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Students Protest the School and University Reform (June 25, 2009)

High school and university students organized a nationwide strike to protest the new reform measures at German secondary schools and universities. The government responded with efforts to “reform the reforms” in order to make them more effective in practice. Here, two journalists examine the student protestors’ main demands, offering both background information and future prognoses.

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Wisening Up – The Education Project

An overview of the most important criticisms of German school and university reform

Federal Education Minister Annette Schavan made an imprudent statement during a radio interview last week. The CDU politician said that the demands made by striking students were partially reactionary. She said this on a day that had witnessed the largest youth protests in years.

High school and university students took to the streets in more than eighty cities. Their complaint: politicians were demanding a radical reform of schools and universities but had refused to provide the necessary funds. Using a combination of good-humored protests, symbolic bank robberies, and nonviolent sit-ins in dean’s offices, the protestors won support for their cause. Then came Schavan’s remark, which gave the educational establishment a grumpy, know-it-all air that seemed to justify all of the prejudices against it.

The sheer scale of the protests was astonishing. After all, the generation that took to the streets is considered much less political than any before it. According to the student survey conducted by the Constance Research Group on Higher Education [Konstanzer AG Hochschulforschung], only 37 percent of interviewees said they were interested in politics; in 1983, the number had been 54 percent. “These are not people who go to demonstrations for fun,” said Tino Bargel, the head of the study. “That’s why society should take their demands seriously.”

High school and university students oppose the growing pressure to make the education system more efficient. They are unwilling to accept that they only have twelve years (rather than thirteen) to finish their Abitur, but that they still have to cover the same amount of material, which means a dramatic increase in the hours of weekly instruction. They find it unfair that supposed under-achieving students are sifted out of the system at such an early stage. As an alternative to the multi-track German school system, they present the old vision of a comprehensive school [Gesamtschule] for everyone. The demonstrators also believe that the recently introduced tuition fees should be abolished, and what angers them the most are the new bachelor’s and master’s programs. They are too regimented, students say, too full of rote learning and examinations. This leaves little time for scholarly reflection.

The debate on the new degrees is not without its paradoxes. After all, these degrees were supposed to eliminate the very educational injustices that the protestors so vehemently condemn. It was the old system of master’s degrees, diplomas, and state examinations that made children of civil servants four times more likely to attend university than children from working-class families. It was this old system that produced such a high percentage of university drop-outs and excessively long periods of study. “In the real world of the university, Humboldt’s educational ideal, which excites so many people, actually excluded the broad masses from higher education and strengthened the position of society’s educational élites,” said Heinz-Elmar Tenorth, a historian of education at Berlin’s Humboldt University. The new structures were designed to make programs more manageable and to enable greater numbers of young people to pursue a degree, especially students who seek advancement through education but don’t come from families with a history of academic learning. The demand to abolish this very reform is what Minister Schavan largely had in mind when she used the term “reactionary.”

The reality of the reform is different, and it is this reality that the demonstrators are protesting. The following overview describes their most important demands – and the chances that they will be realized.

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