VIENNA – Tens of thousands of students marched through Austrian cities Tuesday to demand more money for higher education in an unexpectedly large protest backed by university staff.
Police estimates for the largest turnout — in Vienna — were around 15,000 people, mostly students but also academic staff and other supporters. Roughly 5,000 others took to the streets in Salzburg and Graz.
Amid the protests, university presidents warned of large-scale layoffs and even the closure of some institutions barring more money from the government by 2013.
Most Austrian universities are state-run and chronic underfunding has resulted in lack of staff and facilities.
Lecture halls are crammed with hundreds of students in some of the most popular courses and there often are long lists for exams, which have to be staggered due to overcrowding and too few faculty.
The nation's flagship University of Vienna, an elite European institute of higher learning just a few decades ago, now is listed about a third from the bottom of most rankings of the world's top 200 universities.
Parts of downtown Vienna were barricaded off by police as demonstrators gathered in front of the offices of Chancellor Werner Faymann to demand more money for universities when the new government budget is drawn up, two years from now.
Some students carried placards proclaiming, "We are Austria's natural resources." One demonstrator carried a tiny sign, reading "I can't afford a larger one."
The association of Austrian university presidents, which supported the demonstration, warned of "unavoidable" mass layoffs of staff and even the closure of some institutions unless more money was found.
Science Minister Beatrix Karl, in comments carried by the Austria Press Agency, said state-run universities needed at least 250 million euros — nearly $350 million — in 2013, just to maintain present standards.
Police reported no incidents.