Mate Kapović: Two years of the struggle for free education and the development of a new student movement in Croatia

The aim of this article is to provide an account of the fight for free – publicly financed – higher education, from its beginning on November 5th 2008 until today, while simultaneously trying to reconstruct the development of what could be termed the new student movement in Croatia, the beginnings of which can be dated before the beginning of the struggle against the commercialization of education.

Before 2008, Croatian students never managed to organize themselves as a social force and were often ridiculed for protesting only against minor issues like rising prices in student restaurants. The situation is quite different today and it can be said that students have managed to assume an important role in the public life, even regarding issues not directly connected to higher education. This is why we consider it useful to provide an account of the beginnings, course and transformations of the struggle for free education and the student movement. In doing so, we will try to focus on the less known details and avoid going too much into already analysed events, like the structure of university occupations in the spring of 2009 (cf. The Occupation Cookbook). In this way, we shall try to outline the main events and phenomena shaping the course of the movement, its actions and its goals. Of course, this is necessarily a personal account of the events, the focus being on the events and actions in Zagreb, primarily at the Zagreb Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FFZG), which is in a sense the core of the student movement and the struggle for free education.

0.

It all began in 2008, during an introductory phase of a sort, with the students mobilizing around an issue not directly connected with the student population, but of wider social importance – Croatia’s accession to NATO. An initiative was started at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, called antiNATO ffzg, which cooperated with other groups in a public anti-NATO campaign, in collecting signatures for a referendum on Croatia’s accession to NATO and in organizing an anti-NATO protest during George W. Bush’s visit to Zagreb. Although the final goal was not reached since it was practically impossible to gather 450 000 signatures needed for the referendum, the results were impressive – 125,000 signatures were collected, many of them by students (mostly from FFZG), who actively participated in organizing the action. Shortly after this mobilization concerning NATO, the actions related to education have begun as well.

1.

In the spring 2008, student issues, especially the problems caused by the chaotic introduction of the Bologna reform, started being dealt with in an organized manner. This can be considered the first phase of the student movement. In the beginning, an important role was played by the Bologna section of FFZG, a student group that has been active in dealing with the consequences of the reform. Also important was the collaboration between the FFZG students and the students of the Faculty of Science (PMF) in organizing the first major student protest, on May 7th 2008. The protest was not well articulated, which is not strange for a first protest, but, with around 5000 participants, this was still the largest student protest in Croatia since it gained independence. Later protests of 2009 and 2010 did not manage to draw that many people. The success of this protest was probably due to its vagueness and the very general and reformist nature of its goals. One of the direct triggers for the protest was the introduction of fees for graduate courses (introduced by the Bologna reform to split the previous unitary 4 year cycle into 2 separate cycles, with a 3 or 4-year bachelor and a 1 or 2-year master studies) even for those students whose undergraduate studies were free of charge. Another important issue was the total chaos that hit the university shortly before it had to enrol the first Bologna generation of students. At that point, in the first half of 2008, the students did not yet have a clearly defined goal – their demands were numerous and badly articulated. Besides, any serious action was prevented by the obsolete mode of organization, which relied on official student representatives, the Student Council (SZ), or, rather, its representatives who weren’t corrupt members of the ruling party youth, as was the case at most faculties, with the exception of FFZG and the Faculty of Science. On the day before the protest the students were invited to negotiations at the Ministry of Science, Education and Sports, which were followed by a press release by the Ministry claiming that all students’ demands were met, which was a lie aimed at neutralizing the protest. Still, the direct cause of the protest – the introduction of fees – was abandoned for that year and graduate courses have remained free for everyone to this day, due solely to the strong pressure by the students. The May 7th protest was also important as a lesson for future student actions. It showed that the Student Council representative model was ineffective and that any form of negotiation with the Ministry bureaucrats was a mistake and a waste of time. It was also recognized that presenting the public with more than a dozen demands was not a good choice strategically, because individual demands become blurred when there are too many of them, and it becomes difficult for the public to identify the important ones. Perhaps the most important result of the protest was that it showed that students are able to organize themselves around an issue. Before the protest, the public and even most students believed it was impossible to get even a 100 students to take action on any cause. Such a mass turnout at the first protest clearly dispelled the myth of the student passivity and lack of initiative.

