In the face of mounting tuition hikes, layoffs and budget cuts, thousands of students and educators have hit the streets in university towns across the Americas. The demonstrations have cut across race, gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, bringing disparate groups together to make the education system more transparent and democratic.
In Québec, a series of ongoing student demonstrations has emerged to address sweeping austerity measures, including hundreds of layoffs, cuts to campus services, consolidation of academic departments, and a shift of the financial burden from the state onto students; despite reactionary laws passed by the Québec Cabinet to outlaw the protests, between 100,000 and 400,000 people marched on downtown Montreal in what has been described as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. The red square that symbolizes the movement there has since become ubiquitous.
In the United States, the occupation of the New School in New York City in 2008 gave a glance at the possibilities of a nascent student movement unseen in this country since the student boycotts of the Kent State era. Faculty members joined students in issuing a statement of solidarity after they seized the cafeteria, the last public space for students at the school.
We have come together to prevent our study spaces from being flattened by corporate bulldozers, to have a say in who runs this school, to demand that the money we spend on this institution be used to facilitate the creation of a better society, not to build bigger buildings or invest in companies that make war. We have come here not only to make demands, but also to live them. Our presence makes it clear that this school is ours, and yours, if you are with us.
The resurgence of a radical student movement is much more than a cry for the comfort of the old status quo. To be blunt: the promise of a financially secure life at the end of a university education is evaporating. The old gods are dead. A new tomorrow must be found.
It is folly to think, however, that the student strike methods used in Québec and Chile are a simple, transferable template to our own failing higher education system. In both countries, there is a long-term history of student associations that are vibrant, meaningful, and offer material aid to students all year long. The first steps to changing the system in this country must include the institution of strong, nonhierarchical student unions and self-governance at US universities.
These student groups have to demand a paradigm shift toward direct and participatory democracy. Education planning and policy-making must be wrestled away from corporate think tanks and the imposition of standardized metrics. Students must be engaged in decisions made that affect their learning. And, for democracy’s sake, students and the general populace alike must fight political and administrative efforts to turn essential public services into private commodities to be bought and sold. Only by ensuring equal access to education – free access – can we set the foundations of self-determination. Over a dozen countries already offer free university-level education. Why not us?