Youth Rules and Student protests in Macedonia

After the government tried to impose harsh changes to the higher education systems and refused to discuss them with those concerned, the students have decided to take over.

Note: The core of the article was written on the 24th of February 2015.

It is the 17th of November 2014, International Students’ Day, and somewhat around 5,000 students are gathering in Macedonia’s capital Skopje, to vent their frustration about the new exam system the government of Nikola Gruevski decided to establish.

This new exam is supposed to consist of two tests. The first one would be taken by the university students after two years, the latter after four. Not passing these tests three times would automatically mean failing your studies and thus, having to leave the school. However, it is not just this concept that enraged the masses. It is the government’s interference with the autonomy of universities.

Discussing the future

Sixteen years ago, the Bologna Process was born. It was a series of ministerial meetings held in several European cities. Their goal was to design standards and ensure the comparability of higher education around Europe, so that the mobility of students would be possible. They created the well-known credit-points system. The Bologna Declaration had been signed by ministers of almost every European country including FYROM. According to the Declaration, as well as several Communiqués that came after it “students should participate and influence the organization and content of education at universities…” and the institution is responsible for the quality of educations it offers.

That is exactly the problem young Macedonians are having with Gruevski’s government initiative. The autonomy of the world of higher education has been a mark of developed societies and with the state organized testing system, there would not be much left of it. This is yet supported by the fact that the students have been angry about the way the government treats them for quite a while – they have been complaining about the poor research funding or the fact that they do not have many of the student advantages which the rest of the Europe takes for granted. But, as they say on their official site, this new bill was the last straw.

Fighting the government

Nonetheless, the first protests were ignored by the government as well as by the Minister of Education and Science Abdilaquim Ademi. That led to a second march, this time with more than twice as many attendants. Desperate students turned to the Student Parliament for help, but even there they did not find a helping hand. Making a dramatic gesture, they put wreaths at the door of the Student Parliament Headquarters to bury it symbolically. Disappointed by those who were supposed to defend their interests, they have instead established a new organization – the Students’ Plenum, making sure that the students’ true voice will be heard from now on.

They have not, however, stopped there. On December 11th, the day the second protest took place, the students went through the city, right to the port of the Ministry of Education and Science demanding minister Ademi to face them and discuss the bill with them. After the minister refused to stand up for his very own law, the students sent him an official letter suggesting his resignation. By that point, the issue became so serious that the Prime Minister Guevski began to claim there had been a political motive behind the protests, desperately trying to –according to the students at least – discredit the students’ initiatives.

Nevertheless, the problem is rooted deeper than it may seem. The reason for the introduction of the new law was clearly stated in a speech by the PM. He questioned the quality of higher education in the Republic, mainly due to an allegedly high level of corruption and acted by implementing the controversial law. The students criticize his hasty approach. According to them, there should first be a proper analysis, that would support these claims, then, if these whispers were to be confirmed, a discussion about how to reform the higher education system followed by a law based on the results of the debate. Taking a quick decision based on a couple of rumours is not the way the country should be run, the students say and more and more people join them in their efforts.

The climax of the tension was reached on February 12th when, during another march, the students occupied the faculties of Philosophy, Philology, Law, and Economy of Skopje University, proclaiming them “autonomous students’ territory”. But as we have implied above, this time, it was not just the students – suddenly, professors and other academics joined as well. Together, they have since been sleeping in the university buildings, making an open student environment which could be compared to some of the West European squats – they organize concerts, give lectures, learn from each other and they are supported, not only by the professors- who also give their talks- but also by the public, which supports them in their efforts to regain their autonomy. More about what exactly is going on in Skopje can be found in an article by Andrea Ugrinoska from the local antenna.

The future in question

So far, Nikola Gruevski has agreed to suspend the law for a year. But that is not enough for the Student’s Plenum anymore. Even when the government tried to calm them with a “softer” version of the testing, they said no. Instead, they require the right to be involved in making decisions concerning higher education.

It will be truly interesting to see how things end up. So far we can only keep our fingers crossed for our Macedonian friends, but it is fair to say that even now, this protest has already been one of the greatest ones in the recent history of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The success of this movement could lead to a positive change in the society, prompting it to realize that change can be achieved and as such, many Macedonians predict there is more of protesting and marching to come. Let us hope it will be just as peaceful and fruitful as this one has been so far. Viva la revolución!

Written by Jirka Lhotka, AEGEE-Praha with the kind help of Bara Kubicova, Charles University