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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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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).


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