Austria: Universities occupied, 50,000 students on the streets

Government forced to make first concessions

On Thursday October 22, students at Vienna University occupied their main lecture hall, Auditorium Maximus. 6 days later, the occupations have spread to other Austrian universities and cities. On October 28, 50000 students in Vienna and 400 in Salzburg took to the streets to march against a lack of resources, space and finance and for free education. Their main demands are, for an increase in funding to the universities instead of giving money to the banks, no to tuition fees, the bologna process (European directive furthering moves towards “marketisation” of education) and “knock out” exams. The protests seem to have led to initial successes. After 9 days of occupation, Science Minister, Hahn, signalled that the government would give €34 million more to the universities. Despite the fact that this €34 million will not solve the crisis regarding the universities, it is a sign that the government can be forced to make concessions by struggle.

Lack of funding responsible for crisis at universities

The first to protest were students at the University of Fine Arts, against the introduction of the bachelor/masters’ decree system, inspired by the Bologna process. They were soon joined by fellow students at Vienna university, who were fed up with conditions at university – students had to sit on the floor because of full lecture halls etc. During the general election period last year, tuition fees had been partly abolished, as a result of a strong mood against the fees. They still apply though, for non-EU students, and students who study for longer than a certain amount of semesters. The media and the government have tried to blame this partial abolishing of tuition fees, as well as the number of German students attending Austrian universities for the present crisis – ignoring the fact that a lack of funding is responsible.

The government’s solution is a further attack on free education – “knock out” exams, to keep the number of students down. There is also a danger of tuition fees being reintroduced. Tuition fees had been introduced in 2002, together with the bachelor/masters’ system and ‘part-autonomy’ of the universities, measures which were met with angry protests by students. These protests had failed because of the role of the students’ union leadership as well as the trade union leaders. The movement was isolated and the consequences of the changes were not obvious to the mass of students then. This has changed in the meantime. The majority of students are well aware that neither tuition fees nor the bachelor/masters’ system, or “knock out” exams, will improve the situation. The fact that the government is giving money to the banks, while the students have to accept harsh conditions at university is also provoking a lot of anger. One of the main slogans on the demonstrations was “Money for education – not for the banks and big business!”.

Increasing class anger leads to working class solidarity with the protests

The protests are taking place during a time of increasing anger about the social situation among working class people. 2,000 Kindergarden workers demonstrated on 17 October for higher wages, more staff and better working conditions. The wage negotiations of the metal workers had been broken off, with shop stewards’ conferences taking place on 28 October. At the end of September, the printing workers demonstrated against the attempts by the bosses’ union to drop collective bargaining. Last spring, school students went on strike, and a teachers’ strike had narrowly been avoided thanks to the cowardly policies of the trade union leadership. The government is preparing further attacks on the teachers, but for tactical reasons, are waiting until after the elections in the teachers’ union, taking place at the end of November. The whole education sector seems to be on fire. The fact that the media, especially the tabloids, report about these protests in a friendly way, reflects the fact that solidarity among the population seems to be quite high. This is also reflected in the fact that the ÖGB (Austrian Trade Union Congress) had to openly support the student protests. The protests have, no doubt, put pressure on the ÖGB – many working class people look on the protests with sympathy, happy that finally “something is happening”. This is a difference from student movements of the past.

Strengths and weaknesses of the movement

The movement drew a new layer of youth into activity. An interesting feature of the movement is its pronounced internationalism – in the meetings in the main hall regular reports from university occupations in other countries are cheered on. Especially students from Germany are an active part of the protests – contrary to the attempts of the government to divide the movement by blaming them for the universities’ crisis. The occupations are also very well organised and disciplined when it comes to organising day-to-day activities in the occupied lecture halls, such as cleaning and providing food for the occupiers – an indication of how in a socialist society people would be willing to organise life’s necessities from below. Attempts by the media to denounce the students as merely wanting to ‘party’ did not succeed. Despite the positive features of the movement, a weakness is that it is politically less radical than past movements. It is not decisively anti-capitalist but more anti-neoliberal, reflecting the fact that consciousness is still catching up with events. The movement is also hesitant to elect democratic bodies to represent the movement. This will no doubt lead to problems later on.

Protests are spreading

At the time of writing, it is not clear how the protests will continue, but the fact that they have spread to other cities and universities and the successful demonstration on 28 October is an indication that the movement still seems to be growing. On 29 October, there were students’ demonstrations in Innsbruck and Graz. So far, there have been occupations in Vienna, Linz, Graz, Innsbruck and Klagenfurt. There is also the possibility of a school students’ strike taking place next week in solidarity.

CWI members participate in the protests

From the start of the protests, the Socialist Left Party (SLP – CWI in Austria) has been an integral part of the struggle. The idea of the October 28 demonstration was suggested by CWI members. SLP activists also played a crucial role in attempting to link up the protests with other struggles. The fact that a protest by metal workers about their wage negotiations was supported by a delegation of universitiy students was down to our initiative. In Salzburg, we were central in organising the demonstrations, together with other groups. SLP member, Jan Rybak, was one of the main speakers at the Salzburg demonstration. In our leaflets, we stress the need for the movement to democratically elect committees to organise the protests and for the ÖGB to organise solidarity. We have suggested the idea of a national students conference to discuss demands, slogans and the next steps to increase the pressure on the government. It would be a huge step forward if the different struggles would link up in a united one-day strike in the education sector (school students and teachers, kindergarden workers, university students and teachers) as a first step. We also explain that the protests show the urgent need for a new workers’ party, as none of the existing established parties has a solution to the situation or at least supports the demands of the movement. It is the capitalist system that is responsible for the crisis in education. It will have to be overcome with a socialist transformation of society, so that basic needs such as free and good education can be met.

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