only Austrian university not to have adopted the Bologna Process, occupied the campus to prevent administrators from implementing Bologna Process reforms. The following day, students at the University of Vienna occupied the university’s largest lecture hall in solidarity with the protestors from the Academy of the Fine Arts. These actions not only encouraged students from eight other universities in Austria to perform similar actions, but it also initiated a rise in activity in Germany too. Students at universities around Austria also occupied lecture halls within the next few days. Protestors organized themselves, writing press releases, creating “people’s kitchens”, and conducting daily protest meetings. Both the printers’ union and the metalworkers’ union also expressed their solidarity with the protestors. Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann, of the liberal Social Democratic Party, stated that he would refuse to meet the protestors’ demands. This was a crushing blow to the campaign because the Social Democrats were the most likely of major political parties to support them.
On the 28th, the occupying students in Vienna issued an open letter demanding more funding for education, the elimination of tuition fees, and a face-to-face meeting with Science Minister Johannes Hahn. Hahn agreed to meet protestors. Soon after, students at nine other Austrian Universities also performed sit-ins in lecture halls. Students estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 students and union members marched in Vienna with the slogan “money for education, not for the banks and big business”. Marchers demanded a billion additional Euros for educational funding. 5,000 students marched in Salzburg and other students held a march in Linz. Protestors also demonstrated in Klagenfurt, Graz, and Innsbruck.
Despite the enormity of the protests, they suffered from a lack of clear direction. Students repeatedly emphasized the grassroots nature of the campaign, and therefore refrained from naming a leadership. While this ensured that no one group took control, it also meant that the campaign lacked a united message or goal. The campaign was decentralized to begin with, due to its presence at different universities, and the protestors decided to keep it that way.
On December 21, police removed the last students from Vienna University’s largest lecture hall and protests around Austria decreased. Unlike in Germany, Austrian politicians failed to take action on behalf of the protestors. Students vowed to continue their action, but their numbers were significantly less than they had been in October and November.
The campaign was not successful. It involved a large number of people, but did not win allies within the Austrian government, and achieved none of its demands.