Will the German student protests inspire US and UK students to rise up against fees?


In Germany mass protests led to the elimination of all tuition fees against the wishes of politicians. Students in the US and UK could force politicians to act if they emulated the scale of the protests and there are signs of growing unrest, writes Thomas Schneider.

When news of Germany’s decision to abolish all higher education tuition fees filtered through to the British and American media a few weeks ago, the reaction was an eclectic blend of disbelief, cynicism and anger. How could a neo-liberal ally challenge the narrative of inevitably high and rising fees with such apparent ease?

The contrast with the US model could not be starker. The US, where tuition costs have risen 500% since 1985, is home to one of the most costly higher education systems in the world. Among an abundance of examples, Colombia University’s fees are noteworthy. This year the university took the inauspicious title of the world’s most expensive state-sponsored educational institution with annual fees of more than US$50,000. It should come as no surprise that 40 million Americans are paying back US$1.2 trillion in outstanding student debt.

Across the pond, the temptation to replicate their close allies has become too great for the UK governing elite to bear. As of 2012, the UK introduced tuition fees of £9,000 (US$14,400) a year with the result that average debt levels are expected to be £44,000 (US$70,000) for an undergraduate degree. An additional problem for the UK is that the system is so self-defeating that nearly three quarters (73%) of today’s students will not have cleared their debts 30 years after graduating.

Activists are fighting back against the crippling burden of student debt. In the US, the Strike Debt group managed to abolish a portfolio of private student loans issued to more than 2,700 Everest College students. The debt was initially worth US$3,856,866 but the group exploited a loophole that allowed them to buy it for just US$106,709 in cash, about 3 cents per dollar.

The root causes of debt

However, Jason Houle, an assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth College says that winning small battles distracts attention from the real issues. “Taking advantage of crazy rules in the US to buy debt from creditors is great, but it’s also short-sighted and misses the root causes of debt,” he said. “Such movements in the US pull people out of the river who are drowning rather than going upstream and seeing why they are falling into the river in the first place.”

For Doctor Jason Hickel, lecturer in Economic Anthropology at the London School of Economics, there is a simple reason why an increasing number of young people are falling into this river. “Education is now big business rather than education for education’s sake,” he said. “The kinds of skills that are being forced onto university curricula reflect the language of the corporate world and the ethic of entrepreneurial self-management. This sends students the wrong message, namely, that education is designed to equip individuals with marketable skills and the ultimate end goal is productivity.”

In this process of marketization, Hickel argues, tuition fee rises reflect the “changed meaning of education from something that is inherently good and improving for society to a means to future employment”. Gaining a degree is a transactional progress where qualifications are exchanged for money.

It appears to be a bleak picture and there is much despair in academia in the UK and US. But the case of Germany offers hope that tuition fees can be axed if there is a strong enough protest against them. In Germany, the flirtation with tuition fees ended at the start of this semester when Lower Saxony became the final state to abolish them. It was the third time since the 1960s that many German states had experimented with tuition fees, then changed their minds.

“Tuition fees are socially unjust” said Dorothee Stapelfeldt, senator for science in Hamburg. “It is a core task of politics to ensure that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge in Germany.”

Dr Holger Fisher, vice-president of Hamburg University agreed. He said it was “crazy” for other countries to charge people to learn. “There is a tradition here in Germany that education is free from beginning to end, and that is very difficult to change,” he said.

‘The kinds of skills that are being forced onto university curricula reflect the language of the corporate world and the ethic of entrepreneurial self-management,’ Jason Hickel

This tradition of free education inspired the mass popular unrest which greeted the reintroduction of fees. It culminated in the huge student demonstrations in 2009 that focused public attention on the students’ plight. Even the state of Bavaria – where the conservative-liberal regional government had strongly backed fees – changed its mind. It caved in to voter pressure after the Freie Wahler (Free Voters)launched a referendum that drew huge support from university associations, political groups and unions and was eventually signed by 1.35 million people, which is about 15% of the electorate.

But the chances of American young adults scaring the government into change through mass political participation seem slim. A survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics shows that young adult voters are less motivated than they have been in 14 years with just 23% of 18 to 29-year-olds stating that they intend to vote in the mid-term congressional races. The problem is also well rooted in the UK with voters aged 18 to 24 the least likely to cast their ballot in every general election going back to the 1960s. Neither country has had an extended period of student protests for well over a generation. Must we resign ourselves to a future of a commodified tertiary education system and escalating fees?

 Increases in activism

NUS President Toni Pearce does not think so. “We are seeing an increase in student activism on campus. Young people are prepared to fight the government and there’s a lot to fight for,” he said. Recent research by the NUS shows that nearly three quarters would vote if there was a general election tomorrow – a figure that has risen by a third since February. The same survey also highlighted the fact that students could swing 191 seats at the general election. The best news of all is that a national demonstration will take place on November 19 and the attendance is expected to be the highest for four years.

The possibility of German states losing vast swathes of the electorate caused ideologues to change their principles. That shows a democracy in good working order. Government should reconsider policies in the face of mass protest. The chances of a powerful UK movement appear brighter than they have been in years. And, who knows, if America were left as the sole commodifier of education left in the West, maybe ordinary citizens could rediscover their glorious heritage of popular protest and force the politicians’ hands once again?

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