Students Say, ‘Now!’

Chronic mismanagement, crowding & chaos trigger Uni demos nationwide

News | Luca Haraszti, Philip Kubaczek | November 2009

More students are pouring into the University of Vienna’s Main Building on the Ringstrasse. They are coming in through the left-wing gate of Uni Wien – almost no one through the main entrance – headed to the Audiomax, the university’s largest auditorium, which has been occupied, day and night, since Thurs., Oct. 22.

The scene is full of young people involved in burning debates about politics, particularly regarding the Austrian university system. Speeches, concerts and discussions are being held on the main stage. The walls are covered with posters and slogans scribbled in chalk. People from the press, photographers and interviewers can be spotted everywhere. The collective feeling is that of aspiration, irrepressibility and power.

It all started with a demonstration by Viennese art students that same Thursday, which later led to the occupation of the Audiomax in the old University Center near Schottentor. The protest is about a lot of things, including administrative chaos and overcrowding, but perhaps most against the outcomes of the Bologna Process, a pan-European effort launched in 1999 to apply academic quality standards and ensure compatibility among European education systems.

Walking through the halls of the University towards the Audiomax, banners are everywhere with slogans covering a surprisingly wide range of ideologies. Commenting on the multitude of opinions, a young political science student – whose ragged appearance suggests he has been holding out at the University for several days – tells us he considers it entirely positive.

"The multi-valence is a product of the self-organized nature of this protest," he says. "It helps the demonstration stay ideologically and politically independent. We don’t want our cause to be linked to a movement or a party."

The students occupying the University do not fulfill the cliché of disorganized, littering vandals – quite the opposite is the case, in fact, although there is a lot of smoking going on in the facilities, and at one point a glass door was smashed. As a fundamentally democratic system without a lead, the students have formed working groups and allocated responsibilities. There is a soup kitchen, a pressroom, even a group responsible for cleaning up after their fellow protesters.

Although the students are treating the facilities – and consequently the Republic of Austria – with respect, there doesn’t appear to be any reciprocity. Johannes G. Hahn, the Minister of Sciences and Research, was invited to a talk with students, but didn’t appear. Now, as the situation becomes more critical, Hahn, instead of facing the conflict and debating the demands, left to Brussels for talks on his possible appointment as the next Austrian representative to the EU Commission, which has since happened.

"Hahn is an idiot," students say repeatedly. Others, more respectful towards authorities, simply say that they feel neglected by their government – in spite of stating their purpose and demands, they fear their cries have fallen on deaf ears. This may be the reason why the majority of people present during the first days of the occupation didn’t believe that any changes in the educational system would result. The organizers stated that "no end was in sight" unless the government agreed to negotiate. Seeing as this wasn’t the case, the protesting kept on and even expanded during the following days – by Tuesday, Oct. 27, the second biggest auditorium, called C1, was also occupied.

Austrian students with similar demands at other universities followed the Uni Wien example – scholars at the Technical University in Vienna showed their solidarity through demonstrations, and an auditorium at University of Graz has been taken over by local activists.

The issues themselves are as legitimate as they are emotive. Students have to deal with overfilled lectures and inadequate faculties because of chronic under-financing. One outcome, say faculty, is that university data-processing systems are buckling under the complications of the new curricula, often paralyzing the academic program.

And to add to the chaos, the federal construction agency has chosen this time to tear up the hallways in the majestic old building to meet new environmental building codes. On the above floor, right over the Audiomax, students and faculty squeeze along a narrow makeshift walkway of boards and burlap, past the torn up corridors that look like a bomb zone.

"This, I think, was the last straw," said Thomas Angerer, Professor of History, who passes the protest every day on his way to his office two floors above. "Why now? Because now that the weather is cold they want to work inside. No one thinks or cares about what is good for the students.

"There is so much hypocrisy," he concluded. "You wonder sometimes that the students have been as patient as they have."

As a solution to this problem, the occupiers suggest a redistribution of taxpayers´ money, with a more central focus on public education. Some demand the abolition of the Austrian military, saying it "guzzles public money" and is unnecessary for a neutral country such as Austria.

The alternative to the current, partially tuition-free university system would be one requiring tuition fees from everyone. To this, the protestors cry "social injustice," saying that many students without financial means would not be able to afford these costs. To compensate for this, an advanced scholarship system could be established. Tuition fees, some say, would also deter the masses of foreign students seeking cheaper studying conditions in Austria.

Students defined their main demands as the following: abolishing tuitions, complete financing of the universities by the government, elimination of entrance exams, access to any master’s course without qualitative admission restrictions and enough university places for all. Others disagreed.

"Don’t you want the doctors of the future to be good?" complains Margaret Childs, a 24-year-old philosophy student in her final year. Many see a threat of declining educational standards due to admissions criteria that are simply too low.

Though the introduction of new bachelor’s and master’s programs is seen as positive by some, thereby unifying standards across Europe and easing mobility between systems and countries, new problems have emerged. "With a bachelor’s in my pocket I can only earn as much as a Matura graduate" says Peter Schneider*, a 23-year-old student from the BOKU (University for Agriculture).

A much-criticized element of the master’s programs is the qualitative admission restriction, effective since October 09. This system dictates that after having successfully earned a bachelor’s degree, a minimum of one master’s course has to be accessible to the student. As for other master’s courses of choice, one has to fulfill a number of conditions not precisely defined by law. These could vary between the grade-point-average, the duration of bachelor’s studies, application interviews, or even an IQ-test. Worries are that this regulation could lead to the financial elite, able to pay for internships and extracurricular courses, being granted the master’s of their dreams, while most students are penned up in the one course that remains freely accessible.

At this writing the protest is still gaining momentum. On Oct. 29, an estimated 20,000 (police) to 50,000 (organizers) protestors took to the streets, covering the Ring much of Vienna’s 1st District city from Schwedenplatz to Schottentor. Sizable demonstrations have also materialized in Innsbruck, Salzburg, in addition to those in Graz, and even students in Hamburg are expressing solidarity with their Austrian colleagues. The sheer size of these protests alludes to the severity of the system’s deficiencies, which has produced the largest protest in nearly a decade. The last demonstration of this size was in 2000, when tens of thousands protested against the inclusion of Jörg Haider’s far-right FPÖ in the coalition government, which generated an estimated 150,000 demonstrators in gatherings all over the city – some 40,000 on Heldenplatz alone.

Given these numbers, students say, Minister Hahn may be forced to address their grievances, whether he likes it or not.


* Name changed at the student’s request. 

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    the vienna review November 2009