View from here - Schools of strikers hit the streets

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Frances Mechan-Schmidt explores the causes of the recent school strikes in Germany

We all think of Germany as relatively strike-free. Yet astonishingly, around 240,000 pupils and students last month staged mass protests in around 70 cities nationwide against deteriorating conditions at Germany's schools and universities. They were supported, no less, by more than 200 school and student organisations as well as major unions.

In an unusual show of emotion for a generally well-behaved society, young people gave vent to their frustration at a series of measures introduced to schools and universities in recent years, the downsides of which have been massive workloads for school pupils and university students.

Grammar-school courses have been shortened from nine to eight years (in all but one of Germany's 16 states) in order to speed up entry to higher education. Unfortunately, this has led to heavy workloads for pupils whose day starts at 8am and often lasts till the early evening, after which exhausted parents help them cope with hours of homework.

Hence some astonishing strike scenes with thousands of grammar-school pupils blocking streets in Berlin, Cologne and Stuttgart, marching through city centres and bringing traffic to a standstill.

Yet if things are tough for the nation's schoolchildren, they don't look much better once they get to university. While classrooms are overcrowded, some lecture halls are bursting at the seams. We hoped our children might have it easier in the future since the country changed from the German diploma to the European bachelor and masters degree system some 10 years ago through the Bologna process. But the upheaval caused by the poorly funded, messy transition has dashed many hopes of attracting more young people to study in the near future.

So thousands of students from Hamburg to Munich were staging sit-ins, boycotting lectures and carrying banners proclaiming that you can "get poor through studying", a reference to the introduction of university tuition fees in most German states. Some staged fake hold-ups in banks in protest against the government's support for floundering financial institutions while it imposed massive cuts on all levels of education.

German students must also now cope with huge workloads, as the Bologna reforms squeezed many eight to 12-term German diploma courses into six- term bachelor degrees. Hard-pressed students are not socialising as much as before and they worry about debts since there is no time to take on part-time jobs.

Margret Wintermantel, head of the German Rectors' Conference, voiced sympathy for the student protestors. "Universities had too little time and money to implement the reforms properly," she conceded, adding that they were now working hard to make up for past mistakes.

Yet many German employers, still unfamiliar with bachelors and masters degrees, are reluctant to employ those with the new qualifications. Troubles throughout the education sector are far from over.

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