Academic Freedom Dies Not With a Bang, But a Whimper

Interview with Lola from Hands of Student Rights about a new law threatening expulsions of politically active students in Berlin


Hello, thanks for talking to us. Could you briefly introduce yourself?

Of course, my name is Lola, I am a medical student, and am part of the student led movement; Hands off Student Rights: campaign against political expulsion.

Why did you set up the campaign Hands Off Students Rights?

We set up this campaign because the Berlin Senate is trying to, quite hastily, reintroduce a law in the Higher Education Act, that would allow for disciplinary expulsion. We see numerous issues with the law, such as the vague phrasing, and the way it allows for universities to act as if they were a court.

What would be the effect of the new Higher Education Act?

The effects of this law are far reaching, and I think they go beyond what we can even predict. I think that is what makes it so scary – the uncertainty and limitlessness of it all. The changes would mean someone can be subjected to a system of punishment, ultimately ending in disciplinary expulsion. Which measures are used and when will be decided by a disciplinary committee, whose composition is completely up to the university.

If they were genuinely concerned for the well-being of students, they would ensure accurate and thorough formulation of the law… The way the law is framed quite seems to cover as broad of a scope as possible, allowing it to be used arbitrarily.

Not only that, but which offences are punishable is not a legal decision but will also be decided by this committee. We believe that this law will predominately work by silencing politically active students, not necessarily by expelling them straight away, but through the fear that is instilled by the threat of expulsion. Before any protest, political action or organisation, students, especially those with student visas or from marginalised groups, will have to consider this as a possible result. That is structural violence.

Who is behind Paragraph 16 and what are they trying to do with it?

The current governing parties in the Berlin Senate, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) are behind this paragraph. I think their goal is mainly to depoliticise universities, and to limit and thereby control the political landscape of universities in Berlin.

Why do you think the law is being changed now?

I think it is quite reasonable to deduce that the rise in Palestine solidarity at universities over the past 6 months is the largest influence for the change happening now. I think what is also very clear, is the way the senate is trying to fast-track this during the semester break. This seems strategic, perhaps to limit opposition to the change and to excuse not involving students in this process.

I also think that this is just another symptom of the shift to the right in Germany, which in Berlin so often articulates itself as xenophobic ‘law and order’ politics. This law is another card played from the same hand.

Is the law protecting students, as the Senate claims?

No, the law as proposed by the Senate will not effectively protect students.

There are several points at which this becomes clear in the proposal. Firstly, the law is being introduced under not only the guise of protecting students, but specifically for protecting students against discrimination and violence. Strangely, the only point that CANNOT lead to expulsion, is the point on discrimination.

Secondly, the law does not define ‘violence’ or what makes up an ‘offence’. If they were genuinely concerned for the well-being of students, they would ensure accurate and thorough formulation of the law, with specific criteria that constitute ‘violence’ or ‘interruption of university proceedings’. The way the law is framed quite seems to cover as broad of a scope as possible, allowing it to be used arbitrarily.

Aside from this, this kind of law is simply unsuitable for creating a safer university environment. For example, in the case of sexual assault, where the perpetrator is a student, expulsion does not prevent them from accessing campus grounds since most all campuses are easily accessible to the public. This is particularly relevant here since perpetrators of sexualised violence are only rarely convicted and given prison time. This law fails to prioritise the safety and well-being of victims.

In fact, the law could even allow for victims of abuse to potentially be expelled, if they are charged with, say, defamation, for example for accusing staff of being inappropriate or making discriminatory comments.

The current repression of Palestine solidarity has so far met little resistance from white Germans. Is this starting to change?

I think there is a lot of fear-mongering, also from the German mass media, regarding Palestine solidarity. The average German is exposed to unwavering solidarity with Israel their whole life, so this could translate into some of the reactions that we typically see. I think as the atrocities in Gaza go on, people are finding fewer and fewer ways to justify Israel’s actions. But there is still a lot of work to be done.

What level of support has the campaign received so far?

The campaign is still quite young, but we have gotten a lot of support from local and international leftist groups. Students in Vienna are mirroring our protests, and students all over Germany are standing in solidarity.

The law was originally introduced in 1968. Do you think that we are experiencing a new radicalisation of students?

I think the shift to the right will naturally lead to an increasing radicalisation of the students. Historically, so many great movements have started on campus and as this political shift progresses, I am sure that the resistance against that will continue at universities.

There was a lobby of the Berliner Senat on 26th March. What are the next steps for the campaign?

We are a grassroots movement of students and feel that the streets are the place for us to be, so we want to keep protesting and make ourselves heard. We also want to continue with international outreach, our social media campaign, and to stay in touch with those who can speak with politicians and lobby that way.

How can non-students support your campaign?

By sharing our content, giving us platforms, informing others about this proposed change, and most importantly, taking to the streets with us.

And what can students do?

We have been hearing that a lot of students aren’t even aware of these proposed changes. So, I think spreading awareness is crucial. We also encourage students to get organised and stay united. They are trying to divide us, and we need to remember that this law could affect us all, whether we are politically active or not.