Thomas Goes: “We want our lives back”: On the Crisis of German Higher Education

Thomas Goes: “We want our lives back”: On the Crisis of German Higher Education
Thomas Goes, University of Jena

Original German Version

The late fall of 2009 contained a few surprises for the German educational policy. Throughout Germany students occupied classrooms and organized demonstrations. For what? It is not clear what alternatives in the higher education students wanted. However, it is clear what the anger was against: against the consequences of neoliberal reform in higher education, which have dramatically changed the face of the German universities over the past 15 years.

“Neoliberalization” refers not only to the dogma of free market-based social and economic policies, but also to a specific type of government in which there is increased competition, a greater role for markets combined with less predictability and less security for people’s own lives.  From this perspective, the German technical college and university systems in recent years have gone through a massive neoliberal restructuring – although always under newly developing protests. What it means to be a flexible economic subject many students can report through their struggles/sorrow only too well. And so last year the protesting students, in their assemblies and their demonstrations, did not organize against specific political concerns of state (provincial) governments.[1] 

But rather the students’ grievances were against the high workload and the development of the scientific approach to and timeframe of study and course selection. Ostensibly, the protests seemed strangely depoliticized, nevertheless they frequently carried the slogan “I want my life back”, which now has considerable political momentum.

Already in the summer of 2009, a coalition of university and high school students had called for an educational strike. In all of Germany, around 250,000 people participated in the strike. Although high school students made up the largest majority of the protestors, there were also many university students who participated – even if to a far lesser extent.

Student protests are not uncommon in the Federal Republic. In recent years, there were many demonstrations and occupations at the German technical colleges and universities.  As a rule these are movements within a state (province), as the higher education policy is shaped largely by state governments.  In 1997/98, a nationwide wave of strikes included a large number of students. The strike movement, which called itself “Lucky Strike”, fought for more funding and better staffing of universities in general. The majority of those involved fought against the under-funding of so-called “mass universities”, while a minority fought for other forms of training and learning opportunities: for critical thinking, for liberties and freedom while studying in general. The current protests are fundamentally different from the previous ones. Their causes are immediate, while the size is smaller – and yet the protest potential (i.e. the dissatisfaction) is far greater.

Just a few years after the “Lucky Strike,” the struggle over a new higher education policy began. Individual provinces/states attempted to introduce tuition fees – at first only for students who had been studying for long periods (so-called long-term students), and finally for all students. This was in some ways a break with the technocratic experiments undertaken since the mid-1960s, which gave more people access higher education. Tuition fees in this context were anything but popular with the majority of the population. University Presidents, however, were in agreement with the fees as they saw them as a means to alleviate the financial problems of their own universities. Conservative provinces/states such as Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria were the first to introduce fees in 2007.  Discontent began to spread among the students, eventually leading to protest waves within individual states.  The strongest student protests were in the state of Hesse. Students developed a highly creative and vital approach and through a broad coalition of civil society organizations supported mass protests against the fee schedules of the conservative-liberal government. The immediate response by the government, was to continue to impose the fees.  They were, however, short-lived as the provincial elections in 2008 brought the SPD, the Left Party, and the Green Party to power.  This new government halted the implementation of fees.

Nestled within the concept of tuition fees is a general reinterpretation of the role of universities, which can be approximated with the slogan of the “marketization” of the universities: more competition within the higher education institutions, greater competition between them, as well as increased levels of competition between students. With regard to training of students it was agreed across the parties (from the SPD to the FDP, with the exception of The Left Party) that the academic training was an investment in human capital and thus is a vital economic factor.

In parallel with the partial introduction of tuition fees, the university and higher education system have restructured themselves in the wake of the “Bologna reforms”, which seek a single European Higher Education Area by 2010. Between 1999 and 2007, new degrees, programs, routines, controls and models were introduced. The old system of master’s and diploma courses with the examination regulations, which often allowed a freer and more self-organized study, was replaced by a strong performance-based bachelor’s and master’s system. That these reforms were intended primarily to increase the competitiveness of the economy of the European Union and the conformity of education with economic needs was no secret, but was one of the official – albeit differently worded – objectives of the reforms.

Proponents of reform argued that the new program allowed students more flexibility in the choice of study – here the state technocrats appeared to be harmonizing with the students’ wishes – while also ensuring an increase in output efficiency of universities: more students in less time. This was not said overtly, but there is no doubt that this was the intention. Who could have any objection? Critics, by contrast, saw the dreaded time pressures and student workloads as forced de-democratization of the universities’ governing bodies, on the one hand, and a strengthening of the outsourcing functions of universities to private companies, administrations and other forms of labor on the other hand. Analytically, the result of the last 10 years of higher education reform could be understood as combining autonomy and instrumentalization of education by the government. Instead of the promised autonomy students experienced more pressure and responsibility in view of the increasing competition and intensified work. In practice, the combined changes and marketization of higher education have led it to the edge of sustainability. Students today not only complain about the immense work and competitive pressures, but also experience increased psychological distress and a strict regimentation of time – which have  caused existential crises. The action of the “sleep strike” – performed by study-weary students – is an expression of this “crisis of the universities” in Germany.

How the movement will continue to develop is still unclear. The problems of the students are immense.  They have to stop the “rat” and develop common strategies, a task which has so far only partially succeeded. A productive role could be played in the coming months and years by the newly formed Democratic Socialist Students Federation (SDS), if it can provide continuity and sustain discussion for politicizing the activists.

Translated by Michelle Williams, University of Witwatersrand

[1] Technical colleges and universities are under the jurisdiction of  provincial/state governments.  There is a Germany-wide technical college and university law, but the concrete implementation of higher education is at the state level.  For example, there are states that have introduced tuition fees for students and other states that have not.


Universities in Crisis, 02/03/10