Student protests sweep Croatian universities


Croatian students have occupied university departments, demanding the return of universally free higher education.

By Natasa Radic for Southeast European Times in Zagreb -- 04/05/09


Over 1,000 students began demonstrating at the University of Zagreb's philosophy department on April 20th to demand free tuition. [Getty Images]

Government plans to make more undergraduates and their parents bear the cost of higher education have outraged the nation's students. Over 1,000 of them began demonstrating at the University of Zagreb's philosophy department on April 20th to demand free tuition.

Since then, hundreds of students at Croatia's major academic centres -- Osijek, Zadar, Rijeka and Split -- have joined the strike. By the end of April, angry undergraduates have physically occupied 15 university departments nationwide to voice their grievances.

Students in Croatia have not held protests for decades. The last serious student unrest dates back to the Yugoslav-era "Croatian Spring" in 1971, which expressed a widespread demand for greater democratic and economic freedoms.

The current protesters want education officials to back down and abolish university fees, arguing that these devastate the already overburdened average family budget. Contending that higher education is not a privilege but a universal right, they also aim to derail a new government policy of offering free tuition only to those students who pass exams on time. The measure is to go into effect next year.

Until recently, Croatia had preserved the old Yugoslav practice of providing free higher education. Now, however, under the government's new educational policy, undergraduates are charged from 500 to 1,200 euros per year, depending on the department they attend. Nearly 60% of 160,000 undergraduates now pay tuition. Only those who pass exams regularly and with high marks get tuition relief.

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Science and Education Minister Dragan Primorac, unmoved by the demonstrations, said the government intends to terminate the spectacle of "permanent students" living the good life at taxpayer expense. Each additional academic year for a student who fails to finish his studies on time costs the government over 3,000 euros.

"We want education in Croatia from kindergarten to postgraduate studies to be free, but only for the deserving ones," explained Primorac.

For the moment, the student protestors occupy the premises of their departments day and night by sleeping in shifts. They prevent professors from lecturing. Protest leaders, who are determined to stay anonymous, demand equality for all students and say they have the support of their professors and parents.

Every evening, the students hold plenary sessions which are open to the public -- attendees are generally supportive of the strike -- while they decide on the course of action for the following day and the likely response to the authorities. The protesters allow journalists to attend the sessions but prohibit them from reporting. Instead, the students distribute their own press releases to the media.

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