Demonstrations, occupations and other forms of protest have sprung up around the continent in the UK, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ireland, each contesting their government’s attempts to further slash education budgets and increase tuition fees. As opposed to other mobilisations such as the anti-war movement or poverty campaigns, these months have not witnessed any significant level of European coordination among student activists broadly protesting about similar issues. Students in Europe are getting mobilised about the same concerns: education moving from a universal right to become a prohibitive luxury. However, protests are fragmented around the continent and focused solely on national dynamics.
It is ironic that this generation, born after Maastricht, often grown up with their first pocket money in Euros, is still unable to effectively frame its battles within a truly transnational framework. As individual EU member states (or sometimes their regions) are still in charge of education budget and reforms, it seems reasonable that students’ protests and mobilisation are aimed at these levels. However, there is room for a higher degree of coordination of local and national student unions to fights common causes. Students and their representative bodies could share best practice in terms of organisational structure, successful actions that led to satisfaction of students’ demands as well as subject-specific issues. The 2003 demonstration against the war in Iraq is a case in point. Even if foreign policy (just like education) remains an area managed by nation-states within the EU, students participating to the European Social Forum in Florence agreed on a simple matter: to demonstrate against the war on the same day. The rest of the world joined in and the first world-wide demonstration became reality. The war went ahead, but the determination of many European countries not to join the attacking coalition, can be partly attributed to unprecedented levels of manifested public disapproval.
On top of this, the reduction in education budgets is part and parcel of a Europe-wide consensus – backed up and promoted by member states in the European Council and, to an extent, the European Commission itself – around deficit reduction and austerity measures. Fighting the economicist consensus of “there is no alternative” is key in demonstrating that a structurally different approach to education and research is possible. And European consensus can be shifted only by bottom-up European alternatives.
For these reasons, we advocate a closer union and coordination between European students and collectives engaged in the same battles. The Paris student’s summit (in italian) called by the Edufactory network in February is a welcome step in this direction. For our part, we started asking six students around Europe to tell us about their main hopes as well as obstacles to a more effective collaboration between students in Europe.
Are you a student in another country not mentioned below? What are your answers to these questions? Let us know and we’ll publish them.
Name: Oisín Ó Dubhláin
Studies: Mental Heath Nursing
At: Dublin City University
Name: Jakub Biernat
At: Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin (photo by Patryk Mizerski/Radio Lublin)
Name: Rosa Vighetto
Studies: Foreign languages
At: University of Turin, where she work with a student association called “Studenti Indipendenti”.
Name: Mihail R. Doychinov
Country: Bulgaria A
Studies: Biomanagement and sustainable development
At: St. Kliment Ohridski Sofia University
Name: Lucia Kula
Studies: Law and Political Science
At: Utrecht University of Applied Science and University of Amsterdam
Name: Lorena Antonovici
Studies: Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy
At: Al. I. Cuza University of Iaşi
What are you protesting about?
Oisín : The issue which is radicalising students is the large raise in registration fees from 850€ when I started college to nearly 2500€ this year. This means many more students simply cannot afford to go on to university, drop out or are forced to work long hours just to survive while studying. But more generally students are fighting for a more equitable society which education of course is an integral part.
Jakub we’re protesting against the commercialization of higher education, plans of introducing tuition fees in Poland and the Bologna Process. A year ago, we protested against the planned firing of 400 workers from our university, auxiliary personnel, mostly women. Now we’ve initiated a series of Lublin debates on higher education, with the aim of articulating our disagreement with the official policy of the “free market” approach to education. Our debate was widely reported on by the local and national media, so it is a good start.
Rosa: In 2008 the italian Government proposed a reform which students all over Italy have been protesting about for the last two years. The biggest issue with this law is that instead of solving the problems that Italian universities developed in the last decades, it faces those problems without analysing their causes and what consequences the reform would have on the actual educational system. As a consequence the measures which are taken endanger the quality of university and its free admittance. The reform lacks specific norms necessary to enforce the law, which probably will cause a congestion of the whole bureaucratic system and the process could last for years.
Mihail: Every time when someone ask me this question my emotions become more than my words! For so many years the Bulgarian government has taken less and less care of the students and the scientists. We want basic safety in student accommodations. Also, every year the tuition fees raise and our scholarships shrink, and specialists or scientists are asked to work for 200 euro a month. We also contrast the culture of corruption when some students get their certificates by bribing professors or officials.
Lucia: Students in the Netherlands are protesting about government budget cuts on higher education. In these budget cuts students who take over a year longer to finish their study (Bachelor) will have to pay a tuition fee of almost €5000,- per year. Universities will also have a budget cut in their income for every student that doesn’t finish their degree in the estimated timeframe.
Lorena: Students are protesting about the qualifications of their teachers who are often not prepared enough to respond to students needs. Evaluation and marking are also a big issue. We also protest against the huge fees which don’t even cover basic facilities for students, such as modern classrooms, high level of teaching and modern libraries.
What would a better and fairer university look like?
