Ukraine: Students march against introduction of Education fees

Students in Ukraine are beginning to mobilise against the attack waged by the government on education. The reason for the discontent of the students is the result of universities receiving the right to charge students in line with decree 796 of the cabinet of ministers, according to which "paid-for services" (i.e. fees) are to be introduced in higher education institutions.

Students are to be fined for missing "without a compelling reason" seminars and practical and laboratory lessons (the decree, incidentally does not state what counts as "compelling"), and for missing "events outside of class" (if students do not attend non-curricular events despite instructions to do so by their teachers they do not get good marks). Students will also be charged for using the material resources of the university, the Internet, the library, gymnasium and even the medical centre.

On October 4th a first protest march was held in Simferopol, Crimea, where the administration of the Tauride national university independently decided to charge students for re-sitting exams (which in certain cases could cost 900 griven - about $100) and for missing a pair of lectures (as much as 147 griven per lecture). These "educational innovations" were not even included in the decree 796.

To express their protest against the legalisation of corruption and the commercialisation of education the students marched from the Tauride national university to the ministry of education of the Crimea, where a delegation of students addressed the prime minister and president through local officials. Outside, students who awaited the return of the delegation called out slogans, which included "Univer - ne bazar! Znaniya - ne tovar!" (A university is not a market, knowledge is not a commodity!), "Uchitsya, uchitysa, eshche raz uchitsya! Besplatno, besplatno, eshche raz besplatno!" (Study, study and again study! - a famous quotation from Lenin popular among Soviet teachers - Free, free, and again free!)

The decree of the Cabinet is officially entitled "On confirming the list of paid-for services, which can be charged by educational institutions and other institutions of the education system which belong to state and local government," which gives the green light to the introduction of fees in universities. While some of these services were in practice already not free (such as photocopying and receiving a second higher education degree), now the law allows university rectors to exploit students for missed lectures and using the library as a norm.

The cabinet tried to introduce similar counter-reforms in April-June 2009. Then the joined up efforts of active students, who organised an all-Ukrainian campaign of protest, in which the independent student union "Pryamoe Deistvie" ("Direct Action") played a key part, were able to overturn the plans of the government and the counter-reforms were not introduced.

Now the new minister of education is continuing with the initiatives of his predecessor. The decree was set to take effect from October 15th.

National day of action of October 12

The national day of action called by the student union against education fees on Tuesday October 12 showed that the potential for a broader movement against the counter-reform is there, and a significant number of youth in Ukraine are determined to actively oppose the current attack on education launched by the government.

In Kiev 1,000 students took part, which is an excellent result by Ukrainian standards (see the report on the website of the student union). The march began at the metro station Arsenal and moved off downhill to Higher Rada (the parliament) and the cabinet of ministers, where a meeting was held. The main slogans were "Univer - ne bazar! Znaniya - ne tovar!" (A university is not a market, knowledge is not a commodity!), "Svoboda, rivnest, studentska solidarnest!" (Freedom, equality, student solidarity!) "Menshe poborev, belshe znannya! (Less bribes, more knowledge!) and "Vy nam - korruptsiu, my vam - revoliutsiu!" (You [give] us corruption, we [give] you revolution!).

Apart from numerous photos, the student union's report includes two TV news reports. The first one reports student leaders in Kiev explaining that their action was not "ordered" by mainstream politicians in order to undermine the minister of education's personal position, but is against the policy of the education department and the universities as a whole. The second report, which was aired on local television in the Uzhgorod area in the Zakarpats'ka province of western Ukraine, where protests are rare, begins with the situation in Uzhgorod, where students explain how they cannot afford the illegal fees, then reports the government's position and the work of the student union in Kiev. Finally, in a separate report on the same subject of student protests, the subject turns to student protests in France against the pension reforms of the French government. This connection of national protests in Ukraine and student protests in Western Europe is one that is automatically made by many students in Ukraine on these demonstrations.

The report of the action in Kommersant, whose parent paper in Russia the Financial Times describes as "the establishment paper," began by highlighting the concessions that the government had made:

"Yesterday the cabinet of minister abandoned some new fees in educational institutions, which had been introduced in the government decree 796 from 27 August. Despite this decision, yesterday student acts of protest took place in 13 towns of Ukraine. Their participants demanded the complete rejection of decree 796."

Kommersant gave a slightly deflated figure of 600 students on the demonstration, but highlighted the sharpness of the students' position, which cuts into the hypocrisy and cynicism of the Ukrainian elite, which is now grouped together under the command of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who has called local elections for October 31. The pro-business paper noted that the students called out "Let deputies pay for sessions that they miss!" Some Ukrainian oligarchs are deputies and never turn up to Upper Rada sessions.

