Protests back eternal students

May 29, 1998

Students at Bern University in Switzerland staged protests last week against planned hikes in university fees for "eternal students" who take many years to obtain a degree, writes Paul Bompard.

About 200 students used red-and-white flags to bar access, with only partial success, to university buildings.

According to the French Swiss daily newspaper Le Temps, about 200 students were picketing in earnest while many others just wandered around.

The protest stems from plans now being discussed by the Bern canton's parliament to increase basic fees from 530 to 655 Swiss francs (Pounds 212 to Pounds 262) per year, and to raise them progressively to a maximum of 4,750 Swiss francs for students who spend much more than the normal number of years in university.

Protesters said students without family back-up are forced to work while they study in order to support themselves, and that in many cases this means it takes much more than the normal number of years to get a degree.

"The university must not become an elite institution for a few people," said Mathias Bnzli, one of the student leaders. "Money cannot become the only criterion for selection."

The Bern government, however, claims that the eternal students constitute a heavy drain on resources.

Bern, like most of the rest of Switzerland, has, in recent years, been suffering from increasing costs and from dwindling or stagnant resources in public services in general and in the university system in particular.

Although the country's lingering economic crisis is still making itself felt on Swiss public spending, the number of students in higher education has been increasing steadily.

This year alone 95,000 new students have enrolled. This represents an increase of more than 2 per cent over first-year enrolments in 1996-97.

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