After two months of intense protests, students at universities in Berlin and across the country are determined to continue the fight until their demands are met. At stake? The future of German higher education. We met the rebels.

One of Berlin's universities during the 2009-2010 student protests.
Photo by Sebastian Lang

After two months of intense protests, students at universities in Berlin and across the country are determined to continue the fight until their demands are met. At stake? The future of German higher education. We met the rebels.

It’s mid-December at the Free University of Berlin, in the sleepy southwestern district of Dahlem, and all is not well: a few things are out of place. In the middle of the main building, an endless labyrinth in silver and brown that mixes decaying bureaucratic chic with 1950s UFO, handwritten posters cover the walls and sleeping bags are packed away in corners. Even a few tents have been pitched here and there. A red, hand-painted banner announces: Besetzt (“Occupied”).

Last month, dozens of universities across Germany looked like this. It all started in Austria: in late October, 2,000 students at the University of Vienna staged a ‘sit in’ at their largest auditorium (“Audimax”) to protest against overcrowding and understaffing. The idea quickly spread across the Alps, and by early November the wave of ‘occupations’ had reached Germany: a protest in the University of Potsdam’s Audimax, housed in a picturesque imperial palace, was one of the first. Within a few weeks, at least 72 university auditoriums had been taken over – a special Google Map was even made to show all the locations.

No one expected this. Katja Klebig, a political science student at the University of Potsdam whose dreadlocks hint at her history of educational activism, says she was skeptical that “a critical mass of students would want to stay in a lecture hall”. But after four hours of discussion at a University of Potsdam students’ assembly, the hundreds of participants didn’t want to leave. So they ordered pizza, got some sleeping bags and stayed the night. A month later, they were still there.

What’s going on?

Audimax across the country closed to lectures. Instead, students maintained them as “open spaces”: sometimes for hanging out and playing guitar, sometimes for intense bouts of consensus decision-making. These plenary sessions were subdivided into dozens of working groups (“Arbeitsgruppen” or “AGs”) to deal with specific topics like culture, protest action and theory.

The students’ principal demands are for smaller courses, more varied curricula, the democratization of the universities, and the elimination of attendance lists. These took days, sometimes weeks, to work out; the lists have 20, 30 or even 100 points. The Free University protesters, for example, also stipulated an end to insecure, low-wage jobs at the university.

Overall, the demands can be summed up by one slogan: “Money for education, not banks!” The German government freed up €500 billion to save the tottering banking system. So why is it that every time student groups petition for improvements to the educational system, there’s suddenly no money left? According to Tatjana G., a sociology student at Berlin’s Humboldt University, “There is money – it’s just being used to wage an unpopular war in Afghanistan, to save moribund corporations like Opel or to lower taxes for the wealthy.”

Germany’s political caste has reacted to the protests with sympathy. The Education Minister, Annette Schavan, recognized that “corrections” to the university reforms of the last few years are necessary. In mid-December, she held an emergency “education summit” with politicians from across the country – and came away with the promise of an unitemized €15 billion boost by 2015. But it’s mainly been a game of hot potato: passing the responsibility from one politician to the next, from the federal government to the states to the individual universities.

In a number of cases, the occupied lecture halls have been cleared out by police. At the University of Frankfurt, 176 students were evicted after the school’s president accused them of trespassing (Schavan asserts the police action was “correct”). But many politicians and university directors are holding round table discussions with the protesters and otherwise tolerantly waiting out the troubles.

Educational ideals

German students have come a long way from the university ideals framed by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the early 19th century. Until recently, the national education system was shaped by the idea that a university should form “autonomous individuals” who are part of a cosmopolitan “world citizenry”, meaning that stu-dents should have time and space to acquire knowledge on their own initiative. Concretely, this meant that students could determine themselves which courses to attend and the length of their stay at university. The long-term student (“Langzeitstudi”) – in the 22nd semester, say, of a program that was only supposed to take nine – remains a beloved stereotype.

Those old standards were replaced over the course of the last 10 years with a new system of degrees that copies American bachelor’s and master’s programs of three, then two years. Many students feel these rigid curricula leave them with little opportunity to develop their interests, live abroad or work part-time [see “Four angry students”]. This last point is crucial: only a quarter of Germany’s two million university students receive BAföG (short for “Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz”), state grants and zero-interest loans. Almost three fourths of them have to work on the side, in “Nebenjobs” at cafés, call centers, bars and shops.

Towards fees?

Until 2005, tuition fees were forbidden by federal law. In the last four years, seven of the 16 German states have introduced fees of up to €500 per semester. That isn’t a lot compared to the stratospheric costs at American universities, but German students have little access to loans or scholarships beyond the BAföG system. Schavan has promised a slight increase in BAföG payments, but prefers a system of scholarships – which, her critics charge, will principally benefit students from privileged social strata.

When tuition fees were introduced in Hesse, students blocked train stations and Autobahnen across the state; the costs were revoked after the next election. In Berlin, a three-month-long student strike in 2003-2004 was able to block the introduction of fees. But local students still have to pay so-called “administrative charges” of €238.99 per semester, which include the use of public transport.

It’s not a coincidence that France, Italy, Spain and many other European countries are experiencing similar student unrest. It all began with a conference of European education ministers in Bologna, the home of Europe’s oldest university, in June 1999; this led to the launching of an ambitious program to standardize EU education systems, with “modules”, “European Credit Transfer System Points” and a host of acronyms. It is the professors, more than anyone, who are pulling out their hair as they attempt to navigate through new and constantly changing regulations. And while the administrative stress has gone up immeasurably – with students waiting in six-hour-long records office queues to get their courses recognized – the number of people participating in exchange semesters has actually gone down, negating one of the reform’s stated goals.

A new 1968?

So what does the wave of protests say about students today? A cadre of previously unheard-of “youth researchers” has been mobilized to explain the phenomenon to concerned newspaper readers. Contrasts with and comparisons to 1968 – when German society was shaken by a protest movement that started at the universities – fly thick and fast. Philipp Ikrath of the Institute for Youth Culture Research explains that the protests can’t take on the dimensions of 40 years ago “because the students are too focused on their own advantages”. Still, while it’s true that most of the current protestors are more interested in educational standards than bigger social questions, Ikrath admits that “today’s youth isn’t as apolitical as is usually claimed”.

The “occupation” may have passed its zenith, but the coming months will show if it is the start of something larger. According to one activist at the Free University, “In terms of implementing our demands, we haven’t accomplished anything beyond promises to lower the number of attendance lists. But we’ve forced a huge politicization amongst a student body that’s usually only concerned with following the rules to get a degree. That will be useful in the future.”

Four angry students at Berlin’s Free University

The scientist: Anja H., Geology

“I’m here because I think education should be more free. It’s not just about the universities: it’s also about elementary schools and kindergartens.”

Anja has slept at the university for over a month. She spends two nights a week at home and the remaining five in a sleeping bag in the hallway. At first it was difficult, but she’s found a good rhythm. “One of the cleaners who comes by at 5am likes to sing opera, and that’s always nice to wake up to.” One of her main goals is to expand the three-year bachelor program to four years. Under the current system, anyone who wants to spend a semester abroad can count on losing that semester (and any state grants). Anja would like to spend half a year in France, but in her first semester she has already been confronted with lots of pressure. She realizes that the protests still haven’t yet led to significant changes, but in a sense, she’s protesting to improve conditions for those who come after. “We haven’t sent a jolt through the university yet, but we’ve opened up a lot of discussions.”

The worker: Oliver S., History and Ethnology

“I can’t be in the occupied auditorium very often because of work, but I support the practical and political demands of the occupiers.”

Oliver studies history and also works as an assistant for the physically disabled. He works the night shift so that his job doesn’t conflict with his class schedule. “In the first three years, I got some money from the BAföG, but it wasn’t nearly enough to live on,” he says. But even that ended after six semesters, the time span recommended for his bachelor’s degree. Now Oliver has to work even more to make ends meet, but still hopes to finish his degree in eight semesters. “For me, an important demand is that everyone who finishes a bachelor’s degree gets a place in a master’s program.”

The Austrian: Katharina B., Comparative Literature Studies and History

“When I heard about the occupation in Vienna, I couldn’t believe it.”

Katharina attends the University of Vienna, but is spending an exchange semester at the FU. In late October, a friend on Facebook announced there was a huge left-wing party in the UV Audimax – it had been taken over that afternoon by 2,000 students who had no intention of leaving. Two weeks later, Katharina was at the FU students’ assembly that followed Vienna’s example. “From the beginning, I was disappointed by university studies,” she says. She had expected intellectual challenges, but instead got more of what she knew from high school: a rigid curriculum and endless tests. “I was so happy to discover that so many other people felt the same way I did.” As far as Katharina’s concerned, the students need a far-sighted perspective and international support if they want to make university studies more self-determined. “Of course, change won’t come overnight – we need to build up a protest movement in the long term.”

The Radikalinski: Stefan N., Political Science

“Education under capitalism is always going to be education for the labor market. If we want good education for everyone, we need to change the system.”

Stefan is what Germans refer to as a Revoluzzer or Radikalinski – both mildly derogatory (if affectionate) terms for social revolutionaries. There may be fewer of his type at the university than 40 or even 20 years ago, but you’ll still see posters of Karl Marx (in a baseball cap) and students discussing Das Kapital. Stefan believes that university students have similar problems to factory workers: educational reforms are about maximizing profits, and increase students’ performance pressures. He is part of the “Working Group for Workers’ Struggles”, which has organized students to support strikes by cleaners and cafeteria workers. “Only when students unite with the workers’ movement will we be able to paralyze society with strikes and force the ruling class to accept our demands,” he says. For Stefan, only a socialist society allows production and education to be organized according the needs of the majority. He knows that his stance is only accepted by a small minority, but believes that “we need an anti-capitalist perspective if we want real change in education”.

For more information about Berlin’s student protests, visit www.bildungsstreik-berlin.de