As Cuts Hit European Higher Education Hard, Students and Professors Take to the Streets

Leon Neal, AFP, Getty Images

Angry demonstrators clashed with the police in a student protest outside Parliament in London last week, as Britain’s coalition government faced its biggest test yet in voting to raise university tuition amid drastic budget reductions.
December 09, 2010

Across Europe students and professors have been taking to the streets in protest. The largest demonstrations have been in Britain, where last month, and again this week, thousands of students marched down London streets or occupied university halls objecting to drastic government cuts in higher education and planned tuition increases.

But a similar sort of anger has also manifested itself in Bulgaria, Ireland, Greece, and Italy.

The direct spark for student ire in each country has been unique, but the tinderbox of issues that has fed the flames of their anger is the same across much of Europe. With a few notable exceptions, European university systems are being squeezed by the twin pressures of expanded enrollments and budgetary constraints. Many countries have set explicit targets for raising higher-education enrollments over the next decade. At the same time, universities are finding themselves on the front lines of national austerity measures, as deficit-slashing governments cut education spending.

In Bulgaria, the prospect of universities being unable to pay their winter heating bills drove students and professors to voice their outrage. In Ireland, a move to raise student fees by a third next year to €2,000, about $2,647, led thousands of students brave freezing weather to demonstrate their opposition.

Italian students angry over spending cuts and cost-saving limits on university research stormed the Leaning Tower of Pisa and occupied the Colosseum late last month. And in Greece, where the government has proposed a profound reform of the higher-education system, professors, not students, have been leading protests.

Some countries, like Britain, have protected research from the worst, but university teaching budgets are being hit, with direct consequences for students. A new era of student protest has dawned, in Britain and elsewhere, prompted by the new vulnerability of higher-education financing in straitened budgetary times.

'They Feel Attacked'

Bert Vandenkendelaere, chair of the European Students' Union, said that the common driver for the protests has been "a tendency to cut the money for education and to ask students to contribute for education, instead of the public and the government." This, he said, is "why a student population which was described as the most passive population in years" has been galvanized into action. "They feel attacked," he said.

Lesley Wilson, secretary general of the European University Association, notes that student protests are nothing new in Europe. The most recent wave of student action concentrated around the April 2009 summit of European education ministers in connection with the Bologna Process, a Europe-wide project to harmonize university degree systems that has unleashed its share of student opposition.

"It is a different set of issues now," she said. This recent flurry of protests is the result of "the direct impact of moves by some governments to cut back on deficits by changing the way in which higher education is funded."

As students in many countries are being asked to contribute more to the cost of their university education, the once unquestioned notion that higher education is a fundamental right for which the state shoulders the cost is in flux. A growing number of countries have increased or imposed tuition for the first time. Some countries, like Sweden, have begun charging tuition to non-European students although domestic students still enjoy free tuition and generous subsidies. The move has promoted worries among some that fees for domestic students could follow.

Jo Ritzen, president of the University of Maastricht, in the Netherlands, and a former Dutch minister of education, said that Europe is "crying out for the serious reform of higher education" but that countries are failing to respond to the challenge.

Calling the issue of how to improve quality and find lasting financing models for higher education "one of the most needed topics of reform in the welfare state," he said that governments are "cynically" avoiding dealing with the situation and are responding to pressures instead by "simply strangling universities in terms of finance."

European students have rarely shied from protest. Last year, for example, striking students in France succeeded in closing many of the country's universities for record periods as they demonstrated against measures to restructure the university system.

The shift in Britain, however, where students have historically not abandoned their studies, shut down institutions, or taken to the streets in large numbers, could mark a turning point. Ms. Wilson said that the global financial crisis is continuing to have a profound effect on higher-education systems and that the fallout for students will not let up.

Still, Ms. Wilson said, Europe's fundamental reliance on public financing for higher education must not be questioned. "All systems require public funding in order to benefit from other funding," she said. "This is absolutely necessary and is the starting point."

For his part, Mr. Ritzen is skeptical about whether the latest wave of student action stands a chance of inspiring lasting change. He points to the reforms of the late 1960s, when, he said, a serious European effort to improve universities forged an alliance of workers and students determined to inaugurate lasting change. In the end, "the workers went back to work and the students went on vacation, which is going to happen again," he said pessimistically.


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