The SUB has existed for over ninety years. A lot has changed in this time: Student numbers have risen sharply and the proportion of women has increased. The SUB grew, it changed its structure and its political positions. It opened new services and closed obsolete ones, it adapted its cultural offerings to changing needs. The changing spirit of the times shaped idiosyncrasies and sometimes errors. Its existence was even threatened on several occasions. And yet: even though much has changed since 1926, the SUB is and remains an important part of university life and in offering help to students.
The article was written by Julian Marbach (SR member 2011-2013, SUB board member 2013-2015), revised in 2015, and supplemented in 2016 and 2019.
Predecessor organizations in the 19th century
After the establishment of the University of Bern in 1834, there was initially no general association of all students (women only studied at the University of Bern from 1870) - unlike at the University of Zurich, which was founded at the same time. A first attempt to fund such an association failed in 1844 due to the political tensions of the time. Even without an umbrella organization, however, Bernese students took a lively part in the cantonal and Swiss disputes (up to and including the military marches of the Freischaren). Occasionally, they seem to have made statements in the name of the "Bernese student body", both on university-specific issues (the organization of studies, the appointment, and dismissal of professors) and on general political issues. The most important student organizations at that time, as in the entire 19th century, were the various student fraternities (also called "corporations"), which engaged in fierce (and sometimes physical) conflicts among themselves. The most influential were the liberal-conservative Zofingia and the originally radical-democratic Helvetia.
The first general student association did not come into being until the federal state had been formed and radicals and conservatives had come together in a large coalition in the canton of Bern so that more political tranquillity returned. In 1858, the "Academia" association (under private law) was formed - also as a reaction to plans by the new cantonal government to make attendance at lectures compulsory. In the following decades, however, Academia's activities were essentially limited to administering the student health insurance fund and coordinating the ceremonies of the various student fraternities at university festivities. In the consolidated bourgeois-liberal state, student life also moved along more orderly paths.
At the end of the 19th century, the Academia ran into a crisis: the Catholic student fraternity separated from it in 1889 after the student assembly decided that the student health insurance fund should also cover the treatment costs for sexually transmitted diseases. The health insurance was subsequently taken over by the university. The Academia was then to go under as a result of the conflict between the fraternities and the students who were not organized as fraternities (at that time referred to as "Wilde" or "Freistudenten"). The latter was strongly underrepresented in the Academia's bodies because of the statutes. After these disputes led to an open riot at the dies academicus, the Academia dissolved in 1898.
The foundation of the SUB
Various attempts to create a new overall student body failed in the following years due to disputes between the fraternities on the one hand, and the free student organizations on the other, as well as the first student bodies, which were founded from the beginning of the 1910s: Official projects of 1904 and 1910 were rejected by the "Wilden" because they would have reserved too much influence for the corporations. A draft statute by the Freistudent organizations and the Zofingia (which at the time was temporarily left-wing reformist), which would have already included the demand for a say, was successfully fought by the other fraternities - the students rejected it in a ballot in 1919, after the university management had also shown itself to be sceptical. Instead, in 1921 the Freistudentenschaft and the Fachschaften formed the Association of the Bernese Student Body (VBS), in particular, to ensure uniform representation of Bernese students in the newly founded Association of Swiss Student Bodies (VSS).
It was only through the mediation of the then-rector, Walther Burckhardt, professor of constitutional law, that a compromise acceptable to both sides was finally reached. On the 9th of April 1925, the official foundation took place with the approval of the first SUB statutes (downloadable at the very bottom) by the Directorate of Education. A delegates' assembly elected by faculty assemblies was set up as the supreme body, which was to meet at least once a semester. An honorary board under a president was in charge of the day-to-day business. The ceremonial "external representation of the student body" was reserved for the fraternities, and they were also allowed to provide a representative with an advisory vote on the SUB board. Regardless of the formal rules, the fraternities maintained a strong position in the first decades of the SUB and provided most of the SUB presidents.
Profile in the early years
In the early years, the SUB clearly focused on providing practical services to students. From the beginning, one focus was on supporting fellow students who were financially disadvantaged. As early as 1927, an "Office for Student Aid" was founded with its own loan fund, from which today's social fund developed over time. Early on, the SUB also acted as an employment agency. In the 1930s, SUB board members personally visited Bern's sports shops and asked if they would like to employ a student during the semester break. Today's university sports also go back to SUB projects of the interwar period. The SUB was culturally active, for example, by organizing an annual "Summer Night Festival" in the Rose Garden. From 1932, the SUB published its own newspaper, the "Berner Student".
