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Largest demo ever? Swiss pupils protest school budget cuts



Students in Lucerne gathered on the afternoon of April 5 to protest education cuts. A few thousand protesters gathered at cities around Switzerland where they marched in solidarity

Students in Lucerne gathered on the afternoon of April 5 to protest education cuts. A few thousand protesters gathered at cities around Switzerland where they marched in solidarity

(Keystone)

Students across Switzerland took to the streets to protest education budget cuts that have led to furloughs and infrastructure problems. It could amount to the largest student demonstration the country has ever seen.

The movement that began among student organisations in Lucerne and Zurich spread to other cities with Wednesday's demonstrations, which drew about 1,000 people in Lucerne, 500 in Zurich and a few hundred each in Aarau, Basel and Geneva along with a smaller event in Bern. They marched peacefully through the cities' main thoroughfares with handmade signs and slogans stating "we're here, we're loud because our education is being taken from us" and "can education ever cost too much?"

Seventeen-year-old Timothy Oesch, an organiser from Zurich, said he and his colleagues had originally expected between 3,000 and 3,500 students and teachers to turn up across the country to protest estimated cuts of CHF1 billion ($1 billion) to cantonal education budgets between 2013 and 2018. 

“Education budget cuts are not compatible with recent tax cut policies,” Oesch said, pointing to Lucerne as a prime example where tax cuts for private citizens and companies have left a “significant hole” in the cantonal budget. Citing a deficit for education funding, canton Lucerne announced furloughs for schools, in which students and teachers took a week of extra vacation last year to save CHF4 million in instruction costs.

At his school in Zurich, Oesch and his classmates have noticed infrastructure problems such as water damage and windows that don’t close. Additional cantonal budget cuts to education mean they won’t get fixed any time soon, he said. He also points out that teachers – particularly German and foreign-language instructors – are being forced to teach more classes for the same salary, resulting in a noticeable decline in the quality of instruction.

More spending, less pie 

However, Martin Fischer of the State Secretariat for Education – Switzerland’s federal education office – argues that the numbers show increased spending on education in the country, not less. He pointed out to Swiss Public Television SRF that Switzerland spends more money per pupil than any other country in the world, at CHF19,000 per student over the course of his or her education. By comparison, neighbouring Germany spends about CHF11,500.

Franziska Peterhans of the Swiss teachers‘ association agrees that overall spending has increased but points out that it’s being spread out across more educational organisations, resulting in a smaller piece of the pie for individual schools. 

“Measured against today's demands, there’s been a reduction in offerings,” she told SRF. “Teachers, children and parents are experiencing worse conditions than before.”

Oesch says that a meeting is taking place today between organisers and Lucerne’s cantonal education authorities to begin discussions over the budget cuts. In Zurich, student organisations and cantonal government representatives are planning a working group to address funding issues. 

In solidarity, via social media

Although budget cuts affecting education are most acute in German-speaking cantons, students in Geneva are joining the movement to protest in solidarity and to highlight a petition they are circulating which calls for free access to higher education for students in the Geneva region. The Facebook page for the Geneva student association states that “students can prove that the Röstigraben doesn’t exist“, referring to the traditional linguistic and cultural barrier between German and French-speaking Switzerland.

Matteo Marano, spokesperson for the Association for Engaged Youth in Geneva, said that his group marched "mostly in solidarity with what is happening to our Swiss-German colleagues” but also to warn about possible future cuts in Geneva and prove that his generation is prepared to take action. 

The student activists have been spreading the word about the protests via social media, using Facebook events and the hashtag #KeLoscht on Twitter to rally supporters. In the central Swiss dialect from Lucerne, KeLoscht refers to a quote from Finance Minister Ueli Maurer who said he had “keine Lust”external link – or “didn’t feel like” – answering journalists’ budget questions after his re-election to the cabinet in 2015.

Oesch says that social media also played an important role in networking student representatives from different parts of Switzerland. Following a radio interview they gave together on the topic of education budget cuts, Lucerne and Zurich student leaders contacted their counterparts around the country and formed a WhatsApp group to call regular meetings in Lucerne in which Geneva organisers participated via Skype. 

Student groups invited pupils from all levels of education to turn up at Wedesday’s events, from primary school through university, although Oesch predicted most participants would be of upper secondary school age, between 15 and 20 years old.

“Anyone who has anything to do with teaching or learning is welcome to join,” he said.

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