Students rise up against slamming budget cuts, tuition hikes

By Ben Carroll and Scott Williams

Raleigh FIST

Hundreds of thousands of students across the world have stood up to raise the demand: “Education is a right for all!” Massive student actions in Ireland, Britain, Italy, Pakistan, France, Greece and Puerto Rico have begun to challenge the ruling class’s program of draconian cutbacks to education and public services with the pretext of reducing government deficits.

Students walk out at Brook Farm Academy in<br>Boston Dec. 13 to protest plans to close school.
Students walk out at Brook Farm Academy in
Boston Dec. 13 to protest plans to close school.
Photo: Coalition for Equal Quality Education

Students in the United States, who held national days of action last March 4 and Oct. 7, plan further actions for the coming spring as state and local governments slash education budgets. The struggle erupted in secondary schools in Boston on Dec. 13 when students walked out to save their school.

The Italian Parliament was voting Nov. 30 on an education “reform” bill proposed by Education Minister Maria Stella Gelmini. The bill would cut 130,000 jobs and 9 billion euros ($12 billion) from the education system. But more than 50,000 students participated in an action in Rome known as “Block Everything Day.”

NYC students and educators protest budget cuts<br>Dec. 14 to the CUNY system.
NYC students and educators protest budget cuts
Dec. 14 to the CUNY system.
WW photos: Monica Moorehead

Students blocked highways, streets and railway tracks across Rome in order to end business as usual and to block the reforms. Students rallied too in other major cities, including Milan, Naples, Palermo, Pisa, Turin and Venice, where protesters also disrupted traffic and blocked tracks at railway stations.

The same week, students occupied Italy’s famous landmarks, including the Coliseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The regressive education reform eventually passed, yet the struggle for education justice is far from over.

Dwight Peters, president,<br>Bronx Community College<br>Student Association.
Dwight Peters, president,
Bronx Community College
Student Association.

In Britain the government proposed a budget package filled with massive cuts to education and public services, including a measure to increase tuition threefold at universities. Students responded by taking to the streets in a series of demonstrations that have rocked the country.

Tens of thousands of students mobilized for three separate national days of action in November and December. The actions have grown in size and militancy each time. Students occupied more than 20 universities to fight back against the drastic tuition increase proposed by an “independent” review commission led by former BP chief Lord Browne.

Larry Hales, an organizer with the<br>March 4th Coalition to Defend<br>Education NYC.
Larry Hales, an organizer with the
March 4th Coalition to Defend
Education NYC.

Parents, teachers and unions have joined with students to protest these austerity measures. London Underground workers from the union RMT went on a four-day strike to protest job cuts and drafted a mutual statement of solidarity with student organizers from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.

Nearly 100,000 students gathered in London on Dec. 9 for a march to the doors of Parliament as a vote on the tuition increase was taking place. In the streets students clashed with police, who attempted to set up blockades as the demonstration got closer to Parliament and then attacked the march. One BBC commentator remarked that protests of this magnitude and militancy hadn’t been seen in more than 20 or 30 years.

At one point during the demonstration, a Rolls Royce carrying Prince Charles and his spouse, Camilla Parker-Bowles, was surrounded by protesters and pelted with rocks and sticks. The tuition measure narrowly passed by just 21 votes, and the NCAFC later issued a statement saying that “the passing of the bill on the tuition fee increase will not deter, nor discourage future actions.” A national student assembly was held on Dec. 12 to strategize and plan for future actions.

Education should be free!

Common throughout all of these struggles is the demand: “Education should be free.” Cuba, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Finland, Libya, Norway and several other countries provide tuition-free college. Cuba and Denmark have totally free universities, also giving students a stipend for housing and personal expenses.

In many other countries, such as Germany and Britain, education used to be free at many or all institutions. Some of the public universities in the U.S. also offered free tuition. Since the 1970s, neoliberal ruling-class politicians have supported slashing access to education for the working class, including starving the public sector of tax revenue and implementing higher tuition and student fees, making a university education affordable for only the most privileged students and families.

As tuition rises, students continue to drown in college debt. The average student debt in the state of New York, which ranks number 11 in the U.S., is $25,739, according to the Project on Student Debt. Some 63 percent of students graduate with debt and face several decades of college loan payments which often exceed rent payments.

Meanwhile, jobs for young people, even college graduates, are few and far between in the U.S. Unemployment is well over 25 percent for young people between the ages of 18 and 29, and nearly 50 percent for youth of color.

Struggle — the only way out

These students’ and workers’ actions are showing the only way forward in the face of the unrelenting economic crisis and the austerity programs being adopted by governments around the world: Take bold action and fight back!

We are being made to pay for this crisis that we did not create. Even while trillions are being spent on wars, prisons and bailouts, the ruling class is claiming there is no money for human needs like social security and education.

Here in the U.S., as the federal stimulus money dries up and state governments are again facing budgets that are billions of dollars short, neoliberal reforms are being adopted as the only solution. Local governments slash public services across the board, raise tuition with no end in sight, and threaten privatization.

New York and Boston students take action

Larry Hales, a CCNY student who was one of organizers of the national student days of action last March 4 and Oct. 7, told this to Workers World on Dec. 14: “Motivated by students in California who called for a March 2, 2011, statewide day of action, student activists around the country have decided to call for month-long actions throughout March that will culminate in a student strike on a date that has yet to be decided.

“The student movement here has been energized by the struggles worldwide, especially in Britain and Puerto Rico, and the militant actions by students there. This, along with the cutbacks planned for the CUNY system in the spring and increases in tuition have greatly increased the possibility of more determined actions in the coming months. Today, Dec. 14, students throughout New York will be joining with professors and other staff for a protest at the office of incoming Gov. Andrew Cuomo.”

An e-mail announcing the demonstration pointed out that “for many CUNY students who are already financially strapped, the tuition hikes will mean the difference between attending college or not, especially in the context of a continuing economic crisis. At the same time that students are being asked to pay more, Mayor Bloomberg has announced plans to cut community college funding by $13 million. This comes in the wake of $225 million in cuts that have already been imposed over the past two years.”

In the Boston area on Dec. 13 some 125 students of the Brook Farm Academy, one of 20 schools scheduled to be closed or merged, walked out of school and demonstrated at the school department headquarters, demanding that their school be kept open.

Then, on Dec. 14, a group of students from the Engineering School at Hyde Park High, which is also targeted for closure, staged a similar walkout and also went to the school department to protest. That same evening a demonstration that included parents, students, teachers and the union school bus drivers from all of the area schools took place at English High School, where the school committee planned to vote on the school closings plan.

The movement here seems to be getting the message from Europe and Puerto Rico that the only way to defend public education, as well as all public services, is for workers and students to unite and globalize the struggle against the economic crisis.

Carroll and Williams organize with Raleigh Fight Imperialism, Stand Together; Frank Neisser contributed to this article.

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