When the demonstration reached the building of the cabinet of ministers, the students held a meeting. The deputy of the minister of education came out to negotiate with the students, explaining the concessions the government had made. In response Kommersant quoted Andrey Movchan, a leader of the student union, who declared: "The backing down on a part of the reform is a pathetic attempt to appease and enthuse us. We don't need that. We will protest until the proposal is thrown out completely."

Kommersant reported that over 3,000 students took part in protests in Lvov in western Ukraine. An undercurrent in the article is the theme of Ukrainian nationalists protesting against the Yanukovich government, which is a factor in the high response in western Ukraine. The article for example noted the presence of Ukrainian flags on the demonstration in Kiev, and also referred to flags of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, an extreme nationalist army which waged a partisan war against Soviet forces during World War Two. The logic here is that the government is returning to the position of the Kuchma years, which led to the so-called "Orange Revolution" in late 2004 in a movement against Viktor Yanukovich becoming president. It is true that students who are sensitive to democracy and are opposed to Yanukovich are being mobilised in these events and therefore it is valid to debate the potential for parallels or some kind of a repeat of the Orange Revolution.

However, since that time the Orange Revolution forces have collapsed internally because their programme was a pro-capitalist programme that sought closer ties with European capital. It is impossible for these forces to regain their strength and it is false to label the current student protests as nationalist ones. On the contrary, to the extent that nationalists are participating in these protests, it shows that social questions are far more important in mobilising youth than national questions. Moreover, the success of the student union in acting as a catalyst for student protest highlights the fact that the student left has succeeded in rallying students, in contrast to the nationalists, many of whom are participating in the local election campaign for various semi-official nationalist parties, such as Svoboda, a far-right nationalist party that swept to power in local elections last year in the Ternopol region of western Ukraine and is also active in Lvov.

The rise of the student movement in other cities further underlines the fact that these student protests are not linked to Ukrainian nationalism but reflect the social demands of students throughout the country. One local report in Kharkov, which contains photos of the protest where students symbolically buried the government decree under a screw, underlines how the current legislation was prepared by the previous government of Timoshenko, when the opposition of the student union was sufficient to force Yulia Vladimirovna to back down.

It is significant that the press associate the reform with Timoshenko. Obviously the reform is now the responsibility of the Yanukovich government. But the fact that it is unpopular means that this pro-government newspaper is trying to lay the blame for the reform on Timoshenko. This is in line with the criticisms of the reform by President Yanukovich himself, which the Kharkov news source refers to. This suggests that Yanukovich is prepared to abandon this reform completely and that Andrey Movchan was correct to demand a complete climb-down.

The need to draw conclusions

The high-profile publicity that these protests have raised is in itself a success for the student union. The atmosphere on the demonstrations has been positive and, despite the pressure that has been put on students not to protest, students have been radicalised over recent years, feel better connected in large part due to the internet and are clearly not prepared to accept outrageous attacks on them. However, even though it is possible that the government may back down completely, the student union needs to absorb this new experience, consolidate its structures in other cities, as its leaders in Kiev have set as their stated aim, and strengthen their own organisation in Kiev as a model for students in other cities to learn from.

While the student movement over the coming years will continue to grow, this is unlikely to be a linear process. Bursts of activity may be followed by less intense periods of activity. The student movement needs to be strengthened on political lines in order to provide it with greater stability and consciousness. Moreover, at a time when official opposition political parties are collapsing as elected deputies jump ship to join Yanukovich's Party of the Regions, the protest of the students shows how weak the government is. The students must guard their movement from any attempt by bourgeois opposition figures to jump on the bandwagon. To this end, as well as strengthening and clarifying their aims and structures within the student movement, the students need to discuss the perspectives for politics in Ukraine and the rottenness of all structures that are dependent on the backing of big business sponsors.

Student activists need to develop their own independent political education. This means learning from the experience of students in other countries, including from Russia where government cuts in education mean similar protest movements are going to take place there. It also means learning from the experience of the past, in particular from the great socialists of the nineteenth century in the struggle against Tsarism and how their ideas worked out in practice in the early twentieth century. It is necessary to have an open debate on the contribution of anarchist figures such as Bakunin and Kropotkin to the student movement of today, as well as the contribution of Lenin and Trotsky, whose analysis is directed more towards the class struggle of modern capitalist society. In particular students need to be familiar with the links that the Russian Marxists in the labour movement were able to develop with students protests, as happened in 1902.

As students can see from their own experience, capitalism has been a disaster for the economy and for education, as is the case also outside of the former USSR. The only alternative is socialism on a world scale, in which workers and youth take control of industry and education out of the hands of bureaucrats and capitalists and run society internationally on their own. There is no other way to reverse the attacks on the youth, the working class and culture.