The fight against the commercialisation of higher education in Croatia began in 2008, initiated by students’ protests against education reforms. A new student movement and a new teachers’ union were formed, both founded upon the principles of direct democracy; at the same time, the concept of neo-liberalism was challenged.
The introduction of fees for graduate courses, and the problems caused by the chaotic introduction of the Bologna reform—which split the previous unitary four-year cycle into two separate cycles, creating three to four year degrees and one to two year Masters—became the subject of the first wave of protests, in the spring of 2008. That autumn a second wave of protests began, culminating with the 5 November demonstrations in Zagreb and Pula. A single demand was formed during the preparations for the protest—fully publicly financed education at all levels, accessible to all (at this time around 60 per cent students in Croatia were paying some kind of tuition). Academic bureaucrats and even the political elite subsequently accepted the idea, at least nominally; thus in 2010 both presidential candidates had to publicly support free education.
That same year, students also mobilised around an issue not directly connected with the student population but of wider social importance—Croatia’s accession to NATO. An initiative begun by students in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS) collected 125,000 signatures for a referendum on Croatia’s accession to NATO; the students also helped to organise an anti-NATO protest during George W. Bush’s visit to Zagreb.
The third phase of the student movement started with the spring occupation of FHSS, in April/May 2009, which resulted in the occupation of about twenty university faculties in eight Croatian towns—one of the biggest European student protests of the year. The students created a self-organised direct democracy implemented at FHSS in the form of plenums (plenary/general assemblies) and working groups, with the student representative system completely abandoned. Other methods included depersonalisation and the refusal to individualise the students (with the aim of putting the emphasis on the demand and not on individuals) and the refusal to negotiate or compromise.
The end of the first wave of occupations was interpreted by some as the unavoidable end of a singular event, a kind of contemporary Croatian 1968, likely to be equally utopian and unsuccessful. But the end of the occupations did not mean the end of the struggle. By mid-2009 the economic crisis in Croatia had worsened, and workers and farmers started to organise their own protests. The fourth phase of the student movement was linked in solidarity with other sectors in society. Shortly after their occupation of the FHSS, the students supported a farmers’ protest (as shown in Encounter, a documentary film by Igor Bezinović) in the autumn of 2009. The students’ co-operation with the farmers resulted in the first farmers’ plenum, which took place at FHSS, during the protests against falling milk prices. Meanwhile the university occupation continued in ten faculties across four towns.
Another student issue was introduced at this time—opposition to the proposed Universities Act, a draft of which was leaked to the public by the students, and which intended to curb university autonomy and introduce further commercialisation. When the bill was officially presented, it was almost unanimously rejected by the academic community.
The fifth phase of the students’ movement began at the start of 2010, and was characterised by direct co-operation with other protesting social groups, primarily workers, at a time when workers’ strikes, factory occupations and protests across the country were becoming increasingly radical. Communications took place via the direct democracy working group, which has since grown into a country-wide platform. The student movement also took part in the fight against privatisation of public space in Zagreb together with civil society organisations like the ‘Right to the City’ movement.
The activities related to free education also continued. On 30 March 2010 another FHSS student protest was organised using the ‘popular front’ method, and uniting with students from other faculties. The direct result was approval for the third consecutive year of free graduate courses, as well as the abolition of fees for all undergraduates in their first year of studies.
The end of 2010 saw the rise of an academics’ initiative called Academic Solidarity, which formed in response to the proposed Universities Act and the commercialisation of higher education and science in general. On the fringes of the student movement, a left-wing anti-EU initiative was also formed in the end of 2010 (Croatia’s accession to the EU is scheduled for 2013). In March 2011 both the student movement and Academic Solidarity joined the large anti-government protest in Croatia, with the 10,000 strong protests in Zagreb spearheaded by the student movement’s anti-capitalist and anti-EU banners.
Academic Solidarity, a union which grew out of the academics’ initiative, was formed in March 2011. It is the first official direct democratic (non-hierarchical) union in Croatia, with its members coming not only from within the ranks of academic workers but also students and the unemployed. The union has gained support within the Croatian academic community to the three proposed neo-liberal laws. Thus in 2011, even the university provosts and the otherwise quite conservative members of Croatian Academy of Science and Arts spoke openly against privatisation and commercialisation of higher education and science.
During the first wave of university occupations, the students succeeded in formulating the first serious public critique of not only the commercialisation of education but of neo-liberal capitalism and liberal democracy in general. As a result, the very word neo-liberalism became widely used in Croatian public discourse; today the term is pejorative, and usually even avoided by neo-liberals themselves. Additionally, public discourse has shifted to the Left. While Croatia is not a significant country in the world context, radical activists from around the world could perhaps learn something from these events. It is possible to rise against the neo-liberal status quo, and radical opposition can appear in most unexpected places, often due to the initiative of just a few activists. The student occupations also shows that it is possible fight the system in one sector, while having the wider scope in sight at the same time, and that radicalisation and ideological consolidation can be achieved only through direct action.
Author: Mate Kapović is assistant professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. He is also an activist involved in several political initiatives. Ruža Lukšić helped in the translation of this text.