The SUB was also a strong advocate for practical issues. Among other things, it was thanks to their efforts that the first canteen could finally be opened in 1942. The SUB, on the other hand, did not care much about political participation at that time: the organization of studies was at most discussed at the student council level, and general educational policy was hardly discussed at all. Most SUB activists at that time were bourgeois, but the SUB attached great importance to being "politically neutral". Nevertheless, the SUB was occasionally involved in social and charitable issues, for example, as early as 1926 it organized an "action against the danger of liquor among the people". Nationally, the SUB has belonged to the VSS since its foundation (and until today).
Although the National Socialist fronts had some followers at the University of Bern in the 1930s, they never succeeded in gaining greater influence over the SUB. Rather, before and during the Second World War, the SUB actively supported the "intellectual national defense", which sought to distinguish itself from National Socialist Germany in particular by strengthening the Swiss identity, as well as the armed national defense.
Quiet post-war period
In the post-war period, the SUB changed only cautiously at first. The services were expanded to include a housing agency and the film club was founded. Typical of student organizations of this era was the lively interest in international contacts. To this end, the SUB maintained its own international office, which provided information about travel and exchange opportunities and promoted contact with the exchange students present in Bern.
The situation in the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe was of great concern to the SUB. In resolutions and statements of opinion, it regularly condemned repression against students and academics there. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 in particular triggered intensive activities ranging from demonstrations to clothing collections. The SUB even created its own fund for vulnerable refugee students, which was later integrated into the general social fund.
Organisationally, the possibility to convene a general assembly of all SUB members was introduced in 1948 (which still exists today) in special cases. The 1954 revision of the Bernese University Law legally anchored compulsory membership in the SUB. In 1955, Veronika Schneeberger, a law student, was the first woman to chair the SUB.
The 1960s: The dawn of the political SUB
The 1960s mark a critical juncture in the history of the SUB and the University of Bern. The number of students more than doubled within a decade, from 2,500 to 5,500 students. On the one hand, the SUB reacted by professionalizing its services: The job and housing agency was reorganized and its own stationery shop opened (discontinued again at the end of the 1980s). In 1964, a permanent secretary was employed for the first time.
On the other hand, the political and personal profile of the SUB changed noticeably. Left-liberal students increasingly shaped the organization. The SUB actively participated in the debates on university reforms and the demand for university co-determination appeared in its publications. Various newly founded left-wing political groups revitalized the university and some also began to participate in organized student politics. The "Liberal University Group", which was strongly represented in the SUB, increasingly broke away from the FDP (in the 1970s it was to join the social-democratic student organization). In line with the new orientation, the "political neutrality" in the SUB statutes was replaced in 1966 by a more flexible "party-political independence".
This revision of the statutes in 1966 was particularly groundbreaking for the internal organization. It replaced the Assembly of Delegates with an elected student council and introduced initiatives and referendums. The Executive Board was reduced from twelve to five (later seven) members and elected as a whole with a "government programme" published in advance. The SUB presidium was reduced to a symbolic role and then abolished altogether in 1977. The Student Council (SR) originally consisted of 80 members elected by majority vote. From 1972 onwards, half of the members were elected by list proportional representation, the other half delegated by student councils. An initiative finally introduced the current system with 40 members and pure proportional representation in 1976.
The wild 70ies
In 1972, explicit left-wingers won a majority in the student council for the first time and formed a left-wing executive committee that professed a neo-Marxist programme. From then on, at the latest, the SUB clearly saw itself as an inner-university opposition. In the meantime, the faculty student councils were also characterized by left-oriented students who critically examined the content of their respective subjects and discussed reforms specific to their degree programmes. The post-68 culture also manifested itself in new forms of student activism: demonstrations, occupations, strikes, grassroots seminars, petitions, and leaflet distribution campaigns, whether with or without SUB support, became a recurring part of university life.
The central point of contention in the 1970s was student co-determination in university committees. Since 1969, the SUB had been demanding one-third parity with equal representation of professors, mid-level staff, and students. However, the university and faculties were hesitant to introduce co-determination and tried to limit it as much as possible. Appointment committees for lecturers were often excluded altogether. Sometimes attempts were made to restrict already existing rights of participation again, for example by the Faculty of Law and Economics in 1979 at a faculty meeting held under police protection. It was not until 1997 that student representation in all bodies was to be definitively enshrined in law (albeit to a modest extent).
