The Struggle Goes On

On the development and current situation of the powerful students’ protests in Albania.

From December 4, students have been boycotting classes massively in protest against high tuition fees and bureaucratic abuse in the universities. These protests are the consequence of aggressive neoliberal reforms launched in 2010, when the country was governed by the centre-right Democratic Party, culminating in 2015 when the since then ruling Socialist Party government passed a controversial higher-education law. From year to year, the costs of attending public universities has been shifted from the state budget to the student and his/her family. As a consequence, the number of students in public universities – which rose for years bevor the reforms, reaching 142,707 in 2014 – started dropping seriously. In 2017 there were only 115,093 students registered in public universities anymore – a drop of almost 20% in three years.

Therefore, students started organising against these reforms – mostly spontaneous, even though the grassroots Lëvizja Për Universitetin (Movement For the University) has managed to organize students in at least four Faculties. After three weeks of massive daily protests in December, the government decided to meet a small part of the students’ demands. Essentially, it has promised to reduce bachelor-degree programme fees, while leaving fees for master’s degrees intact. In Albania master’s programme fees are actually three to four times higher than those for bachelor’s degrees. Due to the government’s refusal to financially support master’s students, their tuition fees are close to what private universities charge.

In order to fund what the students are demanding they have asked for the doubling of public university budgets, which could cover the reduction of tuition fees and other necessary investments within the universities. But the government – which only two weeks ago passed a law to cut taxes for big corporations – has responded that it does not intend to increase the budget. Instead, it is proposing to counter the reduction of bachelor’s programme fees with a restriction of university quotas starting next academic year.

On the other hand, the students are asking for a thorough democratisation of university life. They are demanding that the percentage of their vote in electing university authorities be equal to the professors’. Public universities in Albania are plagued not only by the government’s neoliberal policies but also internally by a quasi-feudal mode of organisation. Powerful rectors and deans, through patronal-clientelist relations with a part of university staff, control university life and are engaged in the most perverse forms of corruption and abuse. Some professors ask money for a good grade; others enforce the purchase of their books by means of threats while supporting the deans and rectors in larger-scale corruption. Fearing that the democratisation of university life might endanger its relations with the universities’ ‘feudal lords”, the government has refused to talk about vote reform.

But, most importantly, the government refuses to rescind the higher-education law. Conceptualised by a handful of private university owners, the law allows for private universities to compete with public ones for state funds. This has led to the raising of tuition fees in public universities, which forces the latter to commodify themselves, engage in advertisement instead of critical thinking, commercialise their curricula to become more market-attractive, and treat their students like customers. Even on an ideological plane, the government has been pushing the idea that higher education is not a basic social right but just a service which one should pay for individually. This is why it is so impressive that the massive protests, with their emphasis on free or affordable higher education, have in just a few weeks broken the neoliberal hegemony and are building a new hegemony.

Shortly after the protests started, the majority of TV pundits showed solidarity with the students’ demands. They fully accepted their requests for a substantial reduction of tuition fees, and criticized the neoliberal higher educational law as the main cause of student concerns. Interestingly enough, the main opposition party – the centre-right Democratic Party – has radicalized its rhetoric and has promised that, when in power, they will make universities tuition-free.

On 8 January, the students have relaunched their protest. In the early morning, they occupied several faculties and organised themselves in assemblies for more than two hours. They then began marching towards government headquarters in the central boulevard of Tirana. Despite the very cold weather they protested for more than three hours. They have promised to continue the boycott and protests every day until the government meets all their demands, which now are: 1) Abrogation of the higher-education law; 2) a 50 per cent reduction of tuition fees at each level of university; 3) Doubling of the public university budgets; 4) Equal vote for students and professors; and 5) a prohibition on the state financing of private universities. 

Currently, even right-wingers or overt neoliberals, if they are not part of the government, are talking about higher education as a basic right. In recent weeks, the students also gain support by the assemblies of academic staff. They too demand the abrogation of the higher educational law.