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German money woes hit schools

University budget cuts spawn protests in German cities, as education proposals around Europe continue to draw fire.

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More immediate for students in Germany, however, are the plans, announced in the beginning of November, to cut funding and to introduce tuition fees. In Berlin, the city's three universities, home to 135,000 students, will lose $90 million and more than 200 professorships over the next five years - a pattern that is also reflected in other German states. A number of departments will be closed down completely in Berlin, including music studies, south Slavic studies, and clinical pharmacology, with the history and sociology departments at the Free University being cut by 40 and 33 percent respectively.

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The planned tuition fees, while modest by US standards, would range by state from $360 to $720. Protesters point to a tradition of free university education in Germany stretching back to the 1920s - and to the fact that, unlike in the United States, Germany has no scholarship system to help those who cannot afford to study. While charging tuition is currently prohibited by federal law, that law is, at the behest of many state governments, currently under review by Germany's constitutional court. Observers expect the outcome to pave the way for introduction of the planned fees by 2006.

Some professors - legally prohibited from striking because they are employees of the state - have lent support to the students by stopping work anyway or by holding classes in public sites away from the universities as a protest. "We are supporting the students because our working conditions are such that we have courses with up to 110 people," says Peter Grottian, professor of political science at Berlin's Free University.

So far, Germany's state governments are not giving in. They say Germany's recent poor economic performance has drastically reduced their tax revenues, making cost cutting necessary. "We have been talking to the students, but what is there really to discuss?" says Klaus Wöhlert, press spokesman for Berlin's culture senator. "The cuts cannot be reversed. The city has a huge debt, and the universities have to make their contribution to the removal of that debt."

While many students appear eager to keep the strikes going until they see some results, others say that, realistically, they can't continue much beyond six weeks. Otherwise, the entire semester will be lost. Still they hope that, by connecting university cuts with the ongoing debate about cutting back on the caretaker state, the nation will take notice.

"That some smaller departments are disappearing won't bother too many people - if they even notice," says Andreas Richter, a student in the Berlin Free University's soon-to-be-closed music studies program. "But it is a big symbol of how Germany is dealing with higher education." The cuts are part of a troubling trend, he says, "and not just the universities are being affected. Preschools are becoming more expensive, public libraries are disappearing, all sorts of social services are being cut."