Germany: The tuition fees disaster

Hessen federal state forced to promise to abolish student financial burden

In Germany universities tuition fees were introduced federal state by federal state. The highest charge is 500 euro per semester, plus administrative and travel costs of about 250 euro. So far, half of the federal states have introduced the new fees. However, after mass student protests, Hessen is now the first federal state that intends to abolish tuition fees, although recently the federal supreme court decided by a close vote (5:6) that the fees are justified.

After last January’s state elections, the Left party (die LINKE), entered Hessen parliament. A result of this was that, so far, no coalition government has been agreed that could provide a stable government. Now the issue of tuition fees has become a focal point of the Hessen government crisis. Although the Hessen parliament voted to abolish the fees, Roland Koch (CDU – Christian Democrats), the outgoing state premier, who is now acting as a caretaker leader, refused to sign the fees legislation.

We spoke to Sebastian Förster, a student who helped to lead the university protests in the Hessian city, Fulda, in 2006/07, and who, at the moment, actively supports the ‘Tear down the Education Blockade’ school students’ strike committee in Berlin

Anne Engelhardt (AE):

In 2006, Hessens’ premier, Ronald Koch, announced the introduction of tuition fees from winter 2007. What was the reaction in the universities and colleges?

Sebastian Förster (SF):

Koch is, mainly amongst young people in Hessen, a hated politician. He carried out social cuts, especially in the education sector, and during election campaigns he used racism as a political football, time and time again. With the announcement of the introduction of general tuition fees, he provoked massive resistance on universities and colleges.

In many places, spontaneous demonstrations and occupations took place. Everywhere, general assemblies were held, to discuss further steps. In my university, we organised a one week strike. Strike committees were built, in which many students could play a part in. For many, it was the first time that they went to a demonstration. The protest gained a high level of militancy within a short time. Over ten thousands students went on the streets for one semester. Later, over fifty thousand people in Hessen took part in a petition campaign against study fees.


What were the most outstanding protests?


Perhaps most spectacular action was the occupation of the motorways and stations. The police used massive violence against these blockades. There was a demonstration at the end of the semester in Frankfurt, where 300 students and school students were brought into custody and were maltreated.

The outstanding feature of these education protests in Hessen was that many students saw the tuition fees in connection to the general social cuts and tried to bring the protests to a broader level. Their idols were the protests by youth in France, which, together with working people, could build a movement against the proposal removal of young workers’ protection from dismissal.

"Tous ensemble – all together!" and "For solidarity and free education", were the slogans on many protests in Hessen.


Where there links made with workers’ struggles? Were the student protests supported by the trade unions?


For one section of the students it was clear that to resist successfully against tuition fees a joint fight with workers was necessary. We also tried to connect to the unions.

The union for teachers and education, GEW, which in Hessen is further to the left, organised a strike against the employees attacks in the education sector and organised a joint demonstration with the students. Other unions were felt under pressure and supported our campaigns, but they did not mobilise their members for demonstrations. United strikes, like those we saw in France, took place seldomly and then only as initiatives from below.

The SAV (Socialist Alternative – CWI in Germany) played a decisive role in some cities, by organising such struggles. There were a few united strikes and protest days with public sector workers and workers from Telekom – against outsourcing, privatising and tuition fees. We also took the initiative to organise a big student demonstration on a national trade union action day, where we demonstrated together with union members and unemployed.


How do you judge the possible abolishment of tuition fees in Hessen? Why do the Greens and the Social Democrats speak against tuition fees, while, at the same time, demand them in other federal states?


The neo-liberal parties in Hessen are in a big crisis. Currently, they cannot form a state government. First and foremost, tuition fees play a decisive role. Koch’s party, the CDU, has been badly shaken because of the continual student protests and the big blow of losing over a quarter of their votes in last January’s state election. Now, the CDU cannot govern on its own, anymore.

However, the SPD and the Greens cannot create a new government. The reason for this is because the new party, the Left party (DIE LINKE), has deeply shaken the political system in Hessen, as in other parts of Germany.

Despite Hessen not having a properly constituted government, the newly elected Left party, spoke together with SPD and Greens, argued against the fees and the Hessen parliament voted to end them. On a national level, the former SPD and Green coalition government paved the way for tuition fees and supported the enabling law. To get votes in the last Hessen election they were forced to act against their own usual policy and promised the abolishment of tuition fees. While the Left party in Hessen is seen in clear opposition to social cuts and cuts in education, the SPD’s repeated changes of policy, often just for elections, shows that it is not an alternative.

Many students at colleges and universities celebrate with the certainty: The abolishment of tuition fees is a success for our resistance!


On 22 May, 8,000 school students went on strike in Berlin and on 12 June, in several other cities, school student strikes took place. Now, the German chancellor Angela Merkel, states she wants to make education to a “key issue”. How do you judge the current school student protests in Germany? What do the students demand and how can they achieve their aims?


The school students in Berlin and Germany, in general, faced a massive decline in the quality of their education. Even before the latest attacks, the German school system has been the most selective in Europe. Thousands of school students went onto the streets in the last days, demanding the restoration of the 13th school year that was cut recently. They fight for smaller classes and more teachers (an average class size of 32 is not acceptable anymore). The abolishment of the unjust ‘three-tiered school system’, which selects all pupils for economic ‘suitability’, after the fourth or sixth class, is also an important demand of the school students.

Essential for the success of the struggle, is that as many people as possible get active and play a role. The building of strike committees, like in Berlin, but also in other cities, will be increased – so, in autumn, this could lead to a new, bigger strike. This time, hopefully, on a bigger, national level.

To create decisive pressure, to achieve our demands, it is necessary to get employees and workers involved in the protests. With a strike, á la France, school students, HE students and workers united – this will be possible!

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June 2008