At that time, there was still no clear vision of free education as the ultimate goal, although the protest was successful in achieving free graduate courses for all in the next academic year. Dismantling the Bologna reform was still among the goals at the time, but this was later abandoned for tactical reasons and replaced by a tactics of de-Bolognizing Bologna without formally abandoning it. At the time, international connections were still non-existent, as well as cooperation with Croatian universities outside of the capital city. It is interesting to note that shortly before the May 7th protest, secondary school students organized a so-called Facebook protest against the introduction of the standardized State Matura exam, which received much attention by the media. This invited the accusations that university students were merely imitating their high school colleagues, even though the organization of the university protest started long before the spontaneous riot of the secondary school students. Unlike Greece, Germany, France, Serbia and some other countries and in spite of the continuous efforts of the university students, Croatia has yet to see cooperation between these two groups. This is an obstacle that future struggles for education will have to try to overcome in order to spread further.

2.

The second phase of the movement started in the autumn of 2008 and culminated with the November 5th protest in two cities – Zagreb and Pula. This time around there were far fewer people at the Zagreb protest – around 1500 of mostly FFZG students. This was due to the fact that the protest had a single, radical, demand and no immediate, urgent trigger. The single, unitary demand was formed during the preparation of the protest – free, i.e. fully publicly financed, education at all levels, accessible to all (at that point, around 50-60% students were paying some kind of tuition fee in Croatia). At the time, this was an outrageous and completely new demand, non-existent in the public in any form since 1990; any form of critique against the commercialization of education was equally absent before this protest. After the student actions of 2008-9, this became a mainstream demand which is now, at least at the nominal and symbolic level, acceptable even to some segments of the political elite. That was a major success of the movement.

It became obvious that one of the keys to success was the articulation of a single simple demand, instead of numerous particularized problems which blur the big picture. The articulation of this demand at the November 5th protest was the basis for the occupation of the FFZG which followed a few months later, since it served as the legitimization of the demand for free education. The protest itself did not have a significant public impact, but the activities at the FFZG continued, with students once more demonstrating they were ready to take action. These actions finally resulted in the occupation in the spring of 2009, which would have been impossible without the November 5th protest. As already mentioned, the single and more focused demand resulted in a smaller protest – there were only 1500 people compared to the 5000 that participated in the protest six months earlier, but the struggle spread to other towns. On the same day, students in Pula organized a protest and coordinated their actions with the Zagreb students, the cooperation continuing to this day. Also, the protest was held on the International Day against the Commercialization of Education. It should be mentioned that the new method of struggle had not yet been fully formed – although the protest was organized without the official student representatives, it still, for example, had official spokespeople to communicate with the media, which was later discarded as a practice.

3.

The third phase of the student movement started with the preparations for the spring occupation of FFZG, in April/May 2009, which resulted in occupations of about 20 university faculties in 8 Croatian towns, which made it into one of the biggest European and perhaps even global student protests that year. This propelled students back into the public and political life and made them a significant political factor. This phase also brought the key innovations and novelties which have remained an important characteristic of the Croatian student movement. During the organization of the occupation, the students created a self-organized direct democracy, consistently and fully implemented at FFZG in the form of plenums (plenary/general assemblies) and working groups, with the student representative system completely abandoned. Other important methods were also introduced, such as depersonalization and the refusal to individualize the students, refusal to negotiate and compromise, an innovative and unusual media strategy etc. The student movement spread to the rest of the country with the demand for free education fully articulated and developed in detail. As the direct result of the occupation the graduate courses remained free for all the second year around while the new neoliberal Universities Act, which would probably have been urgently passed by the summer of 2009 if not for the occupation, failed to be adopted. During the first wave of university occupations in Croatia, the students succeeded in formulating the first serious public critique of not only the commercialization of education but of neoliberal capitalism and liberal democracy in general. As has been noted, the very word neoliberalism became widely used in Croatian public only after this doctrine was heavily criticized during the student occupation.

The end of the first wave of occupations was interpreted by some as the unavoidable end of a singular event, a kind of modern Croatian 1968 and equally unsuccessful. But the end of the occupations did not mean the end of the struggle. In that same spring of 2009, economic crisis in the country started to worsen, and workers and farmers started to organize their own protests. Shortly after the occupation, the FFZG students supported a farmers’ protest (as shown in Encounter, a documentary film by Igor Bezinović), which was the first public demonstration of the struggle being spread to other aspects of the society, notwithstanding the fact that the demand for free education was articulated in such general terms from the very beginning.

4.

The fourth phase consists of events taking place in the autumn of 2009, before and during the second wave of occupations that was carried out at around 10 faculties and universities in 4 towns. Predictably, the second wave of occupations took place at a smaller number of institutions and drew less media attention than the first. This time around, fewer people participated – absent were those that participated in the sometimes chaotic events of the first occupation in order to pursue their own political interests, as well as those who had participated merely to avoid being on ‘the wrong side of history’. However, this enabled the action to outgrow the image of a singularity, turning it into a serious political action, and demonstrating the understanding that important results are never achieved overnight.