Oisín: I believe we need a education which from primary through university is funded through a progressive tax system which is underpinned by the idea that education is a right of every citizen, not a privilege. Education should be a priority in any government budget. This is not the case in Ireland where we lag behind average education spending in the EU.
I also believe grants should be centralised as the paying by local authorities have failed miserably. They should also be broadened to support the working poor. Students who are independently supporting themselves should not be penalised for family earnings..
All private education should be just that, private. No state funding should be provide to maintain exclusive privileged institutions which are detrimental not only to educational equality but equality throughout our society.
Jakub: I would like to have more democracy: decisions should be made together by students, junior instructors and professors. Universities must return to the concept of the community, instead of turning into commercial companies. My dream is equality in the access to higher education and social help for students. Our university should improve its system of scholarships. As we campaigned for the rights of the refugees in Lublin, I would like migrants to be part of Maria Curie University.
Rosa: the Government should invest in university and research instead of reducing the few economic resources we have. Since 2009 the investments have been cut drastically. Universities’ administration bodies should be more democratic, allowing those who work and study in university to make proposals and bring their opinion to the decision making processes. To offer equal opportunities to all students, it is also important to develop an efficient scholarship system. Finally post-graduates should be considered as a resource and should have the possibility to use their skills and knowledge to improve the society they live in. Currently researchers have to choose whether to work in underfinanced conditions and with uncertain future or to move abroad. In my opinion, this situation represents one of the biggest wastes of resources in Italian society.
Mihail: We want safety in our university and dorms. We want to be heard, we want to live in a place, were the well-educated people are respected. We want to have government, which knows how important is to invest in the education, even in a situation of recession. We want professors who are engaging and fair, not lazy and corrupted.
Lucia: A better university would be one where students and lecturers are given enough opportunities to develop their personalities and skills. Not only skills that are needed for job requirements but also skills and attributes that they can use in every situation. Education is more than what u learn in college or at the University. Universities should stimulate students and lecturers to seek more knowledge and keep increasing diversity in the social structures of the institutions
Lorena: Teachers should be better trained – that means not only being competent but also having pedagogic skills, as many teachers are more theoretical than practical. I also think exams should be more practical and demanding higher preparation. Evaluation should be anonymous and marking criteria should be know beforehand. Exams should be both written and oral. A better university would be nice, clean and well equipped.. good looking on the inside as on the outside, wc conditions as toilette paper, soap etc., books that you can consult by yourself..and without having to wait for 30 minutes at least..for someone to give it to you (more specific – having libraries with bookstands and access cards).
Students are protesting all over Europe. Do you see an opportunity for a trans-European political movement? What would be necessary for this to happen?
Oisín: There is the potential for solidarity among students across Europe. We can and are taking inspiration from the actions of students in other countries, learning from their actions and tactics. Unfortunately the student movement fell stagnant and moved to the right in many countries, especially Ireland in the last ten years. Students are only now regaining the radicalism and idealism of times past. Of course there still remains huge differences in systems throughout 3rd level education in Europe making any coalescence on a large organised scale difficult. It is difficult to start thinking about a European movement when so much work is required to develop a radical, holistic approach to student activism in our own country. Certainly the potential is there but a lot of work is needed!
Jakub: Yes, I encourage Polish students to join the European protesters. It is good to see politicians like Caroline Lucas supporting this movement. It would be necessary for all activists to push together for change across European borders. Transeuropa Network could be active in working together for a free and widely accessible higher education in all Europe. In Lublin Transeuropa Network associates campaigned together against the firing of auxiliary personnel and we were in touch with protesters at Tuebingen, Heidelberg and Berkeley. Now again we would like to join forces with international activists.
Rosa: Even though each country has its own problems with different causes, there are issues that concern all. I think these issues should be the starting point for a trans-European movement connecting student associations and NGOs. This could only be possible only if, after pointing out the common principles, the different associations put all their efforts on making them real on a local level. This probably will not be possible in a short period of time but some little steps have already been taken in this direction and I hope that European organisations will continue to promote this kind of work.
Mihail: I think that is a great idea. I think that students all over the world want similar things. It could be an organisation protecting the rights of the students in Europe. To make this happen first we need to be tolerant to each other, no matter where we come from.
Second, we need to have a platform for our rights and we need to fight for them all together, no matter where they are violated. We have to be empathetic towards our fellow-student everywhere in Europe. If this idea became truth it will give a lot of faith for all the students in Europe. We will be felling stronger and this will give an optimism for all of us.
Lucia: I think a collabotation between the different national student unions and the European Student Union (ESU) would be a great way to get a European movement started. Students all over Europe need to be mobilized and inspired to act on their demands and motivate others to do the same.
Lorena: Even if I’m not too much into politics and politics in Romania is such a controversial topic, I see an opportunity for a trans-European political movement. For this to happen, I think students should be more informed about their rights and about other teaching methods around the world.
Are you a student in another country not mentioned above? What are your answers to those questions? Let us know and we’ll publish them.