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Student strikes

June 17, 2009

In cities across Germany, university and high school students are walking out of their classes to protest changes to the education system.

Protestors holding banners that say, "against tuition fees," and "free education"
German students are striking for free public educationImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

More than 10,000 students held demonstrations in some 70 German cities on Wednesday, calling for improved school conditions and funding.

Protests began on Monday and are slated to continue all week, with students protesting the introduction of tuition fees and the bachelor and master system into German universities, the shortening of college prep school programs, and what they describe as the increasing commercialization of their education.

"We need independent, publicly funded education," Mo Schmidt, a student leader from the University of Marburg, told Deutsche Welle. "Because that's essential for democracy."

The students are planning demonstrations, blockades and sit-ins. The primary goal, said Schmidt, is to raise awareness and kick off a discussion of the role of public education in Germany.

On Thursday, under the motto "money for education instead of for banks," students are planning mock bank robberies, and intend to stage sit-ins and protests at banks. They are protesting recent bank bailouts by the government, at a time when tuition fees, once unheard of in Germany, have become the norm.

Students marching in Cologne
Not everyone is pleased with the introduction of bachelor's and master's programsImage: DW

The government always said there wasn't any money left for education, Schmidt explained, "now suddenly there are billions of euros coming from somewhere" to give to the banks.

On Friday, groups from across the country are planning to meet in Berlin to protest a meeting of state education ministers and to mark the 10 year anniversary of the signing of the Bologna declaration.

Reforms transforming European education

Signed by 46 European countries, the Bologna process calls on countries to integrate their education systems and implement a credit transfer system by 2010. Continental universities have had to replace their own degree systems with the bachelor's and master's degrees of the Anglo-Saxon world.

While supporters say this will increase the competitiveness of European universities and increase mobility for European students, the student strikers argue that the changes have made study programs inflexible and have reduced universities to factories producing workers for the economy.

The Bologna process was meant to increase transparency and boost the exchange of ideas and cooperation between universities, according to Professor Barbara Kehm, executive secretary of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers and director of the International Center for Higher Education Research at the University of Kassel.

Benches blocking a stairway at Heidelberg University
In Heidelberg, students blocked stairways to get people's attentionImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The Bologna process represents a "great opportunity to really modernize curricula and forms of teaching and learning," Kehm told Deutsche Welle.

However, depending on how the reforms are implemented, there can be unintended consequences. National governments seeking to have world-class universities have brought competitive pressure into the process.

"Rankings and other initiatives to create world-class universities are widespread and act as an intervening factor into the trust and cooperation agenda which underlies the Bologna reforms," Kehm said.

"Ultimately," she added, "you can't compete with the outside and think you can keep it out of the inside."

At the heart of their protest, said student leader Schmidt, is the worry that education is becoming less about seeking knowledge and more about preparing to fill a need in the economy. Whereas before these reforms took place, "you went to university for yourself, to gain knowledge ... now people are studying for the labor market."

Schmidt himself is studying sociology and economics, "not because it increases my value on the job market," he said, but because "I want to understand society."

Editor: Susan Houlton