The gathering looked almost like a regular university course, with a group of students peering up from notebooks, pens at the ready, as a professor spoke. The only difference was that instead of sitting at desks, the students were seated on vinyl benches - in a Berlin subway.
The lecture in the metro Monday was one of hundreds of protests - ranging from handing out informational leaflets, to the blockading of university buildings, to huge public rallies - that have spread across Germany in recent weeks. Over the past weekend, two demonstrations, with an estimated 20,000 protesters each, were held in Berlin.
At issue are plans to cut funding to universities by hundreds of millions of euros, close some departments altogether, and introduce tuition fees for Germany's traditionally free higher education system.
Elsewhere in Europe, education is also being pinched. In France, university students protested a reform that would have given regions more autonomy to run universities, which some thought was a prelude to privatizing them. The government backed down.
Proposed tuition hikes in Britain - so-called top-up fees which would charge up to £3,000 ($5,200) per year - plus more than doubling interest rates for student loans - have also sparked recent protests.
"We are facing a great danger to German university education," says Sascha Vogt, board member of the Free Alliance of Student Bodies, a nationally active student group. "These cuts will severely damage German universities, which are already underfunded." Organizers have designated Dec. 13 as a national day of protest.
The belt-tightening in Germany's higher education system comes amid an overall process, led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government, to reform the country's public institutions and to reduce public expenditures. The reforms have so far centered on cuts in unemployment payments and medical and retirement benefits. Because of Germany's federalized education system, the cuts in university funding are being made on the state level as regional governments battle rising debts caused by falling tax revenue. The state of Berlin alone has a public debt of more than euro 60 billion ($72 billion).
The university budget cuts are being made as Germany overhauls its educational system to address falling enrollment and dropping graduation rates. By 2005, most universities in Germany are set to introduce changes in degree offerings to make them more compatible with international standards. Officials hope that the offer of a bachelor's degree, attainable after three years, will help winnow out students who stay in the university system for up to a decade without completing their studies.
Unfortunately, say many, the changes in the system are being undertaken haphazardly, with little advance planning.
"The reforms can only be successful if the universities completely reconceptualize their curricula," says Volker Meyer-Guckel, a spokesman for the Foundation for the Promotion of Scientific Research, a group that funds scientific and economic research in Germany. "So far only very few university departments have been able to reinvent themselves."
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.
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."