A.C. Could you briefly explain what sparked the student protests in Germany this summer? Could you describe the situation in higher education?
J.V. The current situation at German institutions of higher education is largely determined by measures taken to restructure the entire educational system. It includes the introduction of tuition fees, and the implementation of programs for the BA and the MA. More and more graduates are being trained to only satisfy the job market, while a small “excellent” elite still receives interest-based support from business. Department on subjects that are socially relevant but unlucrative are simply being closed. The definition of content through neoliberal criteria basically forebodes the end for all critical science and scholarship.
Since the summer of 2005, more and more students all over Germany have been putting up resistance, most of all against the federally organized tuition plans. May 2006 saw the rise of a new wave of student protest. It was triggered by the imminent passage of legislation to introduce general tuition fees of at least 500 € per semester, in addition to administrative fees that are already in effect. The state government of Hesse is even planning to institute a special charge of up to 3,000 € a year for “educational foreigners” (i.e. non-EU-citizens with non-German-higher-education-diploma). With the current reforms, “equal opportunity in education,” with its seemingly invisible structural exclusions, is becoming lawful social discrimination. But most importantly, the idea that you as a student would have 1,000 € less per year supplied the necessary protest potential for a “summer of resistance”. All the more because it is clear to everyone that the general introduction of fees bring step-by-step increases in tuition in its wake.
A.C. Which forms of protest were there?
J.V. In Frankfurt alone, the A66 autobahn was blocked three times. The main railway station and several public transit hubs were also targeted by blockades on several occasions, and all of this during the World Cup. This readiness to become militant or at least to engage in “limited infractions” is a significant departure from local student strike culture of the last years.
One explanation is the influence of the French Anti-CPE-movement in April 2006. As you know, this movement consisted primarily of students. Using blockades and mass mobilizations, it was able to halt the implementation of the First Employment Contract aimed at doing away with job security within the first two years of employment. Its international impact has led to contacts with French and even Greek activists. This summer, again and again, students from France have taken part in demonstrations and actions in Frankfurt. This is definitely something new.
Individual university buildings were also closed by strikes, though this never quite reached the extent of the parallel protests in Greece, in which up to 95% of all departments were closed.
A.C. Were there forms of self-organizing knowledge or education?
J.V. In Frankfurt the spaces freed up by striking students were used to hold self-organized seminars. For example, the “Institute for Comparative Irrelevancy” (IvI – www.copyriot.com/raumspiel/), located in a former university building that has been occupied since 2003, organized a week-long “Counter-Uni”, in which also French activists were giving workshops. People do not only live in this “IvI” but also use it as a space for critical theory and practice. The occupation of the building has been tolerated by the university administration for now, although its president has announced that it will soon be cleared.
Students of the design school (“HfG-Offenbach”) were also very active in the sense of self-organizing knowledge. They cancelled the “Rundgang” (i.e. round tour), which is an annual show of individual student results, and used its budget to organize a networking meeting with activists from France, Greece, and even Chile.
A.C. You’re a student at the Staedelschule art school in Frankfurt. In how far did art students and artists support the strike? Were there any ideas to carry out artistic interventions?
J.V. The art students at the Staedelschule are almost totally inactive. In part, I think this is due the structural autism of a success-oriented student body. But on the other hand, it is also connected to the fact that the Städelschule is half-financed by the city. This special status seems to leave enough room for naïve-optimistic speculation as to whether tuition at the Städelschule might still remain free.
At the same time, I am not sure whether it is really that preferable to insert artistically-authored interventions into the protests underway. I think that the militancy of collective highway blockades opens a far more interesting perspective for articulating protest in a way that is sensitive to the politics of symbols and images. Those temporary infractions should as well be seen as an answer to the extreme conditions of the spectacular state of exception during the Soccer World Cup, parallel to protests. The fact that Germany was hosting the World Cup led to a nationwide frenzy of resurgent patriotism. Public attention was totally dominated by this event. In this context, material infractions like occupations and blockades were definitely the most appropriate form of intervention, both in terms of symbolical and media- strategy.
Of course, this issue is subject to a great deal of controversy within the organized student body. Still, the majority of active students does not care or worry that this new militancy could gamble away possible sympathies of both public opinion and the media.
A.C.How would you sum up your results? What happens next?
J.V. First off, most immediately, the protests resulted in hundreds of arrests, which will probably bring criminal proceedings. The repressions were massive; the police violently intervened even on campus. By now, a state security investigation is underway, suspecting several people from the student movement of arson attacks on university buildings.
Yet, the criticism formulated through protest has not gone beyond defending academic privileges. A more fundamental examination of economization and education’s societal status is slowly taking shape.
So far, the movement has not succeeded in stopping the impending reforms. Here in the state of Hesse, the bill on the introduction of general tuition will probably pass the state parliament through its conservative majority in September.
Still I think that the events of the summer have encouraged the majority of active students, and that further federal states will join in the resistance to their respective reform plans. One should also expect further protests to neoliberal educational policies in Greece and France, with which the student-movement in Germany will again find points of connection.
Jeronimo Voss (1981), Art student at Staedelschule in Frankfurt am Main