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Students of Europe: Has winter passed?

*UPDATE* With student protests continuing to flare up some 5 months on, Pandeia revisits its Special Report into the Student Protest movement as a result of education cuts.

Europe is in crisis – a fact that cannot have escaped anyone’s attention. The financial problems of the past years have forced governments to adopt austerity measures in many different areas. Major cut-backs have been made on education budgets, which has lead to student protests all over Europe.

University life in Athens has frozen. Teaching, research and clinical work have come to a standstill in two of Greece’s biggest universities as administrative staff strike against severe cuts made to the higher education budget. Most of the facilities have been occupied by the students as they express their solidarity, while the senate of the University of Athens (UoA) resigned last week. The consequences of this radical 3 month long action at  UoA alone  affect 65.682 students, 1.974 professors, 40 departments, 8 libraries, 66 clinics, 174 laboratories and 18 museums.

The situation in Greece is exceptional, but not surprising when examining the rest of Europe. Studying is, in terms of finance, becoming a more risky business in the UK as well. The UK coalition government has been steadily moving toward marketisation of higher education over the past few years.

The annual tuition fee was raised to £9000 in 2010, and calls are being made to raise fees even further to £16,000. The marketisation of higher education leads to a prioritisation of budget resources to the more profitable academic subjects. Business, technology and medicine are prioritised while Humanities and Arts subjects have been neglected. Profitability rather than educational excellence dominates UK governmental policy.

The raising of tuition fees in Spain and Ireland has had similar effects. According to the Spanish student Union, the recent reforms in Spain promote inequality of access to education favoring the upper class.

University shutdown

The situation in Greece is  precarious. Because of the shut-down, Greek graduate students cannot obtain the required certificates in order to study abroad, and are prevented from going on already arranged and paid exchange programs. The University of Athens students are forced to put their studies on pause as long as the conflict continues.

Despite this, the situation is not as severe in all European countries. In the Netherlands and Denmark students still receive a monthly scholarship. However the financial crisis has led to deterioration in student conditions.  In Denmark students are protesting and signing petitions against a reform that was passed before this summer. The reform, named “The Study Process Reform”, has been dubbed by Danish students as a clever euphemism for a measure that significantly impairs their conditions. The overall aim is to rush students through their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees as quickly as possible. The Universities are obligated to take measures that will make students finish their degree on average 4.3 months faster.

Similar changes are seen in Dutch education policy. Lengthy studying is discouraged, which disables students to prolong their studies for internships, or enroll in additional Masters degrees.  There have been political proposals to create a ‘lending system’ instead of the free monthly scholarships. If this lending system is implemented, researchers estimate 7500 students will choose not to continue their studies after secondary school.

On the other side of the North Sea, grants have been completely cut for Master’s students. According to Irish graduate student David Fleming (28) this forces many young people to look for opportunities abroad:

“I am one of them. Unless things change, less and less people will be able to afford to attend university and will either be stuck on unemployment benefits or will choose to leave the country.”

Students to court

David is one among many students who choose to move to another country for their studies. According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the number of students leaving home to pursue tertiary education programmes abroad has risen sharply in recent years. In 2010, the number of internationally mobile tertiary students grew from 2 million in 2000 until to  3.6 million today.

This trend is felt first hand in Austria. Austrian universities do not have entrance limits depending on average grades. Unrestricted access to higher education has made Austria a favoured destination for educational migration, mostly by students from Germany who do not have a sufficient grade point average for German universities. In Austrian media, this development is sometimes referred to as “Deutschenschwemme”, meaning “German flood”.

According to Austrian student Johannes Pertra (25) this is a burden on the Austrian economy:

“The problem is not one of racism or xenophobia, but rather that German students tend to go back home to look for jobs, leaving the Austrian state with nothing.”

Meanwhile, the Austrian universities are filled to the brim,  affecting the performance of attending students. Recently an Austrian student successfully sued the Austrian state by arguing that his university did not provide him with conditions that allowed him to get his degree within the minimum time. He argued that overcrowded courses and the fight to sit exams forced him to prolong his studies.

The student won the case, which might create problems for the Austrian state. “If other students start suing the state for the exact same reasons and they all lawfully get money from the state, it will lead to chaos”, Johannes says.

Even countries with considerably good student conditions are suffering in these wintry days of educational reforms.  The question is how favoured countries will cope with the flood of student migration. The situation in Austria is an example of how educational systems may suffer. As long as the conditions for students are not improving, students are likely to look for lower cost and better quality abroad putting countries with relatively better conditions under pressure.

The austerity measures haven’t just been contained to the continent. The UK’s education system has felt the force of the country’s economic downturn, and its almost unanimously the students who are paying for it. The BBC recently reported that outstanding student loan debt will rise to £200 billion in the next 30 years and that around fifty percent of students are ‘not expected’ to repay the loan, a turn of events that mimic those across the Atlantic. With the current system being deemed ‘unsustainable’, there is a large measure of uncertainty over the future of the UK’s higher education system. This uncertainly has only been compounded by the recent selling off of £900 million worth of student debt by the Conservative government for the ‘bargain’ price of £160 million. The reality is, of a system  developing whereby nobody gains and everybody loses.

Winter hasn’t left

In Kosovo in February, students clashed with police during protests against the University of Pristina. The Head of the University had been found to have falsified research in order to gain credentials crucially needed for extra-funding. The protests raged in the streets for a number of days, as students claimed the budget cuts had left the university in a criminal state.

While in Croatia, the legacy of the Autumn of 2009 is still being felt, where for 10 days the universities were taken over and ran by the students. In 2014, students in Zagreb held a rally protesting against further cuts that would mean some courses would have to close.

As the nights get lighter and the days longer, it seems winter has passed. However for Europe’s education system, the question is, when will it see the effects?

By Nele Goutier and Anja Christoffersen

Additional Reporting by Jamie Timson

One thought on “Students of Europe: Has winter passed?

  1. A gradual shift back to the bad, old days of going to university will only be available to the children of the people responsible for these dire, economic times – the rich !!

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