The Struggle for a Free Education
In the autumn of 2006, students at the University of Belgrade launched the first organised counter-offensive against neo-liberal reforms of higher education in Serbia. In this way they continued the same struggle initiated earlier in the same year by their colleagues from France, Greece and other countries across the world.
The neo-liberal restructuring of society and education is not only an unsuccessful strategy of development for a peripheral economy, but it also has a very direct negative impact on both working and academic practice of professors and students. Knowledge and research are being turned into commodities, an investment by the state and private sector, the value of which is determined by the market. Due to the necessity of maintaining macroeconomic stability by a restrictive budget policy, the burden of financing education is increasingly being passed to the individual. Students are forced to take only the courses that they can afford to „purchase“ on the market, they are forced to buy new textbooks for each subject in every successive year of their studies, they even have to pay to apply for an examination applications or to change the examiner. Basically, they are forced to work for a wage in order to afford their studies…
The rejection of the notion of education as a commodity, to be bought and sold on the market, was the central focus of the Student Protest. This was most obvious from the official slogans: „Down with the tuition fees!“ , „We are studying – they are profiting!“ and especially „Blockade the faculty because knowledge is not a commodity!“. The most significant characteristic of the protest was its emphasis on collective and non-hierarchical modes self-organisation. All the main decisions were made at mass meetings open to all protest participants. Anyone could speak and state their opinion. These were the forums in which student demands and plans were made, changed and formalised.
Students demanded a 50% cut in tuition fees, clear and transparent criteria for establishing the amount of tuition fees and accounts in general, and the recognition of the title of (four-year) “graduated student” as equivalent to the new "master" (3+2) level introduced by the Law on Higher Education. After a series of unsuccessful negotiations with state and university representatives, groups of students decided to radicalise the protest and thus reveal the wider social potential of their own struggle. The first step in the radicalisation of the protest was to organise for a blockade of the Belgrade University Rectorate to coincide with the sitting of the highest body uniting all the universities in Serbia (KONUS). The most important episode of the protest, however, was the blockade of the Faculty of Philosophy, which lasted from 22 to 28 November 2006.
The Student Protest lasted three months, from the beginning of October until end of December 2006. It included eight public protest meetings, over 30 student gatherings at the Faculty of Philosophy and approximately 15 gatherings at other faculties across the city. Over 17 000 students of Belgrade University signed petitions in support of protest demands.
The participants of the protest realised that, acting collectively, they could change the conditions in which they work and live. The protest became a more and more articulate critical praxis aimed against the injustices of the system. With the ever deepening divide between the official and the unofficial Serbia as their context, the organisational methods, the direction and the social critique inherent in the Student Protest all indicate the appearance on the scene of a new generation ready to face the social problems of transition Serbia and eager to build a truly democratic alternative to the existing system.
Student protest in Serbia - chronology on Libcom forums