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University sit-ins spread throughout Switzerland

A sit-in or a lie in? Here students protest in Bern

(Keystone)

Hundreds of students have occupied the biggest lecture hall at Bern University, preventing more than 1,000 other students from attending lectures.

The protests have taken place as part of Global Week of Action – motto "Education is not for sale" – which has seen students targeting the educational machine in several European cities. In Switzerland lecture halls have been occupied in Basel, Zurich and Bern.

"Around 1,200 students have been affected," said Christoph Pappa, Bern University's general secretary. "The university administration has noted the protests, but we still don't know what their concrete demands are."

Around 100 students spent Tuesday night in the auditorium – something that hadn't been planned but followed on spontaneously from events earlier in the day - International Students' Day - when some 300 students occupied the auditorium.

The main grievances are the implementation of the Bologna reforms, the commercialisation of education (in the form of industry sponsorship), student fees and the fact that university syllabuses are allegedly becoming more like those in schools.

The Bologna educational reforms are part of the European Union's 1999 Bologna Declaration, signed by Switzerland and 45 other countries. The idea behind Bologna is to harmonise qualifications across Europe so that students and staff can move freely between universities, and the degrees they hold are recognised in every country.

Pappa pointed out that surveys last year revealed that most students judged the Bologna reforms positively.

Nevertheless he said he sympathised with criticism of certain elements of the reforms, such as the fact that instead of being given responsibility and encouraged to think for themselves, students were being spoon-fed information for regular tests.

Problems

This "exam factory" complaint was echoed by Daniel, a geography and history student.

"The big problem is that the Bologna process stops education," he told swissinfo.ch beneath a hammock in Bern University's auditorium on Wednesday.

"You can't reflect on things because you no longer have time to think and to try to go really deeply into a subject. It's not an education."

He added that another big problem in Switzerland was that the Bologna process had been in force for ten years "so people are used to it – it's not like in Germany where everything is new".

"I've been into politics for a long time so I have a solid understanding about why things are going wrong – neo-liberalisation and capitalist structures – but I think a lot of people have a feeling that things are no longer what they should be but they can't really articulate what they think, and that's a big problem."

Commercialisation

Another issue discussed in the auditorium was whether the public education system was still serving the interests of the public, or whether the focus was shifting to implement education systems that primarily serve private and business interests.

"We're concerned that the university is becoming a place where economics comes first and then education. We want a free and critical education – not some sort of training for employment," Luca, a sociology student, told swissinfo.ch.

He added that this creeping commercialisation of education was more of a problem in natural sciences "where Novartis and companies like that sponsor [courses]", but he feared that "if nothing changes, we'll see other companies trying to influence what is taught".

On Wednesday the Swiss Trade Union Federation said in a statement it was delighted by the strong participation and expressed solidarity with the students in Basel, Zurich and Bern in particular.

Support

Michael, studying economics and political science, told swissinfo.ch he wasn't surprised by the level of support.

"I think there are many students who are angry. You can't see it in everyday life as you have a tough programme and exams, but then things happen that make people angry," he said.

"For example, the political sciences institute has just scrapped a module on the social sciences BA without telling the students who subscribed [to that course]. They are now arriving without knowing that they are in fact studying something else."

He believed many people were interested in the issues, but never got around to doing anything about it.

"But when you have something like this, you see many people protesting – and not just people who normally demonstrate but a wide variety of students. This is very important and positive."

Daniel, when asked how long the occupation of the auditorium would continue, was philosophical.

"It depends how long people want to stay."

Thomas Stephens, swissinfo.ch

In brief

The Swiss education system is undergoing a series of major reforms to make it more competitive globally.

A referendum in May 2006 approved government proposals to enhance coordination between different cantonal school systems and to give the federal authorities a bigger say in setting the educational agenda in future.

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Bologna reforms

The Bologna Declaration of 1999 aims to create a European Higher Education Area by 2010.

Students and teachers will then be able to move between countries in the area, and degrees obtained in one country will be recognised in all the others.

Switzerland is one of 46 countries in Europe that have signed up to the accord.

The new university course is divided into two stages: three years for a Bachelor's degree and two more to obtain a Master's degree.

The first Bachelor courses started in Switzerland in 2001. The first degrees were awarded in 2004 (1,057, mainly in law and economy).

This year some 85 per cent of new students will be studying under the new system.

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