The raging discontent across the globe and why it is the most exciting time to be a University student.
The past few days have heralded the ushering in of a new wave of discontent and anger among the people across the globe that has been unprecedented in recent history. Massive protests and demonstrations are taking place in various countries throughout the world which have been triggered by the disillusionment with economic policies, cuts in social benefits, increase in taxes or (as here in our own country) massive and large scale pervasiveness of corruption and graft or due to some reason or the other. People are up in arms against what they perceive to be a dysfunctional political and administrative system and the failure of the ruling class to deliver. However, the focus of discussion in this article is not the various issues — whether political, social or economic — which are being raised by the protesters, but it is the identical geographical center of these eruptions: the universities across the globe.
The Angry young men and women across the Universities of the globe are waking up to the political and systemic paralysis that has gripped their respective states amongst the harshness of the global economic downturn. The logic of the ruling elite, which seems to be non-existent, anyway, works in a curious fashion. Faced with harsh realities of economic and monetary doom, the ruling class has moved swiftly to cut the subsidies, scholarships or fee concessions and to try and shift the burden of payment onto the students. This is indeed laughable in an era where most scholars are crying their throats out and are pleading with the political class to realize the demographic realities of their respective states and to invest more and more in areas like education and healthcare. However, if one would map the behavioral trends of the ruling establishment at the times of crises in any part of the globe, one would realize that it has always been chequered by a one-step-forward-two-step-backwards approach or, at best, has been afflicted with administrative and procedural paralysis. The tendency to think in a reverse direction has repeated itself again now, when the world is seeing a large-scale turmoil in every domain of its jurisdiction.
It is in such rudderless and frustrating environment that the youthful populace of various countries have become disillusioned by the very system that has been governing them. They have realized that unless or until an enormous pressure is built up from the bottom, the upper class (which, by the way, remains oblivious to the happenings at the grassroots), is not going to act.
Before proceeding further, there is a need to dissect the phenomenon of such protests threadbare and identify where its roots actually lie.
In May this year, thousands of high school and university students began to ‘occupy’ public schools as a form of protest in Santiago, situated in the heart of Chile. The protesters were massive in number (ranging between a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand) and could not be rubbished as a gang of goons who had laid siege to public institutions for fun. The protesters occupied around 80 schools and literally dead locked the state of affairs in these institutions for several days. The protests spread rapidly across the country and received widespread support. These protesters were mainly demanding increased state support for public universities, more equitable admissions process to prestigious universities, free public education, use of student bus pass throughout the year etc. among a host of other perfectly legitimate demands. These protests which kept on for around 4 months, culminated in a meeting of around a million protesters on August 21, during the “family protest in the park”. As a result of these widespread and popular protests, the country also observed a national strike on August 24 and August 25.
What compelled these students to march on the streets and holler around demanding radical reforms in the country’s education system? While addressing the million protesters who gathered before the national strikes of August 24 and 25, Camilla Vallejo, a graduate student of geography, the president of Student Federation of the University of Chile (FECH) and the leader of the ongoing protests claimed:
“This neo-liberal model is not working for us. Its ultimate purpose is the profit and business of a few. We believe it’s necessary to advance toward a system more egalitarian and inclusive. We want a free country, a just country, more democratic, more egalitarian. And for that we need a quality education for all.”Â (1)
Education in Chile has been in a shabby condition for long. The country has very few state funded colleges that are not properly maintained and do not cater to the needs of the job market thus leaving those few, who graduate out of it every year, unemployed and frustrated. The colleges that do cater to the needs of students and the job market as well lie in private hands and charge steep fees that is out of the reach of a common Chilean. Thus the state and the private players of the country, both conspired to keep the ordinary Chilean uneducated, or at best, unfit for the job market due to the lack of skills.
This has been a toxic symptom plaguing most of the education systems across the globe. The picture is especially bleak in India itself. With the moving in of Private players into the education sector, quality has been accorded a backseat and profit has become the main motive. The state, instead of regulating private players and advancing policies that ensure that quality is given top priority, have instead become a party to the loot by deliberately letting the public funded educational institutions to languish behind due to apathy and neglect. The ultimate outcome of such a vicious nexus has been that quality now comes with a price tag – those who can afford it, get the best education. Those who cannot suffer in the poorly maintained publicly funded educational institutions and are ultimately left behind by those belonging to prestigious private institutions.
