Following on from their French and the Greek colleagues earlier this year, Serbian students have helped roll back the neoliberal offensive on higher education in Europe.
After waves of college demonstrations and street protests lasting six weeks, students at the University of Belgrade launched a successful six-day occupation of the philosophy faculty.
The occupation forced the university senate to cave in to the students’ demands.
The militancy of students in Serbia should come as no surprise.
They were at the forefront of successive movements in the 1990s that opposed war and authoritarianism.
Student groups played a key role in the toppling of president Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000.
Last month, university students in Belgrade rose again, this time against a series of neoliberal “reforms” aimed at replacing partially state funded students with a new category of “self-financing” students. Fees rocketed accordingly.
The revolt was spearheaded by the radical left, which is an alliance of socialists and anarchists.
Raising slogans such as, “Down with fees”, “knowledge is not a commodity” and “we study, they profit”, students resorted to mass protests and direct action, such as blocking roads in front of government buildings.
Then, on 22 November, 1,000 students seized control of the philosophy faculty and began a sit-down occupation.
They organised daily “Zborovi” (mass assemblies) open to all students, at which the important decisions were made.
These drew in increasing numbers of students from other faculties, prompting fears among the university authorities that the occupation would spread.
The student strike committee also met representatives of the education workers’ union who felt they were threatened by government plans to downgrade their members’ degrees.
At first the university authorities threatened disciplinary action but then caved in and invited the student strike committee to negotiations.
But their initial compromise offer was rejected at a mass student assembly.
Instead, the students redrafted the offer, demanding that all students be financed either completely or partly out of the state budget.
They also struck at the neoliberal logic of government reforms by insisting that the state education budget be increased and the cost of study progressively decreased.
A mass demonstration was called for Tuesday of last week before a university senate meeting set to address the students’ demands.
Faced with the mass student revolt, the senate caved in again, unanimously agreeing to accept the students’ demands and even advising them to pressure the ministry of education
The rector of the philosophy faculty explained this incredible U-turn by the protest’s wider potential:
“The state has to formulate a long term strategy... otherwise we shall have social unrest next year in comparison to which this one will be seen as very mild indeed.”