Students demand that Hahn gets serious

Occupation Update

News | Justin McCauley | November 2009

"Money for Education" (Geld für Bildung), "the Uni is burning" (die Uni brennt), "Think! Don’t serve!" (denken statt dienen) – Banners hanging all around the Audimax auditorium at the University of Vienna’s Main Building shout out the issues in what is becoming Austria’s most massive civil protest in nearly a decade.

What started on Oct. 22 as a sit-in by students of Universität Wien has evolved into mass demonstrations across the city, and has now spread to nearly every university city in Austria. Demands have centered on issues such as entry requirements, tuition, and adequate financing for universities. There have been long-standing complaints about lack of adequate professors, facilities and student support services. These issues have come to a head and have led to the current situation. [See main story, beginning on Page 1].

The students have singled out Minister of Science and Research Johannes Hahn (ÖVP) as their target for retribution. Hahn, who was recently appointed as Austria’s representative to the European Union, has already been criticized for attending talks in Brussels while the student protests were gaining momentum. Upon his return to Austria, Hahn has responded, telling the Ö1-"Mittagsjournal" that his ministry will use their emergency reserve for 2010 to fund university education to the tune of €34 million.

Student leaders say this is nowhere near enough.

Now, not only have an estimated 50,000 protesters taken to the streets all over Vienna, but the movement is spreading. The SOWI-Aula auditorium at Uni Innsbruck has been occupied, in Graz the streets are filled with an estimated 4,000 protesters, and demonstrations have arisen in Linz and Salzburg.

Students as far as Hamburg are showing solidarity,

"In Austria the universities are burning – When will it happen here?" (In Österreich brennen die Unis –  Wann hier?), said one banner. The sophistication and discipline of the movement is also apparent – according to the Austrian daily Der Standard, student leaders have been coordinating via new communications technologies like Skype and Twitter. In Salzburg, students are selling symbolic Studienplätze – university places – on Ebay and donating the profits to charity. By all accounts, the students are civil, peaceful and clean.

On Oct. 29, protest numbers peaked, and the Austrian Students’ Association (ÖH) coordinated a set of demands, including better funding for universities, free tuition for all, no entry restrictions, democratization of universities, and better support for female students. In addition, a contingent of University of Vienna professors gathered in solidarity with the occupying students.

These developments have added new legitimacy to the movement and resulted in Hahn meeting with the ÖH to discuss the terms. The mood was described as courteous but tense and no agreement was reached on either tuition or entry requirements, and no new meeting has been scheduled. However, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann was reported to have told Hahn that he needed to make himself more available for talks.

An added bit of drama unfolded on Oct. 30, when police responded to a bomb threat at the Audimax. The threat turned out to be a false alarm, and reportedly the students were very peaceful and cooperative with the police as they conducted their search of the lecture halls.

Additional support came from the rectors of Vienna’s universities, who stated in a letter that they would be willing to negotiate with the students through the ÖH.

Protests continue through the weekend of Nov. 1, and students plan to continue the occupation "as long as there is something to eat."

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