Dragan Plavšić looks at spreading student protest and where it could go next
It has been a defiant December and defiance can be contagious when the conditions for it are ripe.
Hot on the heels of the Yellow Vest protests, French secondary school students - dubbed “the children of the Yellow Vests” by one commentator - went on mass strike, barricading up to 300 schools. More than 700 were arrested, some of them as young as 12.
In one Paris suburb, riot police forced dozens of teenagers to kneel in the mud, with heads bowed and hands behind their backs, many of them still wearing their school backpacks. A voice on a video of the incident can be heard saying, “Now this class knows how to behave.”
The students want Macron to drop education reforms that propose changes to the school curriculum so as to facilitate competitive selection for university places (currently available to every student who passes the school exams, the baccalaureate).
The latest protests follow the anti-reform demonstrations and occupations launched earlier this year by university students. Then the response was even more brutal. At Montpelier University, students were violently attacked by masked men wielding wooden planks and batons. Even France’s Higher Education Minister had to condemn the attack and the Dean responsible was suspended.
Besides arguing that Macron’s reforms are a cost-cutting exercise that will only increase inequality, students also argue that they are a stepping stone to his real goal of introducing English-style university fees (currently minimal in France).
This isn’t far-fetched. One of Macron’s reforms is to raise university fees for foreign students from £150 a year to £2,500. Some 40 years ago Margaret Thatcher introduced fees for foreign students at British universities. Few then foresaw that this would be the thin end of a very fat wedge. Today, English students pay annual tuition fees of £9,250 plus living expenses (while foreign students pay even more). As one Thatcher admirer, Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the private University of Buckingham, has put it, her decision to charge international students brought “the beginnings of a market to British universities”.
Macron wants to marketise university education along Thatcherite lines. He wants to replace a social model of education paid for by taxation with a competitive one paid for by individual students. But Macron’s problem is that French students can see what this means in practice. After all, it exists in all its miserable reality just across the Channel. No wonder they’re protesting.
Shortly after the Yellow Vest protests brought the self-important Macron down a pretty peg or two, Albania’s students began boycotting classes and heading en masse onto the streets to protest their government’s decision to hike fees they have to pay to retake exams.
Although, within a couple of days, the government had withdrawn the hike, the protests continued, raising wider issues and demands. Key among them is that student fees be cut by half and public universities receive the funding they desperately need.
The daily protests - nine consecutive days at last count - have well and truly shaken the government of Edi Rama (which goes under the absurd misnomer of ‘socialist’). Initially, Rama ridiculed the students as exam failures, but the sheer size and daily determination of the protests forced him to do a U-turn and then offer talks on their wider demands. The students have so far resisted his offer, insisting that their demands be met first. They have also spurned overtures from opposition parties that are as neoliberal as Rama and would use the students to scramble their selfish way back to power.
The student uprising - its scale and persistence merit that noun - is the culmination of a series of protests over the years against Rama’s 2015 neoliberal education reforms. These reforms raised tuition fees, brought in an impossible system of student loans given the high levels of graduate unemployment and allowed private universities to compete for state funding (24 of 40 universities in Albania are private) further eroding the public sector.
Albania’s students have now taken a decisive stand, spearheaded by activists from the student movement for the University (Levizja Për Universitetin). Committed to the logic that education should be funded by society from taxes and not by students from their pockets, their demands threaten to punch a large hole in the neoliberal dogma of Albanian education policy. Their example should not go unnoticed, especially regionally.
The original source of these disastrous education policies is only too well known to French and Albanian students. It is the so-called ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ and its European heartland is of course Britain.
Following her 1981 decision to charge fees to foreign students, Thatcher also attempted to introduce fees for home students, but failed. Her own backbenchers opposed her, forcing her to put the issue on the back-burner. But it wasn’t forgotten.
In 1996, the Major government commissioned the Dearing report on university funding. It recommended that students contribute to fees and it was Blair’s Labour government that in 1998 first charged students tuition fees of £1,000, soon replacing maintenance grants with loans and later trebling fees to £3,000. The Cameron coalition government then trebled them again to £9,000. Since 1998, then, tuition fees have gone up by 925% or an annual average of 46%. And it all started with fees for international students.
Corbyn’s Labour Party has pledged to scrap tuition fees. This is a welcome break with educational neoliberalism and its potential demonstration effect across Europe should not be underestimated.
However, if this pledge is indeed to be carried against its opponents (including those in the Labour Party), it will need active support and sustenance from students on the ground (who can then raise wider questions about the neoliberal model of the competitive university itself). This is why a student movement displaying the same uncompromising dedication as French and Albanian students to the fundamental social principles of university education is essential here too. The conditions could scarcely be riper.
Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).