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The global student revolt
Youth protests demand education for all, not just for the rich
Elias Holtz
volume:  
volume 32
issue 1
February 2011
imagestuff
Nov. 25-26, 2010. Students and faculty across the Philippines strike. In Manila, they storm the Finance Department. Photo credit: emancipating-education-for-all.org

In mid-December, paint bombs splattered the Rolls-Royce of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker while students screamed, “Off with their heads!” Thousands demonstrated in London’s Parliament Square.

More thousands of students swarmed the streets of Rome, chanting and straining against riot police who blocked the way to Parliament. They lit police vehicles on fire, sending black smoke into the sky.

Tunisian students and unemployed graduates demonstrated for weeks until ending the president’s 23-year rule!

These scenes are just part of a world-wide resistance to stringent cut-backs in education and living standards. The response of capitalist politicians to budget shortages and price increases caused by the economic crisis is to gut public sector budgets, eliminate social services and student financial aid, and raise university fees. Schools are being privatized or closed, teachers and staff laid off.

But governments hoping to dump the burden on a passive young population have instead faced fierce struggles. Young people are stepping into the lead, determined to take their future into their own hands.

Youth explosion. In recent months, student demonstrations have surged all over Europe, and from Puerto Rico to North Africa to India.

In Dublin, 40,000 students marched and occupied the Department of Finance to fight the doubling of tuition fees. In the Netherlands, 1,500 demonstrated against cuts to student funding and fee increases. Greek youth seized university buildings across the country and joined general strikes and mass marches against austerity measures.

London protesters against the tripling of university tuitions demanded, “tax the banks, not the students.” Demonstrations and campus occupations spanned the country.

Italian student militants occupied universities around their nation as well, angrily fighting mass layoffs in public education and attempts to privatize parts of the university system.

Puerto Rican students mounted a second island-wide student strike within eight months to fight off privatization schemes and fee increases. (See The Latest and scroll down to "Puerto Rican students determined to win") Students in Quebec protested increased fees. In Sudan, they fought cuts in subsidies for commodities.

Although tires are not burning in U.S. streets, students are protesting. Californians, for example, responded to the state-wide budget crisis with walk-outs, teach-ins, and marches. And they collaborated with public worker unions.

British protest organizer Lindsey German expressed a perspective shared by many students when she said, “Of course, there is an alternative — we could stop spending money on wars, we could tax rich individuals or corporations that pay no, or very little tax. Why should the poorest people have to pay for this austerity?”

“We have no future.” In capitalist countries worldwide, young people are sandwiched between the increasingly impossible expense of schooling and the dried-up job market. Youth unemployment rates are staggering. They are above 40 percent in Spain, 30 percent in Italy and an average of 20 percent for the European Union overall. In North Africa, unemployment of recent university graduates is almost 27 percent in Morocco and over 19 percent in Algeria. A third of all Arab youth are unemployed.

Corporations and employers have also moved to a more exploitative model of temporary work contracts, unpaid internships, and part time employment. This liquidizes the young labor force, allowing companies to hire and fire at will, without the responsibility of providing job security or benefits.

Many young people are forced to live at home in rich countries — unable to afford to live independently. In poorer states, they peddle goods on the street to survive. Frustration has turned to anger, and students who wouldn’t have considered themselves political in the past are joining protests.

Students and labor tag team. Protest organizers have not only seen the ranks of students grow, but also that their political leadership pushes older workers to come out and fight alongside them.

British trade union leader Len McCluskey hailed the “magnificent student movement” for jump-starting a renewed will to fight assaults on social welfare in unions. “Their mass protests against the tuition fees increase have refreshed the political parts a hundred debates, conferences and resolutions could not reach,” he said.

This influence is reciprocal. Because the sites of current student revolt are often in countries with a history of strikes and demonstrations by labor unions and left-wing political groups, students fight in the tradition of workers before them.

A 15 year-old student speaking at the founding conference of The Coalition of Resistance, a London-based alliance of student groups, socialist organizations and labor unions, spoke to the transformative power of the demonstrations to bring people together. “We were meant to be the first post-ideological generation, right? ... That never thought of anything bigger than our Facebook profiles and TV screens.… I think now that claim is quite ridiculous, now we’ve shown that solidarity and comradeship and all those things that used to be associated with students are as relevant now as they’ve ever been. We are now the generation at the heart of the fight-back.”

Fight-back generation. Because young people all over the world are hit so hard by the economic crisis, they’ve turned into the leadership the whole working class needs to fight the all-out assault on a decent standard of living. All poor people are suffering under the global depression, but generations Y and Z are seeing their future fed to the insatiable banks and corporations.

If the business media paints young protesters as a mob of violent anarchists, this is only to draw attention away from the true threat: the disruption of capitalist order by a passionately motivated and politically articulate young population.

The popular revolt of the last year looks to be only the beginning, as many governments continue their austerity plans in the coming months. Students have relit the bonfires of resistance. Now to see whether they pinpoint the source of the problem and turn against the capitalism system itself.

Contact Elias Holtz at eliasholtz@gmail.com.