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Marimer Berberena, "Stronger than ever: The student movement in Croatia"

Stronger than ever: The student movement in Croatia Marimer Berberena

For the past two weeks, over 800 students have participated in the blockading of the filosofski fakultet, one of the main university buildings in Croatia's capital Zagreb. Just over two weeks ago, a plenum was held with the decision made to occupy this building, where much of the social sciences and arts/humanities teaching takes place, and to block all teaching taking place there. This might seem short-sighted at first glance, as students themselves are the first to feel the ill-effects of no teaching. But the decision was made, and was necessary to highlight how seriously students oppose the current government's attempts to create a market in education, and to make students pay for this 'privilege'. Two weeks of tuition lost to this generation of students is nothing compared to the years of university level education which many future potential students will lose as a result of not being able to afford to go to university. The blockade was impressively well organised. Students made sure the building was kept clean. The consumption of alcohol and smoking were forbidden inside the building during the blockade, and students organised themselves into groups of redari (monitors) who kept tabs on what was going on in every classroom in the building. I volunteered as a redar almost every day and it was interesting to see just how much the blockade had polarised the students and the professors. Whilst the majority of professors were in favour of the blockade, a few departments had a majority against the student action. The most significant department voting against being unsurprisingly (to those who know a little about the history of Croatia), German studies, who persistently tried to hold classes on a day to day basis. An alternative lecture programme also took place, with 3-5 guest lectures taking place on a daily basis. I gave a workshop on the commericalisation of education in the UK, with special focus on Manchester University, and how students have organised themselves against such neoliberal impositions, and crucially, how the struggles currently taking place in Manchester, Croatia, Serbia, Germany among others are connected.

The most shocking aspect of the blockade was without a doubt the mainstream media coverage. Public opinion in Croatia is generally in favour of free university level education, certainly at the undergraduate level (currently only the first year is free to a majority of students, although some have to pay for all three years. The students were pushing for free higher education at all levels). With this in mind, during the last blockade (last April, *check*), the main newspaper Jutarnji List was subtle in its opposition to the blockade. This time around however, they were bluntly open in their demonisation of the blockade, the national front page headline reading “Stop terrorizing those who want to learn” (Prestanite terrorizirati one koji žele učiti). This headline was accompanied with a picture of the student protestors outside the faculty with a banner, but Jutarnji List had stamped a new slogan over the banner: “The future is our work” (Budućnost je naš posao). Incidentally, this headline is also a slogan scattered across advertising boards over the country for one of the main social democratic candidates (Milan Bandić) vying for presidency, national elections taking place in Croatia on 27th december.

However, the protest did receive some positive media coverage in the left wing media (most notably in Zarez) and the students organised workshops on media representation and coverage of the protests. The blockade in Zagreb was part of a wider series of blockades at several universities throughout Croatia, including Rijeka and Osijek. As a result, the government have yet again postponed indefinitely the introduction of a new law which would give a centralised management committee the power to veto staff decisions made in university departments, thus taking power away from lecturers and reducing the intellectual autonomy of the university. The blockade has not only been victorious in this vein, but has also been crucial in opening a big public debate on higher education funding, with the vast majority of the public being in favour, even including many students who were against the tactics of the blockade (not knowing that the other main option students could take to voice their concerns, the student council (studentski zbor) had been coopted by a clique of corrupt social democrats close to the main political parties (HDZ, SDP etc) and who were keeping suspiciously silent regarding the struggle for a free education. A story which sounds familiar to many readers in England following the NUS debate perhaps?

Students voted yesterday (friday) to end the blockade and are now spending this weekend carefully tidying up the faculty building ready for a return to lectures on monday. The decision was made to continue with the blockade next term, having shown the government that they have the means, human-power and public opinion behind them, and that they are willing to continue to fight against the proposed neoliberal reforms until their goals are realised.