Features | Free tuition, trans-atlantic ed.

The Daily’s Braden Goyette takes you on a tour of the 2009 education strike

People all around the country out in the streets, up in arms about a situation that is, where you come from, a state of total normalcy – this is what it’s like to tour through the culture of solidarity.

In mid-June, German high school and university students staged a nation-wide educational strike. They were protesting, among other things, against the gradual introduction of (arguably small) tuition fees, the introduction of Bachelors and Masters programs (as opposed to the traditional five- to seven-year courses of study, the Magister and Diplom), the influence of corporate interests on the university, and the exclusion of students from working-class and immigrant backgrounds from higher education. And behind these ambitious and diffuse demands, around 270 student groups united and formed a federation that brought out 200,000 students from over 20 cities for a week of coordinated actions.

Solidarity city

I was in Berlin at the time, almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, on a three-month journalism program designed to fulfill a prominent anchorman’s Cold-War dream as he went into retirement: to bring Russians and Americans together in the unified city, talk about the ideals of his profession, and generally witness the fact that we wouldn’t come to blows when put in the same room.

The strike came at the start of a time when we were being told, repeatedly, to look around and ask of Germany: “Why do you do things so and not so?” Germany was supposed to throw our American-ness in relief, but predictably, when it came to strikes, Quebec came to mind. When an organizer from the central press agency was talking about people from certain parts of society getting shut out of the university system, the 2005 conflict over bursaries turning to loans was my first point of reference. And with tuition in Quebec being defrozen in 2007, seeing campaign posters from the mainstream-left SPD [Social Democratic Party] go up in late August saying that “free, quality education is a right” made for a stark contrast.

All over the campus of the Freie Universität were posters advertising the student strike, in that aesthetic of bold yellow and black that we’d see again later in cities around the country.

And there were other signs that we weren’t exactly in Kansas anymore – where we have a group called “Make Poverty History,” they have one called “Make Capitalism History.” Posters announced a conference debating the future of capitalism planned for the fall; signs of “socialism” being taken seriously as an idea were all over the school. Our lecturers were blasé – that’s a student thing, one of them said, there are always anti-capitalist rumblings coming from the universities.

But after years of studying a language and culture, it still required physical presence for it sink in that the taboos are different here than in America – that the history associated with concepts is different, and that this has weight and presence in everyday life.

University Inc.

Still, the tone of the rhetoric at the Freie Uni wasn’t unfamiliar – Dieter Lenzen, the university president, was framed much like we talk about Heather Munroe-Blum at McGill. And maybe that’s because the issues behind it are, in fact, fairly international, the corporatization of the university in particular.

The current controversy is over governance bills in Quebec, which mandates all post-secondary education institutions in the province to have a minimum of 60 per cent of the board of governors come from outside of the university.

“It really fundamentally is an ideological statement, stating that people who work within the institution have no capacity to look objectively at what is good for their institution…[and] that CEOs in the corporate world are far better at managing any kind of organization or structure than someone within the organization,” explained SSMU VP External Sebastian Ronderos-Morgan.

“It posits a corporatist model onto the University,” he added. “Of course the University is an incorporated organization, but [they’re seeing it that way rather than] seeing it as a community with innumerable links to society and an importance that goes far beyond the selling of a product: education.”

The defreeze of tuition in the province falls in a similar vein – and while student pressure has kept increases within a certain margin, Ronderos-Morgan explained, a leak from the people involved in UQAM’s budget in June showed they were expecting tuition to keep increasing. In response, student organizations were quick to issue press releases around the province, and the provincial government denied plans of future increases. “Ideologically,” Ronderos-Morgan remarked, “it’s very much part of the agenda of governments across North America to funnel the bill of public service more on the citizen than on the society.”

A similar ideology seems to be encroaching on the German university, though these kinds of trends seem to hit Germany differently. When a reformed member of the SED [Socialist Unity Party] – the GDR’s former ruling socialist party – was talking to us about neoliberalism during a lecture on re-thinking the legacy of East Germany, it took many follow-up questions to tease out of him just what that meant in a country with such an entrenched tradition of social programs.

He faltered for a moment, and then conceded that what he’d been describing as a threatening development – cuts and revisions to the welfare system from the Schroeder years, for instance – were hard to recognize as problematic in comparison to developments in America and the U.K. during the Reagan and Thatcher years.

Add to this cultural climate the fact that it seemed you couldn’t walk several feet without stumbling onto a strike. It was Sommerloch – slow-news season – in late July when the internship portion of the program rolled around, and a friend posted at the Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten told me that the paper was doing a series of tours – an “architec-tour,” a “cul-tour.” One of the staff jokingly suggested a strike tour.