In Chile, even this does not seem to be the case. School students have been forced to join poor private institutions as the state was not able to provide adequate number of schools due to the increase in the number of school going children (according to the authorities) or due to the reason that they did not want to change the state of affairs at all because the authorities were the ones who ultimately benefited if children went to private institutions through their ‘cuts’ (according to the protesters), depending upon whom you believe. So the choice here was not between the publicly funded, poorly maintained but cheaper educational institutes, but between high fees demanding private institutions whose quality varied according to the amount you were able to shell out of your pocket.
In the end, there developed a situation where the taxpayer, through his/her taxes, was financing the living standards and educational quality of the rich, while at the same time, it wasn’t the state, but the private institutions and individuals which were bathing with all the currency.
On December 10, 2010, Jody McIntyre arrived at the Parliament Square in London in his wheelchair (he suffered from cerebral palsy) along with his younger brother. They were there on what they called ‘Day X’ or the ‘Day when Parliament would vote on Tuition Fees’. As the crowd swelled and the protest started gathering steam, the policemen stationed at the Parliament Square began attacking the crowd with batons in order to disperse them. Suddenly, Jody was pulled out of his wheelchair and dragged across the ground by four policemen, who grabbed his shoulder and carried him away.(2) A video of the same incident was posted on Youtube, for which the Metropolitan Police attracted severe criticism from various sections of the society.
Last month in November, thousands of protesters had smashed their way into the head quarters of the Conservative Party in central London. Some days later, the protesters managed to attack a car carrying Prince of Wales and his wife. A window was smashed and paint bombs were thrown at the car. That same day, a peaceful march attended by thousand of students turned violent as the students proceeded to the Parliament Square where they lit fires and threw stones and snooker balls at the police.
Jody and his friends were part of that student group which was protesting against the steep increase in the cap of the tuition fee enacted by the Conservative led Liberal Democrat government which came to power after promising to vote against any proposed increase in tuition fee if elected to power. The government also announced huge cuts in the spending on education which further drew flak from the student community. The argument advanced here was due to the steep increase in the tuition fee and the cuts in the spending on education, quality education for the lower sections of the British society would become costlier as a result of which many may not be in a position to afford it. This could lead to the division of students based on who could afford quality education and who could not. Such a division, it was argued, flew in the face of the role accorded to the government: that of providing affordable and quality education to all the sections of the society irrespective of their social status.
The movement went ballistic for the rest of the month, wherein a large number of students also resorted to violence and vandalism which, although widely condemned, was popularly seen as the anger of the student community spilling out onto the streets. As a result of such widespread protests, the Welsh assembly announced that it would not be going forward with any additional increase in the tuition fee of welsh students thus placing the mandarins of the government sitting in the House of Commons in a tight spot.
The focal point of the eruption of the protests was the University of Oxford, where, on October 28, the students protested against the visit of Business secretary Vince Cable and eventually forced him to cancel his visit.
The Bill in the Parliament eventually went through, but the protestors succeeded spectacularly in putting their point across. The reason for the protests by these students was strikingly familiar to the reasons which sparked the Chilean student community to protest – only that the British tried to pre-empt any move by their government to advance divisions within the student community on the basis of who could afford quality education. Their logic was simple: it is the states’ responsibility to provide cheap and affordable education to all its citizens and that double standards in quality based on monetary evaluations are not at all acceptable.
Late last month, the Delhi University administration scrapped an essay titled “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three thoughts on translation” by noted scholar A K Ramanujan from its History Syllabus. The move came after some students belonging to the student wing of a politically influential Hindu fundamentalist party entered the University’s department of History and bashed the head of department in 2008, raising objection over the contents of the essay and claiming that it hurt the sentiments of the Hindu community. The administration was thus seen as bending to the protests by these tactics of arm twisting by a particular communal group.
Immediately there were widespread protests both by the student as well as the teacher community. While the Delhi University Teachers Association said that it would oppose the removal of the essay when the matter came up for discussion in the Academic Council, the students on the other hand decried the attempts by particular sections of the political community to give the syllabus a ‘communal hue’.
Leading political Commentator Swapan Dasgupta, while commenting on the controvery, wrote:
“A Delhi University history graduate who won a scholarship to Oxford recently recounted the absurdities of the process. The medieval history readings, he told me, were replete with denunciations of the so-called ‘revivalist’ historians of an earlier era. What struck him as surprising was that none of these apparently flawed histories featured in the prescribed reading lists–not Sir Jadunath Sarkar, not R.C. Majumdar, and not A.L. Shrivastava. In other words, rather than encouraging students to savour divergent ways of looking at the past, history became a set of acceptable truths and unacceptable untruths–hardly an approach befitting an open and argumentative society.”Â (3)
The problem here was not that of the state sponsoring education of the economically weaker sections of the society or advancing the interests of the rich, but the matter at hand questioned the whole process through which the University decided what was fit and what was not to be taught in its colleges and thus determined the quality of the course. It also raised concerns over divergent views being increasingly suppressed and dissent increasingly discouraged within the walls of the University. Clearly, as shown by this particular example, the contents of the course and thus the overall shade of the education being accorded by the University was open to interference and political arm twisting by influential sections of the society.
