German Students: Europe's new militants: marching for the soft life

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Germany's streets are filling again with marching students. But Imre Karacs in Bonn says that, unlike their forebears in 1968, today's protesters lack lofty goals. They are striking to preserve their privileges.

The most powerful wave of student protests to hit Germany for 20 years is spreading. Tens of thousands have demonstrated this week in Berlin, Frankfurt and almost every university town. On Thursday 40,000 rallied in Bonn to vent their fury at the federal government. The strikes, occupations and disruptions are to continue next week, when students will mass on regional capitals.

They have endured cuts for a decade but now enough is enough. A government plan to reform university funding, and tentative hints of a fundamental overhaul of higher education, have opened the floodgates. The problem is similar to that in Britain, only more extreme. In the past 20 years the intake of universities has doubled, while funds to pay for the 1.8 million students have shrunk. Standards have been eroding to such an extent that the decline is seen as a threat to Germany's competitiveness.

"The students have legitimate reasons to protest," said Jurgen Ruttgers, the Education Minister.

"They are lacking books, lecture halls are overcrowded, and there are too many students waiting ... to talk to their professors ... Society has neglected the universities for too long." The students hoped this would be remedied in the usual German manner, with the government throwing a little more money in their direction. No such luck. Instead of building lecture theatres and hiring more professors, the authorities are proposing to tinker with only the demand side of the economic equation.

There is talk, or at least whispers, of tuition fees. Plans are afoot to empower universities to weed out entrants and evict laggards prematurely: maybe only five years after the start of their course. And there is even the shocking suggestion that universities should adopt British-style bachelor's degrees, to shorten the time the youth of today spend dreaming among the spires or amid heaps of red brick. On average, German students spend 10 years of their lives at university. They hit the job market just as they encounter the first worrying signs of middle-age spread.

Many stay longer, marrying, and taking advantage of perks that include cheap public transport and canteen food, reductions for cinemas, museums and other entertainment and subsidised creches. Who pays? - 90 per cent of the tab is picked up by regional governments, the rest by Bonn. Grants to cover living costs are scarce. Parents must pay for students' upkeep and the students themselves must make up the shortfall by doing holiday jobs.

Everybody agrees the system is far from perfect. For most university courses, there is one requirement: applicants must pass the Abitur at the end of their secondary schooling. Over the years, it has got easier, and so the campuses have filled up. Administrators in Bonn hire cinemas hooked up to their lecture halls for over-subscribed lectures. At many biology classes, 12 students get to carve up one rat among them. Christoph Pieper, a 23-year-old student of German and Latin, knows of only one way to create order in this chaos. "We are striking for a better financing of higher education," he said as he hung a banner across the archway of Bonn university's Great Hall.

"There is plenty of money around. The Bundestag has just approved DM23bn for Eurofighter. The universities would need only about two to three billion of that. I admit it is not an entirely satisfactory solution, but it's a beginning."

Mr Pieper is no rabble-rouser, merely a closet conservative dissatisfied with the conservative government's reforming zeal. Asked if he wanted to change the world, he was indignant: "No way. This society cannot be changed."

But some students are prepared to consider the possibility that certain things cannot go on.

Michael Shohat, a 23-year-old psychology student, is against the strike, but not because he has any sympathy for the government.

"I understand if we strike about lack of money and resources - that's OK, because the system is really collapsing. What I don't understand is how people expect to pay nothing and yet expect higher standards. There is simply not enough money in this country for that."