Central and Eastern Europe

Albanian students waited 28 years for this moment

It’s over a month now that hundred and thousand students are protesting in Albania against what they call “the commercialization of knowledge and of student life”. Ron Salaj, an activist, speaks with Mirela Ruko, involved since the very first days of the protest.

It’s over a month now that hundred and thousand students are protesting in Albania against what they call “the commercialization of knowledge and of student life”, a series of neoliberal reforms in higher education undertaken by the Socialist Party who governs in Albania since 2013. Students first have taken the streets to express their revolt, now they are boycotting the lessons and organizing alternative classes through autonomous spaces of faculties. Theodor Adorno’s saying “To let suffering speak is a condition of all truths” captures the very essence of the mobilization of students in Albania. To understand more the situation, the demands of the students and the government’s response, I have talked with Mirela Ruko, an MA student at the University of Tirana (Faculty of Sociology) and activist of the movement “For University”, involved since the very first days of the protest.

Ron Salaj: Mirela, the students’ protest in Albania has been seen by many as a surprising event due to its continuity. But before we go into detail, could you please give us a summary of the events that lead to the protest?

Mirela Ruko: If I had to use only three words to describe the situation, I would say that there is hope. We have been waiting for this moment for so long, 28 years. And now this hope is going to change not only the university but the whole of society, bringing forth the courage to demand the denied rights. One of the slogans of the protest was: “If there is hope, it lies in the youth”.

The education system in Albania has been bent by a neoliberal process since 2015; commercialization of knowledge and of student-life. This was the year when the current law in higher education was implemented, and this was the very beginning of the resistance of hundreds of students and professors. The new law doesn’t solve the old problems in the education system, but it worsens them by reaching into the pockets of the students while sharing public money from the government’s budget (which has already been reduced) with private universities. That’s why the massive protests of these weeks has, in fact, been coming for a long time. What sparked it was a decision from the Ministers’ Council, (no. 288 par. 4), which was passed in secret by the government on 21 of May 2018. The decision says:

“Those students, as specified by the rules of the higher public institution, that are repeating an exam or more, and continue the studies for the next year, have to pay an additional fee for each credit for the obligations they have towards the university, or the repeating subjects, on top of the the annual tuition fee for the academic year they are following.”

This decision became public for the first time in the Civil Engineering Faculty October 3. While the deadline for paying the annual tuition fee (which is normally paid in January) was approaching, the students were informed that they had to pay more money than usual. That same night the news was spread to all corners. The CEF students summoned a meeting for the next day, which turned into a protest day. The situation spread across and beyond one faculty. On December 5 students from different faculties marched towards the Civil Engineering Faculty and after that they went to the Ministry of Education with the following slogan:

 

“I’m a revolted student

By the impoverished system

I refuse to be the future

Starting from today I’ll be the present.”.

 

We were and we continue to be revolted students! Every day more and more students are sinking into poverty, unable to bear the tuition fees and the necessary expenses, which are conditioning their right to education. That’s why even after abrogating the decision of the Ministers’ Council, the protest didn’t stop. The students started to demand free public education.

Photo by: Mirela Ruko

Ron Salaj: What are the demands of the students?

Mirela Ruko: There is a need for an overall reform of the whole education system in Albania based on the right to free public education. This process should start from the roots, including all the academic and student body. The abrogation of the Law on Higher Education, which has been contested for three years now, would open the way for public and qualitative education. Albania has a high number of youngsters who seek asylum; they leave the country as emigrants or to study abroad. That’s the reason why the students are demanding that education be a government’s priority by increasing the budget for higher education, increasing the investments for dormitories; scientific research and financing Ph.D. programs.

Students want less of an economic burden, they demand that tuition fees decrease by 50% at all levels of study, immediately. Finding themselves excluded from the decision-making process they are asking for an increase in the total weight of the student vote from 10% to 50%, and also demand to be represented in the Administrative Board. These are our minimal and basic demands.

Ron Salaj: And what has the government’s reaction been?

Mirela Ruko: The government, lead by the Prime Minister, Edi Rama, follows trends depending on appearances. The whole governmental apparatus feeds the propaganda, the illusion that this is a people’s government. The initial strategy was to discredit the students by calling them ‘dunces’. But how could this be?! The responsibility fell on the Minister of Education, Lindita Nikolla, considered by the students to be the biggest failure and the worst minister of this government. She was the one who tried to take a softer approach and abrogated the Ministers’ Council Decision no. 288, par. 4. The students’ response was to take to the streets again, more organized and in larger numbers; around 25-30 thousand students attended the protest, thus marking a historical moment for our country. These people are not ‘dunces’ and they don’t intend to be satisfied with less, with the minister’s “candy“. The government went into crisis, together with the whole political class (political parties) of the past 28 years, being accomplices in the degradation of the education system in Albania. The first declarations by PM Edi Rama, as well as those by the leaders of the opposition (Democratic Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration),  were in a race to apologize to the masses and so to put them into their fishing net. This time reality didn’t answer their call/trick.

