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International Actions To Resist Commercialization Of Education

Above photo: Student protest at the University of Warsaw. Photo by Michał Wende.

Polish Students are not Alone!

The student protests at the University of Warsaw joined a larger wave of international student actions that are resisting the commercialization of education.

The student protests of the past days at the University of Warsaw are not an isolated event; they join a larger wave of international student actions that are resisting the commercialization of education.

Earlier this year in Quebec, thousands of students went on strike over cuts to education in the Canadian province, thus echoing the mass student protests of the ‘Maple Spring’ of 2012, which had been aimed against the increase in university tuition fees. High tuition fees, the ongoing marketization of higher education, and austerity measures have also been the focus of ongoing protests in the UK, which resulted in the occupation of several universities in London and elsewhere in the country throughout recent months. In Amsterdam, students opposed cuts that targeted the humanities in particular. These protests were thus united in their rejection of austerity as a viable framework for the future development of higher education.

What these protests further share is the fear that the autonomy of higher education is at risk, whether through ongoing pressures on universities to drive for financial profit rather than providing a space for free and open thought, or through increased government control of universities regardless of the wishes of students themselves, as in the case of Macedonia. That the student voice is not being heard in Parliament is also one of the major concerns of students in Warsaw. In Chile, sustained pressure on the government over a number of years has finally resulted in the introduction of free higher education. Elsewhere, gains have been more modest, though not without success altogether. At the London School of Economics, for instance, university management made a number of concessions to student demands as a result of their occupation in April.

That the student voice is not being heard in Parliament is one of the major concerns of students in Warsaw.The decisions of students to rally have developed independently of one another in various countries as a response to local issues. Yet a certain level of communication and solidarity is apparent in the adoption of the red square as a symbol for student protests; first donned by students in Quebec in 2005, the small squares of red felt were also worn by students in Amsterdam earlier this year and at the occupations of British universities. The #redsquareeverywhere campaign is encouraging people internationally to show their support for the idea of open and free education by painting a red square in public spaces.

Whether or not Polish students choose to appropriate this symbol as well, they can be sure that many of their peers in other countries share similar concerns about the direction in which their universities are heading with an equal degree of urgency. Only yesterday, students went into occupation at the University of Manchester as a reaction to the prospect of five more years of austerity and funding cuts with the newly-elected conservative government in Britain. The language of their demands has been remarkably similar to their Polish counterparts: ‘We are occupying to begin to create a space where we are more than customers, and education is more than a business’. Polish students, you are not alone.

Student Demands for Democratic Control over Universities

By Joss Winn in

These notes are the start of an ongoing attempt to document each instance where occupying students or/and academics include greater democratic governance among their demands from university management (and where they don’t, why?). My gut feeling is that forms of self-management and worker control (among whom I include students) is increasingly becoming a key demand when students go into occupation. There is a long tradition of workers’ control in other organisations (including an entire academic field of study) and I’d like to think about how self-management of higher education can be achieved (in theory and in practice). The list is currently overwhelming centred on the UK, but I’m interested in examples from anywhere and from any time. Regardless of your specific interest in worker control of higher education, you may find the list a convenient way into student occupation websites and their demands whilst in occupation. If you can add to any of these examples below, please leave a comment or email me. Thanks. 

Manchester, May 2015: “we demand a student-staff body, directly elected by students and academic and non-academic staff, responsible for making all managerial decisions of the institution. The university is nothing but the sum of its parts. Students and workers are at the essence of this institution and thus should have direct and democratic control.”

Kings College London, March 2015: “As a high profile London University we need to demonstrate that is no longer acceptable to run our universities on the basis of profit; instead it needs to be done democratically by the students and staff members. We want everyone’s voices to be heard, not just those at the very top who operate with under a thin veil of transparency.” [Demands]

University of the Arts, London, March 2015: “We are protesting against cuts to education in general, the lack of democracy, diverse representation and student input within this institution, and the continued undermining of our rights to free education.” [Demands]

London School of Economics, March 2015: “1) An open discussion with the directors and pro-directors of LSE, within the first week of summer term, on university democracy to clarify to students and staff how the current system works. This will be the starting point for a wider and more inclusive public discussion on the issue of accountability and failing democratic institutions, leading to concrete proposals for improvement to the current system. 2) We demand the formation of an Independent Review Committee comprising of academic staff (1/3), non-academic staff (1/3) and students (1/3). The role of this committee will be to investigate the current system and propose reforms. 3)  All Committee meetings should be minuted and these minutes should be published in less than 7 working days so as to be publicly available to LSE students and staff.”

New University, Amsterdam, February 2015: “1. Democratisation and decentralisation of university governance.”

Sussex, 2012: “A commission of students, staff and lecturers to be formed. With full remit to re-evaluate procedures and channels for holding management accountable as well as reviewing and extending student and workers’ say in these decisions.”

Edinburgh University, 2011: “Universities should be democratically organised: directly controlled by staff and students.”

Glasgow University, 2011: “The Hetherington Research Club to be returned to democratic control by students and staff, with the return of the block grant.”

University College London, November 2010: “We demand an increase in the number of students on the council. These students should be directly elected through UCLU. We assert that all staff of UCL have an equal right to take part in the decision making process of the university. We therefore demand that UCL includes non-academic staff on the council. We require concrete evidence of a plan of action that includes specific time-measured goals for implementing these changes, to be discussed at the next Council meeting. Regarding the academic board, we wish to re-implement genuine democracy through an increase in student representation and the re-introduction of elected Deans.”

Occupations that don’t explicitly demand democratisation of the university

Edinburgh, May 2015

Salford, May 2015

Goldsmiths, London, March 2015: [Demands]

Goldsmiths, London, March 2011

Warwick, 2011

Sheffield, 2011

Liverpool, 2011

Royal Holloway, 2011

University of Brighton, 2011

Birmingham, 2011

Birmingham, 2010

Warwick, 2010

Cambridge, 2010

SOAS, 2010

Lincoln, 2010

University of Leeds, 2010

London South Bank, 2010

University of East London, 2010

Newcastle University, 2010

Cardiff, 2010

University of the West of England, 2010

Plymouth, 2010

Manchester University, 2010

Manchester universities, 2010

Manchester Metropolitan University, 2010

Bristol, 2010

Roehampton University, 2010

Exeter, 2010

Outside UK:

University of California, 2009:

UC Santa Cruz [consolidated]

UC Davis;

San Francisco State University: “That the university system be run by the students, faculty, and staff. Not administrators.” << Not clear if this is the removal of administrator roles altogether or anti-democratic exclusion of administrators from decision-making.


Columbia University, 1968

Sorbonne, 1968

Nanterre, 1968


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