In addition to university policy demands in the narrower sense, the appointment, non-appointment or dismissal of certain lecturers repeatedly caused protests, especially when they were motivated by political motives (e.g. Jean Ziegler, Hans-Heinrich Holtz or Kurt Marti). Not infrequently, (repressive) reactions by the university triggered further escalation. The most spectacular events were those in 1974: the police broke up an occupation of the Institute of Sociology and arrested the occupants. The protest meeting against this was in turn broken up by 50 police grenadiers; whereupon the SUB held a public demonstration, because of which, among other things, the SUB president was expelled from the university for a year.
Students were also increasingly present in institutional politics. Apart from the question of co-determination, the SUB also fought against the first numerus clausus plans, for easier access to second-chance education and a better scholarship system. To lend weight to its demands for fundamental university reform, the SUB launched its first and so far only cantonal popular initiative "Uni für alle, Initiative für eine demokratische Hochschulbildung" (University for All, Initiative for Democratic Higher Education), which was rejected by the Bernese electorate in 1982.
In the service sector, the SUB founded the Legal Help Service (RHD) in 1975 together with the Law Student Association (Fachschaft Jus) and initiated the Student Book Cooperative (Bugeno) one year later. Both institutions still exist today (the RHD since 2015 as "Rechtsberatungsdienst"). As early as 1971, the SUB published the "WoKa", a weekly calendar with event announcements and brief university-political notices. It was published until it was merged with Unikum in 1997.
External and internal conflicts of the 1980s
Unsurprisingly, the left-opposition course led to discussions about the legal status of student bodies. At the universities of Basel and Zurich, the sister organizations of the SUB were even dissolved altogether (and only reintroduced in 1995 and 2012 respectively). The SUB itself had already been deprived of its financial autonomy in 1973. Membership fees now flowed into a "fund for student purposes", which was administered by the university management. The SUB had to submit an application for the use of its funds. In 1982, the Administrative Court declared the system of the fund unlawful. As a result, the government council set obligatory contributions for the SUB's "core tasks", while cultural and political activities could only be financed by voluntary contributions. This led to considerable financial difficulties (and in 1983 to the SUB closed its services for one semester in protest). From 1985 onwards, the Directorate of Education also prohibited the SUB from paying the VSS membership fee.
Even within the SUB, conflicts were sometimes harshly fought out. Within the dominant left, post-68 socialism was increasingly challenged by feminist, ecological, and anti-authoritarian tendencies. In line with the zeitgeist of the 80s movement, voices were also raised criticizing the structure of the SUB as too bureaucratic and demanding more "grassroots democracy" instead. Attempts to replace the student council with a purely general assembly or student delegate system were unsuccessful, however. Even without institutional reforms, however, there were numerous links between the more university-based and the movement left, so that by the end of the 1980s the SUB appeared to be an integral part of the green-alternative milieu.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the majority in the student council was formed by a "left coalition" of party-affiliated associations (Social Democratic SHG, communist POCH, Trotskyist BUG), independent left-wing political groups, and student council lists. Again and again there were inner-left disputes, some of which were quite violent (especially those around 1980 between the Social Democratic University Group and forces further to the left), but the "coalition" never broke apart. It was also institutionally (loosely) organized - at the end of the 1980s, it met one day before each SR session for a preliminary discussion. The most important civic force was the association "Spektrum" (existing until 1991). Far-right groups such as the "Gruppe Unabhängiger Studenten" (Independent Students Group) or the "Wehrhaften Berner Studenten" (Bernese Students Defenders), which caused some media hype for a short time, did not last long. The bourgeois parties politicized as opposition by means of direct democratic instruments, but also by regularly filing appeals and supervisory complaints against SUB decisions. From the mid-1980s onwards, additional groups emerged that claimed to represent a (left-liberal) middle ground between the left majority and the bourgeois opposition. Among these, however, only the "Free List (FLUB)" achieved certain importance in the short term.
The newspaper "Berner Student" fell victim to internal struggles at the beginning of the 1980s. Left-wing radicals, social democrats, and bourgeois argued about the content of the newspaper, the editorial board, and the SUB board about its autonomy. The student council voted out members of the editorial board several times. After the students had narrowly accepted a bourgeois initiative in 1981, the editorial board had to be composed proportionally according to party politics. This led to the left majority of the editorial board regularly not accepting contributions from the bourgeois editors, while the latter blocked editorial board decisions with appeals so that the editorial board was only able to function to a limited extent and was finally abolished in the course of the financial problems.