What the incidents of Santiago, London and Delhi in effect show is that the sphere of education in the 21st century is increasingly turning into a politically volatile one. For it is through the kind of knowledge and education imparted to the generation of young men and women that will determine the future course of the country. It also shows, in effect, that the students across the globe are breaking the stereotype accorded to them, as being insensitive to the happenings of their country at large.
What has contributed to the annihilation of this stereotype? Firstly, the means of communication and mass mobilization have become amazingly fast which allow the word to be spread in almost no time. Social Media as a means of communication has emerged as the new tool which the student political activists use ruthlessly and with impunity to criticize, recommend or condemn the government. Social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter are being used as an alternative source of media where the word is quick and the response, even fast. Guy Atchison and Aaron Peters in the book “Fightback: a Reader on the Winter of Protest” (which was brought out by the students who participated in the London protests), note that:
“In the new ‘crowdsourced’ model, the distinction between producers and consumers of dissent is dissolved — there is no hierarchy or membership structure in place, instead allÂ individuals are potential participants within a movement. It is within this context that anyone can contribute, hence we have the rise of networked activists, with such individuals simultaneously performing the old roles of both producers and consumers of dissent — indeed they are much like those who participate in citizen journalism or use content on Flickr, what Alvin Toffler called ‘Prosumers’ — at once producing dissent, mobilising and facilitating it, while also participating in actions facilitated by others.” (4)
Secondly, with education becoming a focus of most of the administrations around the world, more and more youth are getting educated. Although a billion people around the world still remain illiterate, general literacy rates around the world have soared 5. With the ability to read, write and have access to different mediums of information, the awareness levels have greatly increased and have automatically pushed up reaction levels. This, coupled with the fact that inequality levels across the globe have shot up amazingly has added to the dismay of the general milieu whose tolerance level was already bursting at its seams.(5) Â As noted earlier, the political leadership of the world has fabulously failed in delivering the promises on the basis of which they were voted to power and this has hugely disappointed the masses, pushing them on the streets.
While the exodus of students spilled out on the streets due to the specific changes that took place under the realm of Education and directly affected them; the subsequent protests also raised issues of national importance and garnered support from the public at large.
However, all has not been rosy for this youthful and fuming generation as they have been increasingly ridiculed for being ideologically bankrupt, logically challenged and indulging in ‘Facebook Activism of the like button’. This prompted an emotionally charged response from Jillian Steinhauer, who, writing in the Guernica Magazine, commented:
“For years, my generation–Generation Y, the Millennial Generation–has been charged with detachment. Because of us, adult writers coined the term “Facebook activism, ” and they lectured us that clicking “Like” buttons and signing electronic petitions could never effect real change. Now some of my cohort has leapt from the virtual to the real world: they’ve taken to the streets, their numbers are swelling, and they refuse to leave. They deserve a little more faith.”Â (6)
Many critics have also tried to lambast the ‘hippie culture’ that is being demonstrated in these movements. The youngsters, obviously, have used improvised and new methods of protest such as kiss-ins, embrace chains etc. to highlight their cause. Providing a response to these pundits was Danny Goldberg, the author of How the Left Lost its Teen Spirit and Bumping into Geniuses, who, in article in Dissent Magazine, countered:
“The hippie idea, as used here, does not refer to colloquialisms like “far out” or products sold by dope dealers. At their core, the counterculture types who briefly called themselves hippies were a spiritual movement. In part they offered an alternative to organized religions that too often seemed preoccupied with rules and conformity, especially on sexual matters. (One reason Eastern religious traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism resonated with hippies was because they carried no American or family baggage.) But most powerfully, the hippie idea was an uprising against the secular religion of America in the 1950s, morbid “Mad Men” materialism, and Ayn Rand’s social Darwinism.” (7)
One would then conclude that it is really an exciting time to be a college student. Especially if you belong to the economically weaker section of the society, as the people at large are becoming increasingly frustrated with the promises which their leaders failed to deliver and the dysfunctional bureaucracy which instead of serving them, serves the interests of the political class. The next time you feel agitated or frustrated with the state of affairs, design a placard and gather your friends. March out onto the streets. Holler around and protest. You don’t know whether many would be nursing the same grouse. You never know when your cause can turn into a national cause.