Germans are protesting because universities have become dumping grounds for a whole generation, argues Jennie Brookman
THE MOST remarkable thing about the student strikes and demonstrations sweeping Germany is that, despite being the largest student protests since the 1960s, they are not really scaring anybody.
This is all the more surprising considering the protest's angry beginnings two months ago when 600 students at the University of Giessen turned up for a course designed for 30. In the ensuing battle for seats, older students shouted: "First semester students out!" The seminar had to be cancelled and a spontaneous meeting called for a lecture boycott.
This lit the fuse for strikes and campaigns in universities and schools throughout the country. The past few weeks of 1997 saw two mass marches on Bonn, each attracting 40,000 students. But since its explosive start, the protests have looked more like rag week than a protest movement.
The media-conscious students have held public seminars in shopping streets to show the general public they are "not just striking on their sofas". Their leaflets appeal: "We are striking for you and your children's future." And in one gently creative action, they handed out plants to passers-by with the message: you have to sow the seeds of education if you want to reap the rewards.
In Hamburg, students even jumped in the city's Alster Lake to draw attention to their plight. It was a good newspaper photo but the symbolism was unfortunate: apathetic professors and indifferent politicians have for years been telling students to go jump in the lake.
Germany's so-called generation of 1968 - which led student protests for world revolution and which now forms the backbone of the German establishment - is perplexed by the students' docility. Where is the political context, the ideology? These students are just selfishly concerned with their own material future, they complain.
They fail to see that the students are indeed fighting a political battle but that the issues are closer to home. In 1968 they did not have to study in a system designed for 970,000 students which is actually trying to support 1.9 million. Nor did they have to fear graduating to unemployment as today's students do. The students' problem is that they are fighting to prevent a revolution which threatens to overwhelm them. They are clinging to the basis of the 1970s West German higher education reform: education for all. But in the 1990s, when resources are stretched, not least to meet the high cost of German reunification, this increasingly means lower professor:student ratios, poorer quality and degrees which take an average seven years to complete.
The larger universities have become long-term parking lots for a whole generation. Only a few economic realists in Germany - mostly industrialists and education policy-makers - are prepared to break the widespread social taboo and say that the universities need to become more competitive, to turf out the lazy professors, the unsuitable students, and cut the wasteful bureaucracy mostly imposed by the 16 state education ministries with constitutional responsibility for higher education.
Their argument that German universities are wasting their intellectual resources and falling behind internationally finally encouraged the government to come up with a bill to reform the higher education framework law last year after many political compromises. The reform limits higher education entry, demands students pass intermediary exams in order to continue their studies, and calls for shorter, internationally compatible degrees. The student protests are as much a response to these potential new demands as to exasperation about overcrowding. They are demanding more funds for education, better teaching quality, more say in the running of their universities.
They fear the introduction of student fees - which although not included in the planned reform is far from off the agenda - and are calling for maintenance grants for all. Their unrealistic and uncoordinated demands reveal that students are part of Germany's problem - everyone is calling for reform but no one wants anything to change.
For their part, professors do not want to give up their generous civil service status offering them tenure, only eight hours a week teaching obligations and many other privileges. The state education ministries do not want to give universities more freedom to control their own affairs or to compete with each other for the best students and academics. And party leaders in Bonn do not want to make any painful decisions which might damage their chances in the general election later this year.
The students are fighting their corner like everyone else. And the German public does not blame them. Why accept student fees when they have no guarantee that the money will be used to their benefit? Why accept more pressure to rush through their studies when low grant and loan payments force them to find part-time jobs, thereby slowing their passage through the system even further?
Higher education is not the only sector affected by the Reformstau (reform gridlock) plaguing Germany. The political system based on consensus has also scuppered or watered-down urgently needed tax and pension reforms aimed at cutting employers' costs and high unemployment. The question now is, who will have the courage to tackle these problems in an election year? And if Germany throws out the weary Kohl government after 15 years in power, will a new government have the political will to reform?
The opposition social democrats and greens, who share most of the student vote, are treading very carefully round the student protests and are more cautious about education reform than the ruling Christian Democrat-Free Democrat coalition. But the election will offer students a big chance. They have already pledged to carry their protests into 1998, and they should use their popularity to make themselves a top election issue.
If they can crystallise their demands into a realistic movement, accepting more competitive conditions in return for promises of better studying conditions, and if they can help tackle the taboos Germany has created around its welfare model, then their movement could once again help make the necessary modernisation of German society. If not, they will just sound like spoilt children asking for more pocket money and their protest will be destined to sink in the lake.
Jennie Brookman is The THES correspondent in Hamburg.