The SUB was able to gradually solve its problems at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. In 1989, a change in the law anchored culture and services as well as VSS membership, so that the compulsory contributions could again be used for this purpose. The amount of the semester contribution was set at 21 francs in 1991 after some discussion (this figure still applies today). With the "unikum", after several interim solutions, a long-term publication organ was created. Institutionally, the SUB relaxed the strict government-opposition model by introducing the individual election of board members and began to publicly advertise vacant board positions (1992/93).
A constant in these decades were conflicts about what else the SUB was allowed to say, apart from questions of professional policy such as the organization of studies and scholarships. In the early 1970s, the SUB explicitly claimed a "general political mandate". Later, the discussion revolved around the definition of "student interests". The SUB board understood the term broadly and included the introduction of civilian service, sufficient youth cultural spaces (Reitschule and Zaffaraya), or the rights of (young) unemployed (most recently referendum support in 2002). Such discussions were fuelled by the fact that the legislatures occasionally passed general political resolutions, in the 1980s for example on asylum issues (AGM resolution against the deportation of Tamils) and on energy policy.
1990s: New SUB house, fight for equality and against austerity measures
Among the services, housing and job placement had gained greatly in importance since the 60s, as more and more students lived away from home and were dependent on a job. The SUB secretariat had a steady stream of visitors, not only students but also people looking for accommodation of all kinds, which put the SUB in a dilemma between social demands and the need to focus on its members. Locally, the SUB was able to move into today's SUB-Häuschen in 1993, a listed former factory building of the Tobler chocolate factory that had been temporarily occupied by autonomists in the 1980s.
Politically, the 1990s (and early 2000s) were marked by the fight against various deteriorations in higher education policy, which the canton took as a result of its financial problems at the time and the emerging neoliberal zeitgeist. The SUB fought against various austerity packages, in which the university had to cope with massive financial cuts, tuition fee increases, and against the reduction of scholarships. The SUB launched a referendum against the introduction of the numerus clausus in medicine and led an intensive cantonal referendum campaign in 1996. With the revision of the university law in the same year, students were able to withdraw from the SUB, although only very few made use of this option.
Gender equality had become a central SUB issue from the mid-1980s onwards, as emblematically demonstrated by the change of name from "Studentenschaft" to "StudentInnenschaft" (since 2018 "Studierendenschaft"). In 1987, the SUB board created a separate department "Women" (today Equality). The women's quota for SR and board was introduced in 1992. From 1989 onwards, there was an annual Women's Action Day or Week. In the 1990s, the SUB organized women's self-defense courses. Since 2000, it has organized "womentoring", a mentoring programme for female students interested in a doctorate, with the Department for Equality. In addition, the SUB organized (and still organizes) a variety of individual events on gender equality, fights(s) for improvements within the university (namely for more female professors and less sexism) and tries to function in a gender-responsive way itself.
The left (no longer organized in a formal coalition) continued to dominate the student council and the executive board in the 1990s. While there seems to have been an increasing number of moderate left-wing board members around the middle of the decade, attitudes later tended to become more radical again in the wake of the anti-globalization movement. The most important groups were the left-alternative action group Kritische Union (AKU), the feminist list "Frauen machen Politik" and (on the bourgeois side) the "Cash Flow Party", which as a successor to the spectrum was conspicuous above all for its aggressive election campaigns. The student council lists, on the other hand, steadily lost importance. Since 1995, the council has only been elected every second year (previously every year). Around the turn of the millennium, the SUB was confronted with a lack of new members: Because fewer students stood for election than there were seats to be filled, the Student Council was elected in 1999 (the only time in SUB history to date). In response, the SUB launched a mobilization campaign, contacted student groups, and young parties, and was thus able to win over a new generation of student politicians.
Bologna and the Internet Age: The 2000s
The most important political issue of the 2000s was the Bologna reform with the biggest change in the structure of studies in the history of the University of Bern. In statements, discussions, loud protests, but also working group meetings and personal conversations, the SUB protested against the schooling of studies, criticized bureaucratic and unnecessary "Bologna implementation" reforms, and discussed the social context of the reform. At least the VSS succeeded in getting the Master's degree defined as the standard degree at the national level. The abolition of Media Studies (2005) and Sociology (2009) caused a lot of unrest and fierce protests both by the SUB and by the affected students and their student councils.
