divendres, 3 d’abril de 2009

An overview of the student struggle in Barcelona

A brief overview of the student struggle in Barcelona

The aggression

Under the auspices of the “Bologna Process”, a plan to homogenise European higher education, the Spanish state is enforcing a university reform that is threatening the public nature of education. The most detrimental aspects of this reform include the raising of tuition fees, making it increasingly difficult for working-class students to access higher education and increasing student debt, as well as facilitating the entry of private capital to the university, which threatens to change the priorities of the university’s education and research programmes. The ultimate goal of the reform is to strengthen links between universities and the capitalist market, moulding students for a precarious and unequal job market and rolling back public control over the key institutions of our society.

The movement

The “anti-bologna” student movement is based around open, horizontal assemblies, organized in each of the universities' different academic departments. The assemblies coordinate with each other in Barcelona through the CAE (coordinator of student assemblies). This has allowed the movement to function autonomously, separate both from political parties and inactive student unions (bar one student union, the SEPC, which has been active in the struggle). This structure has allowed for the direct and individual participation of students and gives each assembly space to develop its own autonomy and spontaneity. Coordination between different assemblies is often laborious and slow due to this fierce commitment to bottom-up decision-making. It has nevertheless been successful in organising joint actions and demonstrations, as well as encouraging the exchange of information and experiences. Critically, the movement has found support among university teachers, researchers and admin workers who continue to feel frustrated by precarious temporary and flexible contracts and in addition, student activism has been welcomed by many of Barcelona’s more progressive professors.

At its core, the movement seeks to reclaim education as a fundamental right that should be accessible to everyone wishing to develop their social and intellectual capabilities, independently from capitalist market pressures to privatise and commodify knowledge. It reclaims the university as a space for critical thought, creativity and free scientific, cultural and political debate. Students demand referendums in every university proposing to paralyse the reform and begin a process of open public debate about what type of university we really want. It is important to note that the movement does not simply defend the old social-democratic model of a public university but seeks to further democratise and transform it from the “bottom-up”.

Thus far, protests have taken a variety of forms and have continued to intensify during this academic year. Examples include student strikes, unitary demonstrations and the coordinated blocking of the main roads of the city. Faculty buildings have been occupied, in some cases classes have been stopped as a way of increasing pressure on the universities, and in other instances the occupations have remained largely symbolic. A number of the faculty occupations have lasted days or weeks, whilst the occupation of the central historic building of the University of Barcelona (UB) lasted for over 4 months. The latter occupation has been one of the central coordinating spaces for the movement and has held numerous open assemblies, talks and workshops. It has also served as a dynamic space within which to link up with other social movements and has been used, on occasion, as an assembly space for public bus driver and car-plant worker strikers, amongst others. Recently, students have also attempted “Japanese-style” strikes, in which all night study sessions in the library have prevented university buildings from being able to close at their normal hours. In addition, one student has carried out a month-long hunger strike.

Occupation of the historic building of the UB

The institutional response

The response from university and public authorities has consisted of both of a refusal to acknowledge student demands, as well as the launching of a media campaign praising the Bologna reform and delegitimatising student activism as “marginal” and “radical”. In addition there have been several empty offers of dialogue and participation. Referendums were carried out in many universities and the “anti-bolonia” proposal won landslide victories, the results however were merely symbolic and had no real decision-making power. University and local government authorities also invited the movement to the negotiating table, in a bid to discuss cosmetic adaptations to the reform, in reality however these discussions offered no opportunity for in-depth debate.

Faced then with the persistence of the student protests, the penultimate step has been the escalation of police repression. The police have been directed to enter university premises, an event that had not occurred since the times of Franco’s fascist regime, and have forcefully evicted numerous student occupations. Student demonstrations in protest following the eviction of the historic building of the UB have been dispersed with the use of extreme police brutality, indiscriminate charges causing injuries to non-violent participants and even to members of the press. These events have brought renewed media coverage and encouragingly have not deterred the student body from persisting in strikes, occupations and demonstrations. 15,000 demonstrators took the streets in the most recent student march. Further repression seems a likely mode of retaliation.

Police repression during the protests against the eviction

The bigger picture

Resistance to the progressive privatisation and mercantilization of education has appeared to ignite action not only throughout Catalonia and Spain, but also all over Europe, particularly in Italy, Greece and France. Education reforms consolidated in the hey-day of neoliberal ideas and practices continue to make even less sense today, given that the neoliberal project for society is falling apart under its own weight. Without doubt, the control over education in a knowledge-based economy is strategically important and will thus continue to remain a highly contested space. It is up to students in particular to stand in the front line of this battleground and, together with other social movements, start to construct the society we want.

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