• Germany's news in English
 
app_header_v3

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

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)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Pegida take to Dresden streets - to march against Pegida
Pegida demonstrators. Photo: DPA

Followers of the xenophobic Pegida movement marched in two factions on Monday evening in the capital of Saxony, brandishing fierce accusations of treason against one another.

Analysis
Is it fair to call the AfD far right?
AfD leaders, from left, Georg Pazderski, Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen. Photo: DPA.

The AfD has been dubbed "far-right" over the past year as it has taken on a tougher stance against immigration and made gains in state elections. But at what point does one call a group far-right?

Dresden police guard Islamic buildings after mosque attack
The Dresden mosque that was hit by a homemade bomb attack on Monday. Photo: DPA.

All Islamic buildings in the capital of Saxony have been put under police protection on Tuesday after explosive devices were detonated at a mosque and a congress centre in the city.

Germany blocks WhatsApp data transfers to Facebook
Photo: DPA

German data protection authorities on Tuesday said they had blocked Facebook from collecting subscriber data from its subsidiary WhatsApp, citing privacy concerns.

Stuttgart fest pulls in twice as many boozers as Oktoberfest
Is this Oktoberfest or is this Stuttgart's Cannstatter Volksfest? Can you tell the difference? Well, it's Stuttgart. Photo: DPA.

Apparently Munich is no longer the top place to wear lederhosen and down beer one litre at a time.

The Local List
10 German films you have to watch before you die
Photo: DPA

These films are so good, not even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari made the list.

Young man destroys 17 cars after visiting Oktoberfest

Early on Monday morning a drunk 29-year-old trashed 17 cars after staggering out of Oktoberfest into the Munich streets. It was one of several eye-popping crimes from "Wiesn" over the past few days.

VW emissions scandal
Audi tech chief leaves after reports link him to 'dieselgate'
Audi's head of technical development Stefan Knirsch stepped down on Monday. Photo: DPA.

Audi's head of technical development stepped down "with immediate effect" on Monday, the luxury carmaker announced, after German media accused him of involvement in parent company Volkswagen's "dieselgate" scandal.

Deutsche Bank shares hit lowest level in quarter century
Photo: DPA.

Shares in Deutsche Bank, Germany's biggest lender, sank to a historic low on Monday after reports at the weekend that Berlin had refused state aid for the embattled lender.

The Local List
The 10 worst German cities for students to find digs
Photo: DPA

It's the start of autumn, which means the start of the university year. But along with the excitement comes the stress of finding housing - and in some glamorous locations this can be a nightmare.

Sponsored Article
The Inner Circle: the secret to dating in Berlin
Lifestyle
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
Lifestyle
10 German films you have to watch before you die
Lifestyle
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
Lifestyle
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Sponsored Article
Retiring abroad: ensuring your health is covered
National
Seven great reasons to stay in Germany this September
National
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
National
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
National
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
Culture
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Rhineland
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Sponsored Article
The Inner Circle: the secret to dating in Berlin
Culture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
Lifestyle
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
Gallery
Germany's 17 Olympic gold medals in pictures
14 facts you never knew about the Brandenburg Gate
Society
Ten times Germans proved they really, really love beer
National
Six things you need to know when moving to Germany
Travel
These 10 little-known German towns are a must see
International
German scientists prove birds can sleep while flying
Technology
London v. Berlin: Which is better for startups?
Lifestyle
13 mortifying mistakes German learners always make
Travel
Enter if you dare: Berlin's best abandoned haunts
Lifestyle
10 rookie errors all Brits make when they arrive in Germany
6,591
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd