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Berlin Students Persevere in Quirky Protests

German students have always been quick to act when education funds are threatened, but news that the Berlin government plans to cut university budgets by €75 million has sparked unusual and creative forms of protest.


Berlin university students protesting budget cuts in Potsdamer Platz.

In Berlin’s bustling Friedrichstrasse train station, a group of about 40 people huddle together in a tight circle, papers in hand. Passersby who stop to see what’s going on walk away confused. Instead of a busker performance or sales pitch for souvenirs, the group is participating in a university lecture on Japanese translation.

Holding a lecture in a train station is hardly the ideal learning environment -- one of the students admitted that he could barely hear a thing over the din of the trains rumbling overhead. But such action does draw public attention and media coverage to the students’ cause -- protesting plans by the Berlin Senate to cut university funds by € 75 million by 2009.

Students from Berlin’s three universities have been on strike for a week now, and student leaders say they’re prepared to extend the strike by another week. They’re also putting togetheri a catalogue of demands, which includes a request to renegotiate the contract between the Berlin Senate and the cities three universities, and revoke the planned cuts.

City not giving in

Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, is standing firm. On Wednesday, he rejected criticism of the budget cuts, and again called for the introduction of tuition fees. German students currently attend university free of charge. “I want our public universities to be top-notch, competitive institutions,” he said. Tuition fees, he added, would help students focus more intensely on completing their studies. It’s not unusual for German students to take six years or longer to attain their university degrees.

Many Berlin students say the planned cuts will only worsen the already poor conditions at the city’s universities. Bärbel Becker a third-year history student at historical Humboldt University in the city's East, says overcrowding and the high student-to-teacher ratio are just two of the problems.

“I only have one seminar where I have a seat. In all the others I sit on the floor,” she told Deutsche Welle. “Sometimes I don’t even see my professors and have never talked to them, so I don’t know how I should write my thesis, and don’t know how I will go on in my studies.”

Becker did her part to support the protest action by helping to build a makeshift barricade of scrap wood and old furniture in front of the university’s courtyard. The main building is plastered with banners and posters. There have also been the traditional protest marches, drawing as many as 20,000 students.

Unconventional, but effective

Rathaus in Berlin

Student protests were stopped at Berlin's city hall on Wednesday.

Among the more unusual stunts was the storming of Berlin’s city hall earlier in the week. Students occupied the building for two hours until they were threatened with arrest. Last week, students occupied the headquarters of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) -- the junior coalition partner in the city-state's government -- in a similar action.

In a more creative vein, a small group of students pitched their tents outside the Scandinavian embassies, claiming educational asylum. And in a tent in front of the high-rise office towers at Potsdamer Platz, university students and professors held a 72-hour physics lecture open to anyone who cared to listen.

“When I lectured on laser optics at 3 a.m., all seats were taken with dozens of students listening from outside even though it was freezing,” said Professor Paul Fumagalli from Berlin’s Free University. The lecture was held both to protest budget cuts and beat the world record of 51 hours 44 minutes for the longest round-the-clock lecture set by 24-year old American Dustin Buehler earlier this year.

Berlin sociologist Dieter Rucht thinks these innovative forms of protest are new and effective. Past student strikes were often aimed at bringing university life to a standstill. “That left the public cold,” Rucht said. The 2003 strike, in contrast, is being played out in public spaces, and is challenging the stereotype of the lazy student.

The creative protests might be swaying a sympathetic public, but so far, the Berlin Senate is unmoved. The students aren’t giving up, though, with more demonstrations in the works for the weeks to come.

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