We are at the point where the government is pulling back step by step, that is because the student movement is not going to retreat before its demands are met. For weeks the students have been boycotting lessons, trying to create an alternative university, with open lectures, movie screenings, discussions etc.

Back in 2011 the Democratic Party proposed the same neoliberal law, but it was met with organized students’ resistance under the “University in Danger” movement. The government which formed with the 2013 elections, a coalition government composed by the Socialist Party and the Socialist Party for Integration, pushed forward the reformation of higher education, by approving the same neoliberal law. This so-called reform met with the students’ and professors’ resistance from the very beginning. The main opponents were “For the University” movement and the Forum for Academic Freedom.

We are at the point where the government is pulling back step by step, that is because the student movement is not going to retreat before its demands are met. For weeks the students have been boycotting lessons, trying to create an alternative university, with open lectures, movie screenings, discussions etc. Like the slogan says: “The united students will win”.

Ron Salaj: The protest has been seen as leaderless, horizontal, and it promoted collective action. Is this the case?

Mirela Ruko: The organization of this protest began as a result of new conditions in the university life, and it has requested inclusion of university students. In the beginning, the organizational decisions were chaotic. Soon after, wide faculty assemblies were organized. The collective actions taken during these protest days were many, among which the following:  throwing pencils at the entrance of the Ministry of Education; boycotting lessons; blocking with sit-ins, for short periods of time, some of the most important crossroads in Tirana to show our determination; all kinds of memes, banners and ironical signs have been used which reflect the creativity of the students; etc.

Ron Salaj: On the one hand, some have criticized such an organisation for its limits, taking as example other similar organisations around the world that have failed, Occupy movement to cite one. However, on the other hand, having no leader and representative group, it has closed the door to the Government and refused to negotiate. Is this type of organization strategic or has it just emerged spontaneously?

Mirela Ruko: “No negotiations, no representatives” – this was the unanimous call. This is a sign of how trust in the political class has been lost during these 28 years. If a representative were chosen, the militants of political parties among students would quarrel to be part of this body. One shouldn’t forget that these three political parties have endless economic and human resources, and they are ready to get their hands on every opportunity they see, this is why they cannot represent us anymore. So only if we stand together, coordinated, we will avoid being divided. If a student gave up, the cause would continue for many others.

The protest has been emancipatory with respect to women’s participation, but with regard to new organizing ideas. The absence of leadership not only closed the door to the government but also made it impossible for the protest to be used by the opposition for its own political agenda. The decision-making process in the faculties has triggered numerous new ideas for collective actions.

Photo by: Mirela Ruko

Ron Salaj: The protest has now entered a new phase: on the one hand, boycotts and occupations of universities are being held instead of chanting poems and songs of the street, but on the other hand the government has requested that the State Police intervene and free the universities from occupations. Does this mean that the protest will be radicalized further?

Ron Salaj: At this phase the government is panicking, and politicians are using their ultimate weapon: police repression. We didn’t retreat from our songs and poems, but we are singing them inside our faculties to give life to our ideas for the university. We are occupying the faculties to turn them into centres of social transformations. In some faculties where the occupation lasted 24 hours, for example, the Economic Faculty and the Law Faculty, the police used violence to frighten the students. I think that our strong point is boycotting the lessons. What will happen is to be seen, what I know is that the violence used lately has made students revolt even more.

Ron Salaj: As you explained above, one challenge of the protest was to keep it free from the influence of political parties, although the protest itself has political tones. Do you think that the eventual success of the protest may cause a domino effect and encourage other similar types of protest?

Mirela Ruko: The whole society is drained in misery and has turned its eyes on us. We are not two or three, the whole Albania is with us. The spread of the protest in other cities besides Tirana was one of the first domino effects which gave the protest a wider geographic reach in boycotting. Something else the students can do, except from building a better university, is to fuel the belief that together we can make it happen. The solution cannot come from a separated group. Society’s expectations of us are very high, so however this protest will end, this won’t be the last you hear from us. This will be the protest that defeated fear.

Ron Salaj: What can be expected next if the government continues to hesitate in meeting your demands or if it decides to meet your demands partially?

Mirela Ruko: The students’ determination will push the government towards the final retreat and to the acceptance of all the demands. We are aware that the university we attend every day is in awful conditions, and it will be worse if we go back without changing it. Our love for knowledge will defeat the government’s nepotistic and corporate interests. And finally, we will win!


Ron Salaj is an activist, a polymorphous worker, whose work mainly focuses at the intersection of media, human rights, information technology, and critical theory.

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