May ’68 arrives in Austria

Mehru Jaffer

After having changed the world with its boundless creativity and inventions in the past few centuries, Europe seems in slumber today. "It is like a well-manicured garden, but where is life, the people, the energy...?" questioned a recent visitor seeped in the ancient tradition of the pull and push of Persian poetry and already missing the chaos and confusion of societies back home after an overnight stay here.
Together, we regretted that Europe did not treat the Palestine-Israeli conflict more urgently. Instead, the conflict is to perpetuate the illusion that this part of the world is a paradise of peace and the other a breeding ground for terrorism.

We talked about The Wet Man Does Not Fear the Rain, a new book by Olga Rodriguez, a 34-year-old Spanish journalist who feels that the European Union should find its own voice about the Palestine problem instead of just going along with decisions taken by the American government.

Desperately in search of even a little glimpse of what makes Europe continue to tick, we strolled into the Audimax auditorium at the main building of the Vienna University just outside the former walls of the imperial city. Hundreds of students took over the Audimax, the largest auditorium of the university, in October. Ever since the start of this academic year, Austrian students have organised themselves in an ongoing protest against overcrowding and under-funding of educational institutions here.

Born in the lap of plenty, the world view of most young people here comes across as depressingly sluggish during most conversations. Therefore, the present day ambience at the Vienna University is one of great excitement dampened only by those who rebuke students for the 'blockades'.
Citizens thoroughly spoilt by a mechanically well-organised society complain that students' demonstrations hold up traffic and take up parking place.

But what the hell!

Let the cry of well fed and grumpy oldies be happily drowned in the determination expressed by students to take the future in their own hand.   As the student protest enters its third month, the abolishing of university fee tops the list of demands. The University on Fire is the title of the document that lists all the demands of the students. The Austrian Students Union argues that fees are a barrier for poor people to access higher education and create disparities in society. This is the also the point of view of Austria's Social Democratic Party. Fee was abolished last autumn only days before an early general election and every political party represented in Parliament voted for it except the conservative People's Party. The conservative politicians say that fees paid by students ensure quality standards.

The students retaliate that standards can be maintained at educational institutions by investing in hiring more teachers, in more and bigger classrooms instead. Students demand that higher education be available to people from all social groups and access to it must not depend on wealth.

The debate here is whether education is meant to prepare human beings only for the job market or is also meant to be a lesson in decent living. Many who missed the opportunity to reflect about social injustices when they were students in decades gone by are most supportive of the students today.

Social democrat Josef Cap said in a radio discussion that the students are making society aware of a very bad situation and it is the right of the students to do so. And there is more good news. Almost half of those interviewed by a recent opinion poll support the student protest. Forty-two per cent say that the student protest is justified. In the poll, only 22 per cent said graduates of universities or other institutions of higher education had a fair chance of finding suitable jobs, while 61 per cent said they had little chance of doing so.

Businessmen, professors, journalists and politicians in 75 interviews said that they saw parallels between protests in the 1960s and current student unrest. Almost 91 per cent of experts said that students required better education to soothe their anxiety about the future, and 84 per cent said that student protests are a fair way to fight for new educational goals.

What is appalling is that too little from the national budget is spent on education. Thomas Wallerberger from the Austrian Student's Union has already said that the students have had enough and are determined to change the 'catastrophic' circumstances at Austrian universities.
As we walked away from the Audimax auditorium, I saw that my friend was at last happy to be in Vienna.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2009

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