Prolonging the Protest

Unprecedented uproar over the Bologna Process and general chaos at the Uni Wien are beginning to have an effect; the ministry offers € 34 Million.

News | Stefanie Rauchegger, Ksenia Kuvaeva, Margaret Childs | December 2009 / January 2010

The occupation of the Audimax at the University of Vienna is now entering its fifth week at this writing, triggering similar protests at universities across Europe and effectively forcing the Austrian government to act on a range of issues that have increasingly crippled the country’s academic life.

With about 80.000 students and faculty filling the seats of the university’s largest lecture hall, packing the aisles and stairways and spilling out over the surrounding corridors the tenacity and discipline of the demonstrators has resulted in an initial offer of €34 Million from Johannes Hahn, Federal Minister of Science and Research, for university operations.

The students say this is not enough.

Max Schuster*, a twenty-year-old economics and political science student at the University of Vienna, has been participating in the occupation of the Audimax since the first day and has no plans to leave until a satisfactory conclusion is reached.

"The current situation at the universities is unbearable", Schuster stated, stony-faced, running his fingers through his hair. "It was about time for the protests and I’m proud that I’m part of it."

In the noble old university central building, designed in 1884 by Heinrich von Ferstel, with its broad majestic staircases, carved stone balustrades, arcades of arches overlooking a courtyard, there have been frequent student protests since the 1950’s. Students were fighting goNazi-ideology, demanding democracy at the University and open admissions. Most of the recent protests were opposing tuition fees, however, they were never as large in scope as the ongoing demonstration today. Schuster and all the other participants have made up one of the largest student demonstration in the Austrian history.

The protesters call Hahn’s policies "neo-liberal" and "inhuman." But the chants of the students in Vienna echo those all over Europe. In 22 cities in Germany and at the university of Basel student have occupied lecture halls protesting inequalities in the educational system, the lack of funding and the difficulties with the new Bachelor and Master degrees.

Support is also coming from within the parliament. "It’s a general, growing lack of resources that can be traced back 10 to15 years," said Eva Glawischnig, Federal Spokeswoman for the Green Party, "and it’s not possible to have normal standards. In relation to other universities in Europe, the level in Austria is really one of the worst."

Through occupation of the main building of the University of Vienna (Hauptuniversität Wien) and the Auditorium Maximum (Audimax) students have been trying to get their message through not only to the government but also to the wider public. According to a survey by the polling firm Spectra in Linz, 44% of Austrians agree with the students.

Mid afternoon of this particular day, there were only a few people in the Audimax, suggesting that, at last, things may have quieted down. Surrounding all the chanting and banners, students are also attempting to complete their degrees. Afrer the round-the-clock sit-in of the early weeks, life does go on.

Schuster insists the demonstration matters. "We don’t sit around in the Audimax 24 hours a day – we study and work. We protest in our spare time."

"At the beginning of the whole protest, students would sleep in camping bags, drink beer and smoke. Concerts would be held," recalls Michael Steiner, another frustrated student.   "There was no place to shower, of course, so I guess you can imagine the stench." He laughed. There was something of the feel of a locker room during a soccer tournament, high energy, duress and discomfort and a sense of common purpose. Judging from the pride in the faces of the students, it has clearly been worth it.

"Most simply stay the whole night through at the Audimax, partying, drinking and having fun," said Steiner. "They don’t sleep there of course, they go home. Luckily the mood has cooled off more or less." Posters plastered on almost any free wall with slogans such as "Success für alle" and "Wo ist unser Institut?" remind every passing person of the reasons why the protests are still going on.

With the signing of the Bologna declaration by the Ministers of education from 29 European countries in 1999, the way was paved to provide for a consistent degree granting mechanism and uniform quality assurance standards making higher education more comparable and compatible throughout Europe. Students disagree vehemently with the goals of this declaration.

"Bologna destroys the spirit of a University," Schuster insists. "You can’t choose anymore. The entrance limitations are way too strict and the knock-out-exams are making everything even more complicated and difficult. It’s impossible to finish your studies in the prescribed time."

The demonstrations have also grabbed the attention of students in Innsbruck, Klagenfurt, Graz, and Linz. It has also spread abroad: Students in Germany and other European countries are voicing solidarity with their Austrian colleagues and are demanding change. So far, more than 40 universities in the German speaking world have been occupied.

On World Students Day, Nov. 17, thousands of students demonstrated all over Europe. Shouldering giant banners bearing the motto "Education is not for sale!" some 800 protestors marching from Schwarzenbergplatz to Schillerplatz in central Vienna. From a café directly across street, the shouting was impossible to ignore, chants demanding to "free the university" and "give the students back their rights!" echoed down the tram tracks. Police blocked the entire Ring, allowing hundreds of students to swarm by, faces lost in the forest of posters in bright colors reflecting in the autumn sunshine – rare enough at this time of year in Vienna – slogans and drawings bobbing above their heads.

In a parallel demonstration at the Haus der Industrie, protestors came with their families, and some long out of university themselves, were there simply to show support.

"Solidarity is one of the most important characteristics we have here in Austria ," said metal-worker Ernst Halwachs. "It is important to stay together; together we are stronger. Eventually there will be a compromise offered by the government."

Jessica Rorhmossa, a student and mother of a 4-month old babz had come in spite of the cold.

"I don’t know whether he will decide to go to university," she said, "but I am here because of him,. I believe the government has no other choice but to meet our demands. We just need to stay together."

The public support was widespread, some said massive, especially on the Internet. More than 30.000 fans of the group "Audimax Besetzung in der Uni Wien – Die Uni brennt!" (Audimax occupation at Uni Wien – the Uni is burning!) on Facebook are backing these demands. Students are using social networks. "Nowadays you reach people by web 2.0.", Schuster explains, "via Facebook, Twitter and our homepage we get a lot of encouragement."

Students are calling for open admissions, free tuition and a broader range of course offerings. "The promised money by Johannes Hahn is a good start," Schuster said, "however, these funds are not enough by far to achieve the goals."

There are many things that the students want, Steiner agreed. "I feel that the university isn’t really giving all it can give," he said. "It’s about time that something was said."

A top priority is to improve the overall organization of the classes and the general study conditions.

"Several times I have had to sit on the steps of the Audimax, because the classes were packed," said Steiner. "You can’t concentrate, nor hear a word the professor is saying. How can you actually learn anything this way? And how can any of them actually get a job then," he wondered.

At heart, students seem most frustrated with the regulations of the Bologna process, that seem to turn education into mass-production on an academic conveyor belt.  What they want is a return to the options for self-definition that many feel has traditionally been a strength of the Austrian university system. Over the past years, universities became more and more like schools, where students have to follow certain courses in a certain order and finish at a certain time.

"Hahn should listen to what we want and take these protests seriously," Steiner said. "A democratic way of studying would allow students to get the education they are more interested in and with which they would best be able to get a job."

In the Audimax is a poster saying "Bildung statt Ausbildung" (education instead of vocational training). "Most of the Austrian politicians concentrate on the stability of the society, are interested in the economic value of students. It’s all about efficiency and drop-out rates", Schuster states.

The protests of the Austrian students continue. Whether any lasting change will come out of this will only show in time.

"We have started something big, and there’s no going back," Schuster said, with noticeable pride. "The Audimax will stay occupied until we are no longer falling on deaf ears." As academia falls to its knees all over Europe, the Viennese stay strong and will continue to migrate from the Audimax to lectures and back. They hope for more support and sufficient funding to put the students in Vienna back on the educational path they chose, without spending more time negotiating for your degree than actually studying.

* Name changed at the student’s request 

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