The occupations started simultaneously across Croatia, the primacy of the towns of Rijeka and Pula symbolically representing the decentralization of the student movement. In addition to the demand for free education, another, related issue was introduced at the second occupation – opposition to the proposed Universities Act, the draft of which was leaked to the public by the students, and which intended to curb the university autonomy and introduce further commercialization and neoliberalization of universities. The academia only realized the importance of this issue, first brought up by students, a year later in the autumn of 2010, when the bill was officially presented alongside two other bills governing higher education and research, and was then almost unanimously rejected by the academic community.

The second occupation also marked the beginning of a more direct cooperation with the workers, which was further intensified at the beginning of 2010. During the occupation, the cooperation with the farmers resulted in the first farmers’ plenum which took place at FFZG, during the protests against falling milk prices. After the second wave of occupations, the activities of the movement became more regular, with continued actions, public discussions, working group meetings etc.

5.

The fifth phase began at the start of 2010, after the second wave of occupations. It was marked by the further spreading of the struggle and direct cooperation with other social groups, primarily workers, which now plays an important role in the movement. Cooperation with workers has taken place via the direct democracy working group, which has grown into a country-wide platform. At the same time, workers’ strikes, factory occupations and protests have become increasingly radical, so much so that even the former taboo of workers’ self-management has been publicly discussed again, in the context of shipyards under threat of privatization (and probably destruction).

The activities related to free education also continued – on March 30th another student protest was organized, using the ‘popular front’ method, with students of other faculties (e.g. Faculty of Economy) joining with their particular problems, directly connected to the commercialization of education, even if this was not always obvious at first glance. The direct result of the protest was the approval of the third consecutive year of free graduate courses, as well as the abolition of fees for all undergraduates in their first year of studies.

With regard to cooperation with workers, a lively publishing activity was started, with FAQs, leaflets and pamphlets published and distributed to workers and the unemployed, together with the Slobodni Filozofski (Free FFZG) portal which was turned into a respectable and popular alternative source of information. In addition to this, there have been attempts to spread the FFZG occupation model – the Occupation Cookbook, printed during the second wave of occupations and describing in detail the occupation method and the basics of direct democracy, was translated to German and printed in Austria, with the English edition to be published in the US. The Serbian students started cooperating with Croatian students in reintroducing their own plenums for the first time after the 2006 student occupations in Belgrade.

6.

The sixth phase started in the autumn of 2010, when the powers of the Student Council (the official representative student body) at FFZG were taken over by the FFZG plenum and its working groups, which was a huge novelty and a challenge in implementing direct democracy in an institutional setting. In the October of 2010, the whole academic community finally realized the seriousness of the threat of commercialization, embodied in three proposed laws – Universities Act, Higher Education Act, and Science Act. Most universities and scientific institutes as well as the FFZG plenum rejected the drafts completely, but it remains to be seen if the opposition to these laws will go beyond public statements and complaint letters.

It is difficult to predict the future actions of a decentralized and direct democratic movement, but it is likely that the student movement will continue cooperating with other movements and spread the struggle to other public sectors, such as the health sector; also, further political changes in the country will most certainly spur new activities, an example being the anti-EU movement that started to form at FFZG at the end of 2010. Whether new faculty occupations will be organized anytime soon within the struggle for free education largely depends on future events and the actions of the authorities, who seem to have learned no lessons so far. However, the spectre of student occupations is still haunting Croatia, and the struggle for publicly financed education continues.

Mate Kapović
(Originally published in the Croatian cultural magazine Zarez)

3 Responses to “Mate Kapović: Two years of the struggle for free education and the development of a new student movement in Croatia”

  1. [...] 3. Nous avons très largement traité la question des rébellions étudiantes et citoyennes impliquant l’occupation des universités, mais aussi la défense d’espaces publics à Zagreb, dans notre ouvrage The Right to Rebellion – An Introduction to the Anatomy of Civic Resistance (cf. plus bas). Pour un panorama du mouvement étudiant, cf.Mate Kapović, « Two years of struggle for free education and the development of a new student mov…. [...]

  2. [...] ↩ We have written extensively about the student and civic rebellions that involved occupation of universities but also a defence of public spaces in our book Pravo na pobunu—Uvod u anatomiju gradjanskog otpora [The Right to Rebellion—An Introduction to the Anatomy of Civic Resistance] (Zagreb: Fraktura, 2010). For an overview of the student movement see Mate Kapović, “Two years of struggle for free education and the development of a new student movement in Croatia,” January 4, 2011, http://slobodnifilozofski.org. [...]

Leave a Reply