Usually my walk to university involves passing through some lovely parks abundant with adorable dogs. However, in late November I was greeted by hundreds of students dressed in black from head to toe, the orange haze of the sunrise as their backdrop. The smell of rebellion was in the air, and change within the radicals’ reach.
Barcelona has seen student strikes organised by the Catalan Student Union (SEPC) in protest against academic fees. The three biggest universities – Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), the University of Barcelona and the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) – saw major disruption to 27th and 28th November classes.
Since the financial crash, the Spanish government has increased student university fees by 67%. This may sound trivial to British students, but it is worth noting that there is no centralised system for student loans in Spain and loans are not government guaranteed as they are in the UK.
Mariá, a Spanish UPF student commented: “Student loans are practically non-existent, so you either pay upfront or take out an incredibly expensive loan.” Although their fees, which on average range from €2,000- €4000 a year, are not as expensive as the British system, our delayed loan repayment system makes it somewhat easier to manage the debt burden.
UAB demonstrated the most active protests, with hundreds of students wearing balaclavas, forming a blockade to prevent people from entering the university
The backlash against government policy has manifested in student action. Demanding a 30% reduction in academic fees, protests ranged from leafleting to blocking entrances to university buildings. UAB demonstrated the most active protests, with hundreds of students wearing balaclavas, forming a blockade to prevent people from entering the university.
When I asked a protester whether denying students the liberty to enter university study spaces was the right thing to do, he replied; “They can go and work elsewhere if they want to. We are making a bold stand.”
The outcome was powerful. UPF cancelled their lectures all day, citing security reasons. When I showed up to their Cituadella campus at 10.30 am, there was not a protester in sight. The university must have gotten wind of the UAB protests and decided to fold early on. But something tells me that the administration was sympathetic to the student cause.
The following day saw further disruption, but now professors rallied behind students. University and research staff have called their own strike to support the students’ demands. This is an example of the student-staff solidarity that UK pressure groups are attempting to build.
One lecturer, who wishes to remain anonymous, agreed with the strike action but was frustrated that tactics such as blocking entrances were used. “Students deserve a better deal, but part of the notion of a strike is that people have the liberty to cross the picket line. It may be the wrong thing to do, but the existence of this agency is crucial.”
Striking constitutes a fundamental part of worker’s rights and therefore democratic freedoms. But those freedoms perhaps shouldn’t infringe upon the liberty of others to walk through their own campuses. However, many of those striking saw these actions as necessary in order to push for reform.
Many members of staff at Warwick will remember the infamous student occupation of Senate House. What started as a peaceful ‘sit-in’ resulted in the arrest of three people as well as accusations of tear gas and tasers being used
Clara, a UAB undergraduate, was concerned that the administration didn’t listen to polite complaints: “Whenever we query the university via formal methods (feedback forms, emails etc.), they tell us they will look into it, but no change has ever come about. Sometimes responding with force is the only way to get their attention.”
Many Warwick staff members will remember the infamous student occupation of Senate House. What started as a peaceful ‘sit-in’ resulted in the arrest of three people as well as accusations of tear gas and tasers being used. When I spoke to Warwick Students’ Union a couple of years ago while organising an event that required security, they were understandably concerned that a mix of student frustration and security force can quickly escalate into violence. The sit-in was in protest of tuition fees and cuts. Clearly, those in power decided not to change policy.
Striking seems to be sewn into the fabric of student politics here in Barcelona. From my very first fortnight studying here, student protests took place. October 1st marked a year since Catalonia voted for their independence. Police estimated that 13,000 students took part in the demonstration, although the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) claimed that this number was up to 50,000.
Studying abroad gives you a completely different lens through which to examine the events you usually see happening on the news. The majority of student protestors that I saw were positive and empowered, wanting to achieve democratic reform. Obviously I knew that things would become heated in the evening, but the story of the day should have been one of optimism. When I turned on BBC News that evening, it was as if I was living in a different world. Headlines read: “Separatists clash with police in Barcelona.” Whilst these clashes did take place, the headlines failed to acknowledge that 99% of protestors exercised their democratic freedoms in a non-violent manner.
It makes me wonder which corners of the globe I am blissfully ignorant of when I discuss their current affairs
This highlights the potential issues with news outlets. In pursuit of attention-grabbing headlines, discourse focuses on violence and police involvement rather than the root cause of these demonstrations. Most worrying is that I may never have had this view had I not have been living here. It makes me wonder which corners of the globe I am blissfully ignorant of when I discuss their current affairs.
The women of UPF take part in a strike every year to celebrate the feminist cause. The university seems to encourage such demonstrations. Striking is part of a wider increase in political demonstration across Catalonia. Healthcare workers resumed a week-long strike, while doctors and firefighters have also taken to the streets. Cuts in spending in the aftermath of the financial crisis have fuelled animosity towards the regional Catalan government.
November’s events are yet another example of young people across Europe calling for radical change. December has seen the ‘Gilet jaunes’ (‘yellow vests’) movement in France place immense pressure on President Emmanuel Macron, with students among those protesting against increasing fuel costs as well as rising costs due to austerity measures as part of Macron’s wider reforms.
Whether any of this will effect real change is another question. Macron has already pledged to increase the minimum wage and scrap the fuel tax rise. But this move was a counter to the anarchy on the streets of Paris – something that its European neighbours understandably would be hesitant to replicate. It is evident, however, that student action can bring issues to the fore in an effective manner. Whether Warwick students, or any UK students for that matter, will adopt this blueprint for action in the future, will make for an interesting story.