Protest theater: Mock execution of a poor powerless student by the authorities.

Austria’s university students are striking. This all started last month in Vienna, and has since spilled over into other cities in Austria, and into Germany as well. I won’t even pretend to understand the Austrian educational system, except to say it’s much different from ours in a lot of ways. For instance, up til now there has been (as far as I can tell) no restrictions on how many students are accepted into any school. This leads, sometimes, to massive overcrowding of lecture halls for some courses. The Education Minister made some noises about limiting the number of students in any given study, and that got the students out into the streets. Oddly (to me, anyway) they are demanding that every student continue to have the right to study what and where s/he wishes, and at the same time that no access limitation be placed on the universities, even for foreign students. (Austria has a very high German student population, presumably those who cannot get into the desired study programs in their own country.) The striking students are also demanding more money for higher education, doing away with the Studiengebühr (a kind of student tax for non-EU students and for all who take extra years to finish their degree; in Austria it’s the equivalent of about $540 per semester. Remember though that there are otherwise no tuition payments to schools), and more women — 50% is demanded — in the faculty/administrative positions.

The initial American response to this (from me and several others) is usually “What do these kids have to complain about? I paid thousands of dollars for every year of my study, and was happy to get in where I did!” But they have a reason to be concerned. Higher education has always been a point of pride in European countries, that any person who does well in school has the right to study where s/he wants, and in this sense academic success can be a more individual thing, and not dependent on the name of your school (because anyone can study anywhere.) I hear people in American sometimes refer to the difference between the employment policies there and, say, Germany, (“They all get 6 weeks vacation!”) and can only say that this is no longer completely true. The American-style corporate way ( demanding long hours for no loyalty, no overtime, using whatever vacation days when you are too sick to come to work) has been creeping into some German companies for some time now. The Beau worked for a consulting firm which, from how he describes it, more resembled “Glenngarry Glen Ross” than anything remotely worker/union-friendly. The concern about the Americanization of European institutions goes deeper than an aversion for McDonald’s and Santa Claus, and they have a right to be concerned, considering the giant hole America is currently pulling itself out of.

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