• Germany's news in English

Solidarity for German students is a two-way street

Marc Young · 17 Jun 2009, 17:13

Published: 17 Jun 2009 17:13 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Walking back from lunch today I came face-to-face with Germany’s very own JFK moment.

I’m talking about what the country can do for the tens of thousands of angry and entitled students that are taking to the streets this week to demonstrate against the miserable state of the country’s educational system.

They’re understandably not happy about Germany’s overcrowded and mediocre universities, the threat of tuition fees, and the jarring shift to internationally recognised bachelor’s and master’s degrees in recent years.

So there I was, digesting my artichoke and mustard sandwich on my way back to the office, as a rowdy protest march snaked its way through central Berlin demanding educational justice for Germany’s irked youth. Aside from the leftist squatters getting in on the fun by launching fireworks from a nearby rooftop, one banner in particular caught my eye.

Showing a huge clenched fist it read: “You Gotta Fight for Free Education and Solidarity.”

Unlike a lot of the slogans being held aloft by passionate students at the demonstration, those were sentiments I could wholeheartedly agree with – if in a completely different way from how the protestors meant them.

Click here for photo gallery of the student protests in Berlin.

That’s because the concept of “solidarity” gets tossed around a lot in Germany, sadly making it rather trite. Everyone demands it, but few seem to realise it’s a two-way street.

The students want German society to back tuition-free university education, which is a legitimate, if in my mind, totally self-defeating position once you look at the dismal state of higher-education funding in this country.

There has been an outcry over the decision of some German states to impose modest tuition fees in recent years, with opponents claiming that soon only the rich will be able to go to university. But it’s ridiculous and patronising to assume most German students couldn’t afford to pay back €500 per semester once they’ve graduated.

Now, as someone who had to pay back $60,000 in student loans for a measly two-year master’s programme, I’m the last person to argue Germany needs to move towards US-style tuition fees.

However, every couple of years I like to trot out my plan to save the German higher-education system – while modernising the country’s armed forces in the process.

A civil solution

Germany stubbornly holds on to its outdated military conscription despite the overwhelming evidence that a smaller professional army could better serve its needs than one bloated with reluctant short-term soldiers. Besides, fewer German men bother to head to Bundeswehr boot camp than ever before – preferring instead to do alternative Zivildienst, or civilian service.

While Germany’s compulsory military service may be unfair and dysfunctional at best, many social organisations have come to depend on Zivis, as men avoiding Wehrdienst are called. I’ve known Germans who have worked as medics in ambulances, some who have cared for the severely disabled, and yet others who’ve played ping-pong with teens at youth centres.

But no matter how diverse their public service was, they all believed their Zivildienst stints did as much for them as it did for the community. Certainly, that must be what most Germans mean when they talk of solidarity.

So what exactly do I propose? Well, I’m glad you asked.

If prospective university students want German society’s solidarity for a free education, they should be willing to commit to one year of a new form of Zivildienst.

Decoupled from military conscription, both men and women would be allowed to study tuition-free – all the way to a master's if they wanted – if they cared for the elderly or worked with troubled schoolchildren as 21st-century Zivis.

This would have the added benefit of widening the pool for Zivildienst at a time when Germany’s population is aging rapidly and state budgets for both education and other public services continue to shrink.

Story continues below…

Public service or student loans

If students preferred to take out loans to pay modest university tuition fees – we’re only talking around €4,000 for a four-year degree here – in order to forgo a year of public service that would be their choice.

At the same time, Germany’s higher-education system, flush with extra cash, would have to become less elitist and more open to a larger proportion of the population. That’s part of what the admittedly flubbed Bologna reforms have attempted but failed to do.

Many German students currently fear they will be unemployable if they stop at a bachelor’s degree. That too has to change.

Not everyone in this status-fascinated country needs a master’s degree or a doctorate. For most, a bachelor’s combined with a year of practically oriented public service would be far better than spending a decade at university engaging in never-ending academic soul-searching.

So perhaps German students need not ask what their education can do for them, but what they can do for their education.

Related links:

Marc Young (marc.young@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Outrage over ruling on 'brutal' gang rape of teen girl
The now convicted suspects, sitting in court in Hamburg. Photo: DPA.

A 14-year-old girl was gang-raped and left partially clothed and unconscious in freezing temperatures. Now prosecutors are appealing the sentences for the young men found guilty, most of whom will not set foot in jail.

Dozens of Turkish diplomats apply for asylum in Germany
Demonstrators holding a giant Turkish flag protest against the attempted coup in Istanbul in July. Photo: DPA.

Since the failed putsch attempt in Turkey in July, Germany has received 35 asylum applications from people with Turkish diplomatic passports, the Interior Ministry confirmed on Wednesday.

Hertha Berlin fan club criticised for 'anti-gay banner'
Hertha BSC beat FC Cologne 2-1. Photo: DPA

A 50 metre fan banner apparently mocking the idea of gay adoption has overshadowed Hertha BSC's win in the Bundesliga.

Germany stalls Chinese takeover of tech firm Aixtron
Aixtron headquarters in Herzogenrath. Photo: DPA

The German government on Monday said it had withdrawn approval for a Chinese firm to acquire Aixtron, a supplier to the semiconductor industry, amid growing unease over Chinese investment in German companies.

Politicians call for tough sentences for 'killer clowns'
File photo: DPA.

Now that the so-called 'killer clown' craze has spread from the US to Germany, elected officials are drawing a hard line against such "pranks", with some threatening offenders with jail time of up to a year.

Nearly one in ten Germans are severely disabled
Photo: DPA

New figures reveal that 9.3 percent of the German population last year were considered severely disabled.

The Local List
Germany's top 10 most surreal sites to visit
The Upside-Down House, in Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania. Photo: Olaf Meister / Wikimedia Commons

From upside-down houses on Baltic islands to a fairy-tale castle near the Austrian border, Germany is a treasure trove of the extraordinary.

Bavarian critics back Merkel for Chancellor again
Photo: DPA

The Christian Social Union (CSU) have long delayed backing Angela Merkel as their candidate for Chancellor in next year's general election. But now key leaders are supporting her publicly.

Four taken to hospital after hotel toilet bursts into flames
File photo: DPA.

Four guests at a Nuremberg hotel were taken to hospital due to smoke inhalation early Monday morning after a toilet there burst into flames.

Creepy clown scare spreads to Germany
Two of the clowns were apparently equipped with chainsaws. Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP file picture

Police said Friday five incidents involving so-called scary clowns had occurred in two north German towns, including one assailant who hit a man with a baseball bat, amid fears that Halloween could spark a rash of similar attacks.

10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd