Bologna not to the taste of Austrians and Germans

December 31, 2009

Students protest against the 'marketisation' of higher education. John Morgan reports

A wave of student protests across Austria and Germany is voicing opposition to tuition fees and "English-American"-style degrees introduced under the Bologna Process, while stirring up debate about the purpose of higher education.

The protests began in Austria in October, when students occupied a lecture theatre at the University of Vienna. They then spread to other Austrian campuses and to Germany as demonstrators built momentum through social-networking sites.

Lecture halls at some universities, such as Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, remain occupied, while at others, students have been evicted by police.

A common theme in the protests is opposition to the Bologna Process, which introduced a three-cycle structure of degrees - bachelors, masters and doctorates - across the European Higher Education Area.

German and Austrian student protesters, and some academics, complain that their traditional four- or five-year undergraduate degrees have been squeezed into modular three-year bachelors courses that are regimented and too examination-heavy.

Students say this has left them overworked and barred from the free intellectual forays across different disciplines that were once a feature of undergraduate life in both countries.

Malte Pennekamp, a student spokesman for Bildungsstreik ("education strike") Munich and Bavaria Students, said many protesters see Bologna and tuition fees as part of the perceived marketisation of higher education.

"The protesters want to promote a broader concept of education that goes beyond employability, and are protesting for equality of opportunities," he said.

Under Germany's old system, undergraduates enrolled on the Diplom or the masters-level Magister, both of which lasted for between four and five years, usually graduating in their late twenties.

Magnus Brechtken, a historian at the University of Nottingham and former assistant professor at the University of Munich, sees a struggle in German higher education to reconcile the "conflicting interests and expectations" unleashed by Bologna.

Many academics want to defend German university education against the perceived "high-school" character of the reforms, he said.

They are trying to "avoid the transition to what one might call the 'English-American' system because they see that German education in general is broader. It is not just about putting people through a three-year school, then out there at 21 or 22."

However, Dr Brechtken added that the old system had allowed some students to get "lost" and led to high dropout rates.

Tempers rise over tuition fees

Many students are also unhappy about the tuition fees of up to EUR500 (£445) per semester introduced by some of Germany's 16 federal states, which oversee higher education, following a Federal Constitutional Court decision in 2005.

Thomas Saalfeld, professor of politics at the University of Bamberg, said other factors in the protests include a depressed job market, underinvestment in higher education and worsening staff-to-student ratios.

He said universities and professors were predominantly opposed to the reductions in course length and increased assessment imposed by the reforms, adding that the protests had been a "positive experience".

"Suddenly, there is a national debate about the quality of higher education that did not exist before," he said. "It's about the extent to which university education can be marketised to fulfil the requirements of the labour market."

Simon Green, professor of politics at Aston University and co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, said that although it was easy to view the protesters as representative of the student body as a whole, under the old system "people did stay at university for a very long time, and did not really get the skills that would help them in the job market".

Andreas Busch, professor of comparative political economy at the University of Gottingen, said that while the protests appeared "unstructured", there was an organised element making coherent demands on issues such as reducing the burden of exams.

The course reforms have been implemented in a "peculiarly bureaucratic way", he added, with highly detailed regulations for academics on content and structure.

"There is now a widespread argument that the reforms need to be reformed," he said.

Austrian school

In Austria, student unrest stems from a university funding crisis and classroom overcrowding as well as Bologna anxieties, according to Richard Luther, convener of the Keele European Parties Research Unit and visiting professor in Vienna's department of government.

Austrian universities are dogged by poor staff-to-student ratios and students are often unable to enrol on oversubscribed modules, he said.

Dr Luther sees Austria's system of free higher education - tuition fees were introduced in 2003 before being withdrawn in 2008 - as a factor in the overburdening of its universities, as they are attracting rising numbers of students from other European Union countries, including Germany.

On the Bologna Process, Dr Luther said there was a perception among many Austrians that curriculum reform had been poorly executed in some areas, and that the Magister had been "shoehorned" and "dumbed down" into shorter bachelors degrees that are more about training than education.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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