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German university students campaign for education reform, 2009
The Bologna Process, a European agreement signed by Germany in 1999, made degree programs comparable throughout Europe. In Germany this meant that programs originally designed to last five or six years were compressed into three or four, creating a degree program quite similar to the United States’. This substantially increased the course load for students. Decreased funding for universities also meant a poorer standard of education, larger classes, and the implementation of tuition fees. Between February and December 2009, thousands of German students protested these changes.
On February 4, a few hundred students protested tuition fees in Bielefield, Germany, and the next day, the rector’s office at the Teacher Training School in Freiberg was occupied for twenty-four hours for the same reason. After these initial actions, however, the campaign died down for two months, with very little activity. In early May, students at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich placed symbolic hurdles in front of the university cafeteria, indicating the difficulty students had paying tuition fees.
June saw the most fervent activity among students since the beginning of the protests. The German Left Party and the Social Democratic Students’ Union helped to organize the protests. On June 17, students in seventy cities around Germany began a week of protests aimed at the abolition of tuition fees. Students occupied university buildings, marched, and blocked streets. In Mainz, students occupied a state parliament building, covering it in toilet paper. Several thousand Berlin students gathered outside of City Hall, demonstrating with homemade signs. Both demonstrations were in protest of tuition fees. Students also performed mock bank robberies to highlight the massive bailouts banks had received from the German government. To spread their message, university students used music and social networking websites. Many wrote their own rap songs that described their frustrations with the educational system. Students distributed the songs on Facebook and Youtube. Social networking sites and other communicative technology were important for more than just distributing music however. The campaign lacked a single leading institution, and so students at various universities acted on their own, but got feedback and ideas from other students at other universities through the use of cell phones and social networking websites.
Besides the government’s introduction of tuition fees, there were many other reasons students protested. Students were angry about the highly stratified nature of the German education. At a very young age, students are divided into three separate tracks, with only one of them leading to a full college degree. This system disproportionately excluded students from lower socio-economic classes from getting college degrees. Another grievance among protesters was that while banks were receiving multi-million euro bailouts, university education was underfunded. On average, German universities spend $11,000 per student per year, which is half of what American public universities spend. Students also demanded smaller class sizes, more one-on-one time with professors, and greater flexibility within lesson plans. The German government received the protesters demands quite well. Even the conservative Education Minister (liberals were generally more supportive of the students’ campaign than conservatives), Annette Schavan, spoke publicly about the need for reform; many others in the German government echoed her call.
After large-scale protests in June, there was a lull in the action until October, largely due to summer vacations. Beginning on the 21st, students occupied the University of Vienna lecture hall and student actions in Austria quickly spread to Germany. At twenty different German universities, students occupied lecture halls. By November 17, the lecture hall occupations turned into marches, and students publicly remonstrated with the authorities. The largest protest took place in Hamburg, where ten thousand students marched. Overall, 100,000 students marched in fifty cities around Germany. Protesters sang and carried homemade banners and signs. Most protests went without incident, but in Essen, protesters blocked streets and 154 students were detained. On December 10, police used pepper spray on student protestors in Bonn.
The campaign was mostly a success. Ministers bowed to the students’ pressure, and reduced both students’ course loads and exams. The ministers said that they aimed to make sure that schoolwork and classes took up no more than thirty-nine hours a week for forty-six weeks of the year. They also abolished regulations that made receiving cross-credits and switching classes difficult. They did not, however, open up post-bachelor education to everyone or completely repeal all of the Bologna Process’ reforms.