In retrospect, that’s what we were on in that second week of June.

Students against social selection

The central press office of the Bundesweiter Bildungsstreik was based out of a room on the ground floor of the Technical University of Berlin. Jan Latza, the representative who met with me on the eve of the strike, passed a couple of office chairs out the window before climbing out himself, and we sat in the concrete backlot while he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and explained to me in endless, elegant multi-claused sentences why students were about to take to the streets.

The three-tiered school system, which sorts children into vocational and college-bound tracks early in life and, the protesters contend, systematically disadvantages children from immigrant and working-class families, has long been the cause of protest among younger students.

“There have been protests at the secondary schools for years already,” Latza explained. “Last year there were about 100,000 students out on the streets, and at a certain point there was this big discrepancy – the high-schoolers were in the streets and the university students, who’d already been seeing massive re-structuring in the system for years, were doing relatively little outside of the struggle against tuition fees.”

The introduction of Bachelors and Masters programs as part of the Bologna Process – a series of accords between European countries made in the hopes of streamlining education in different member nations and giving students more mobility within the EU – provided another impetus for university and high school students to combine their efforts. They were protesting against what he called the “soziale Auslese” – social sorting-out process, “Auslese” meaning something like “selected harvest,” a term used to describe the culling of grapes to make fine wines.

Previously, students could pursue a Diplom or Magister, programs that involved a longer study time. Now with the Bachelors and Masters programs, there’s another round where students can be sorted out of the system, Latza argued, with significantly fewer places in Masters programs and fewer opportunities for students to get the same depth of education that they could in the old system. “There’s a clear connection with the debate being raised by the high school students, that this social sorting-out process…and the exclusion that essentially begins in kindergarten and continues into university has to stop.”

So where is our bail-out?

Germany’s education system is also chronically underfunded, and more than a few people in the crowd on the day of the strike saw a point in paying tuition. But in Germany as in Quebec, the student movement asserted that the crisis merits reinvestment in education.

The “week of action” culminated on June 17 – a loaded day in this country’s collective memory, when, in 1953, a worker’s uprising against the Stalinist government in the then-Soviet Sector of Berlin sparked a popular protest, only to be violently repressed by the authorities.

Planning for the week had been in the works for almost a year, with General Assemblies leading up to it, and major educators’ and service industry unions coming out in support of the students.

The week of the strike was supposed to have us travelling away from Berlin, but it didn’t matter – the strike followed us, or we followed it. Every city we visited had a poster on the wall of some building, with the unified aesthetic of black block letters on a bold yellow background.

In Jena, a university town in the east German province of Thuringia, students at the pre-strike rock concert were skeptical that the strike would have any effect, though there was a general sense of support for the effort. On the day of the strike in Bamberg, a medieval Bavarian town, the few over middle-aged onlookers that we encountered expressed a certain disdain and resentment. Wolfgang and Therese, a couple who wouldn’t give their last names and identified themselves only as a retiree and homemaker, said that the students are always demanding more for themselves while ordinary working folks get pushed under. “You’re always hearing about the poor students, sitting in cafés – when did I ever have time to go to a café? Everything I earned in life went to my children,” Therese remarked.

Back in Berlin, students rushed into banks and demanded several billion euros to bail out the education system.

In Nurnberg the day after the strike, chalk slogans from the protest still covered the streets.

According to a social study by the Sociology Institute of the University of Münster conducted in the months afterward, the strike made an impression on the collective consciousness – over 80 per cent of the city residents surveyed knew what the strike was about.

And the politicians did register a reaction, as much as Latza spoke bemusedly about the “arrogance of power” that they’d been seeing – on the eve of the federal election, education policy made it into the agendas of most of the parties.

Born in the U.S.A.

The fall of the Wall was everywhere, reminders of America were everywhere – a Michael Jackson memorial under the world clock on Alexanderplatz; an exhibit running across the Platz about the peaceful revolution of November 1989 began a stone’s throw away; a tiny group of leftists gathered every Monday at a corner of it to protest against one-euro-per-hour jobs (arguably one of the faces of neoliberalism in the social state); other days of the week, they’d be replaced by McDonald’s employees holding up picket signs inviting you to try their new specials.

And our lectures still made it clear that we were in the American sector – particularly in the discussions of the country’s divided past and the two-dimensional descriptions of the two Germanies: a picture of freedom versus unfreedom.

“You have to explain to these people why you have so many types of yogurt in the supermarket – they don’t understand freedom!” one guest lecturer remarked, a former government official whom I was told not to quote unless I asked explicit permission.

And the thought kept coming back throughout the summer – when discussions of what people basically deserve to be provided with or critical looks at the continent we’d come from would stop on this kind of note – freedom from what, and for whom?

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