Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Zagreb Student Protests

Word came down on Sunday that more than a month of student protests at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Zagreb had come to a rather quiet end. Protests at other Croatian universities -- including Rijeka and Zadar -- had ended their protests almost two weeks earlier.

I found out about the protests through a really wonderful post by Nina Power on her blog infinite thought. Power had been invited to speak to the students during the protests, and her post is a really keen analysis of the importance of the eruption of student fury and solidarity.

But before I dig into Power's thoughts, let me catch up the 99.9% of readers who have not been following the story --which has received very little coverage outside Croatia.

The university system in Croatia -- and throughout much of the Balkans -- remains heavily subsidized. Most students pay little or no tuition for their education, though this is rapidly changing. In Croatia, for example, 60 percent of undergraduates are now paying tuition. (This data comes from a wonderful summary of the protests at

The current wave of protests was sparked by the Croatian government's plans to end free graduate education -- and additional plans to step up the tempo of higher education in that country by only granting tuition relief to students who successfully complete their exams in a timely fashion.

So the students in Zagreb and elsewhere shut down the formal program of the university for over a month (something which had not been done since 1971, when the nationalist Croatian Spring was in full blossom), replacing it with an ad hoc program of lectures, plenums and other activities. The protests ended on Sunday, with students saying that they "no longer wanted to obstruct the work of their colleagues" (Again, quote from SeTimes.)

Powers' account of her visit to the protests is fascinating in a number of aspects. She says that the students were well-organized and had consciously "de-charismified" the protest. She writes:

Learning from the mistakes of the 60s, where students 'leaders' came to stand in for the voice of a generation (Dutschke, Cohn-Bendit), the Zagreb occupation has no clear figureheads (a fact that drives the media mad). Each night a statement is read by two different students, and everyone takes turns to run the plenum. It feels like a genuinely collective, democratic event.

The end of the protests was accompanied by the announcement that the students may renew their action in the fall. It will be interesting to see if that does indeed happen.

Viewed from the United States, which has long had a bizarre hybrid of private and public funding -- and where the burden of paying for one's education has long been shifted to the individual student and their parents -- the Zagreb protests might seem unrealistic and even quaint. (And Balkan higher ed has any number of problems, including "cash for grades" scandals and the inability to remove faculty who are unqualified or otherwise unfit to teach at the university level.)

But the flaws inherent in the U.S. system of higher education are real. In many cases, the lack of access to the best institutions for poorer students and the constant stress of budget cuts at even the healthiest schools stifles progress, crushes egalitarianism and opportunity, and needlessly funnels cash for basic research in the sciences and other disciplines through our military-industrial complex and its notions of that research's potential utility.

Seen in that light, the Zagreb protests are a sign that Croatia's students are resisting the march to that sort of system of higher education in their own country. It is a movement that is worth some closer scrutiny.

(Caricature of Dragan Primorac, Croatia's minister of science and education, as Pinocchio pilfered from infinite thought.)

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