From 1996, the SUB had its own (originally very modest) homepage, which was later expanded in several steps. From 2000 onwards, the housing and job platform were gradually converted to an electronic system (job mail in 2001, direct access in 2006). Even in the changing environment, the services were able to hold their own and the SUB is now the market leader in student job placement in Bern. The most important new service in the 2000s was the free admission to cultural events, which was systematically developed from 2002 onwards.
In the student council, this decade was a heyday for the Social Democratic Forum (SF), which consistently had over 10 SR members as well as numerous board members. Together with small alternative groups, it formed a comparatively narrow left SR majority. On the civic side, the Jungfreisinnigen (founded by the current National Councillor Christa Markwalder) was the most important political force. Unlike the bourgeois parties of previous decades, the Jungfreisinnigen were also represented by their own members on the SUB board. The student council has been elected electronically since 2005.
The massive reduction in scholarships (in the canton of Bern, the amount paid out was halved within 20 years despite a massive increase in the number of students) prompted the VSS to launch a popular initiative on this issue in 2010. Two years later it was submitted with 120,000 signatures. The SUB itself collected several times a week so that in the end a quarter of the signatures came from the canton of Bern alone. The SUB was also involved in the 2015 referendum campaign. Although the initiative was ultimately rejected, it created a broader awareness of the problem and was able to put the brakes on further dismantling.
Search for orientation in the 2010s
The SUB got into trouble with cantonal politics (again) at the end of the 2000s. The support of a GsoA initiative against the purchase of new fighter jets (out of fear for the impact on education finances) so agitated the Grand Council that it wanted to abolish automatic membership in 2009. With the campaign "Yes to the SUB!" and thanks in particular to the advocacy of the university management, it was finally possible to change the cantonal parliament's mind and prevent the abolition, although the permissible political statements were once again restricted.
This near abolition triggered a culture of pronounced political caution and contributed to the focus on the reorganization of services and culture in the first half of the 2010s (in addition to the scholarship initiative). The organization of the Unifest (after a major loss in 2010) was more closely integrated into the SUB and staffed. The unikum, which was struggling with declining advertising revenue, was discontinued in 2014 after heated discussions, and one year later the first issue of the independent "Bärner Studizytig" was published, which is financially supported by the SUB under a performance contract. On the other hand, the SUB refrained from founding a bar.
Since 2011, the left-wing parties have not had a majority of their own on the student council, but could usually rely on the support of individual center parties, whereby the university section of the Green Liberals was particularly significant. On the other hand, left-wing members continued to dominate the executive board. Despite initial success, the attempt by the list "Economics in the Council" to revive the concept of student lists remained an episode.
In recent years, the SUB also created various new social activities in addition to the established services. For example, the SUB participated in the "Open Lecture Hall" project of the VSS (for refugee students), founded the "KiStE" for student parents, tries to integrate trans and non-binary people into its equality policy, organized workshops on racism at universities and is again increasingly involved in housing issues. Since 2017, the Left Party has also once again been in the majority in the student council.
Sources and documents on SUB history:
-Hochschulgeschichte Bern 1528-1984. Hrsg im Auftrag des Regierungsrats des Kantons Berns von der Kommission für bernische Hochschulgeschichte. Bern 1984. Insb S. 459-487.
-Richard Feller. Die Universität Bern 1834-1934. Bern 1935.
-Berner Student. Festausgabe zur Jahrhundertfeier der Universität Bern. Bern 1934.
-Die Studentschaft im Selbstporträt. Hrsg. von Studentenschaft der Universität Bern. Bern 1973.
-Ayse Turcan. Die StudentInnenschaft in der Krise?. Die Entwicklung des studentischen Engagements an der Universität Bern. Bachelorarbeit 2012.
-SUB-Archive (documents from 2005 on). Contact the board to gain admission to documents.
-Staatsarchiv, Archiv der SUB (1950-2009)
- National archive, more documents about the SUB: a (1924-1968), b (1948-2001), c (1925-1982), d (1944-1997)
Former SUB newspaper articles in libraries
- Berner Student (1933-1982): Nationalbibliothek (Signatur R 7667/Pf 8361, noch nicht elektronisch katalogisiert), Universitätsbibliothek.
- SUBstanz (1983): Nationalbibliothek, Universitätsbibliothek.
- Neue Zubstanz Zeitung (1983-1984): Nationalbibliothek.
- Extra-Woka (1984-1986): Nationalbibliothek.
- Unikum (1986-2014): Unikumarchiv der SUB, Nationalbibliothek,Universitätsbibliothek.
University library: 1971-1997 (inkomplett)