The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Portugal – When ‘good students’ turn sour

Portugal has been struggling with austerity, imposed by the Troika of EU Commission, European Central Bank and IMF. Higher Education (HE) has been badly affected similarly to the other areas of the Portuguese public sector. In this guest post, Mark Bergfeld reports from his experience in Lisbon last week of how students and members of staff mobilised against cuts in HE as part of the November 14 general strike. He concludes that while the current crisis is challenging, it nonetheless provides opportunities for students and members of staff to strengthen their joint resistance against austerity. 

Until recently Portugal had been labelled the ‘good student’ of the Eurozone as the Conservative-Social Democratic government slavishly implemented the austerity measures prescribed by the Troika. The November 14 General Strike last Wednesday will, however, be remembered as a game-changer for the movement against austerity. This was particularly exemplified by the resistance that students co-ordinated for the day.

After the massive September 15 demonstration which brought half a million people into the streets, students in Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra launched an initiative called ‘Students for the General Strike’ to re-ignite the movement for free education and the public universities in Portugal.

Photo by Mark Bergfeld
The days when students demonstrated against the Social Democratic government introducing a six Euro levy to attend universities are long gone. Today students across Portugal pay approximately 1024 Euros. The most recent rise of 24 Euros at the beginning of this academic year was justified by the government as additional support for students on grants. Nevertheless, students complain that this money has never reached them.

Successive Socialist and Social-Democratic governments have increased tuition fees since the 1990s and introduced the market in higher education. Most lecture halls and classrooms carry the name of private companies and banks. “With your student card you are automatically offered a bank account”, Rodrigo explains. All student cards carry the logo of a bank. “I don’t have a student card because I don’t want to belong to a bank. But most people just accept it.”

With an ever shrinking budget, universities have become dependent on the banks to subsidize the construction of research labs, new buildings, and even classrooms. In turn the classrooms are named after Santander and various other banks. Despite the influx of private money universities remain underfunded. “We have been subject to 200 Million Euros in cuts” says Leonor Figueiredo, a postgraduate literature student from the University of Porto, and one of the students who initiated Students for a General Strike. “In my MA seminars there are more than 50 students to one tutor.”

Despite the deep austerity measures, privatisation and tuition fee increases, previous national demonstrations have only seen a couple of hundred students march for free education. Leonor, adds: “Students are afraid of losing their grants when they miss classes. Since the Bologna Processes the workload has increased massively.”

Despite recent demonstrations being relatively insignificant, students refer to the movement in 1992 which had a significant impact in bringing down the Cavaco Silva government. Clashes with the police, big assemblies inside of the universities and massive street mobilisations forced the government to concede back then. 

However the more recent movement against a right-wing government in 2003/2004 was defeated. Many believe that it was the internal divisions that led to this defeat. Both Rodrigo and Leonor were not present at the demonstration, yet spoke about a demonstration in 2004 that broke in two as student groups couldn’t decide where the demonstration would end. The youth-wing of the Communist Party went into one direction and the rest of the demonstration ended up going into another.

Back in 2004 as much as now student associations and local unions were controlled by the Socialist Youth. This has complicated national co-ordination for activists. The demonstration this Thursday (November 22) has been called by ten student associations including the Faculty of Letters at Porto, the Geographic Institute, and the Social Science Institute in Lisbon.

Photo by Mark Bergfeld
Last week’s initiative ‘Students for the General Strike’ was one of the most successful initiatives in recent years, and will have helped to mobilise students for the national education demonstration. Rodrigo says: “In the run-up to the strike we attended meetings by lecturers, and organised joint meetings with our professors. We had to strongly fight the idea that students don’t strike, and needed to convince students not to attend classes on the day.”   

On the day itself, students and lecturers organised picket lines at the entrances of faculty and university buildings allowing not one single person to enter. They went on to hold assemblies, discussed alternatives to the current plans in higher education and debated the next steps for the movement. Later on they joined the demonstration in the city centre of Lisbon.

With job prospects of students diminishing, lecturers’ contracts being torn up and further tuition fee increases on the horizon, last Wednesday’s general strike will have shown students and lecturers at their universities that the crisis contains challenges as well as opportunities. The education demonstration this Thursday will be seen as such an opportunity to strengthen the resistance inside of the universities and on the streets.

Mark Bergfeld, socialist activist, leading participant in the UK student movement in 2010, PPE (BA) & Sociology (MA), currently writing on student struggles in Quebec and Chile. He can be contacted at and @mdbergfeld

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