Thousands of students hit the streets of several German cities on Thursday to protest a court ruling that is likely to see the introduction of fees at universities. The biggest rally took place in Hamburg, northern Germany, where up to 10,000 students turned out, while 8,000 protested in Leipzig in the east, more than 4,000 in Mannheim to the southwest and 1,000 in the western city of Essen. Around 1,000 also demonstrated in the capital Berlin. Some were seen holding banners marked: "Study Fees are the Death of Education" and "Education is Not a Product." Germany's highest court ruled on Jan. 26 that the 16 federal states can charge tuition fees for universities, breaking with a long tradition of free higher education. The ruling came in response to a complaint from six regions governed by the conservative Christian Union parties which wanted to introduce fees to make up a funding shortfall. Five of the states said they would soon introduce a fee of about €500 ($650) per semester to improve the quality of education at the tax-financed institutions. It is not unusual for students here to pursue a degree well into their 30s. In 2002, the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, imposed a blanket ban on tuition fees for students beginning their courses. Education Minister Edelgard Bulmahn has said that the states must now ensure that families who cannot afford the fees are given financial aid.