Student mobilisations in Austria - Defend the right to education!

The Conservative Austrian government has been introducing severe cuts in spending on education, reducing university places, introducing fees and so on. This coming Friday (October 7) the government will get a taste of the students’ anger. Action committees have sprung up and called a day of action.

In July the Austrian right wing government introduced new restrictions for the intake of students to university. After having cut public finance to the education system and the state universities especially, they now argue that the universities have to restrict the number of new students. Against this new attack on our right to education resistance is building up in the schools.

Over the last few years the government passed a series of severe, so-called “reforms” of the university system, including the introduction of fees and a new organisational structure putting an end to student participation in the running the universities. Some months ago the Conservatives introduced new rules for the election of the official student representatives, that were mainly members of social democratic, green and communist student organisations, in order to break the left majority. With each successive year cuts in the university budget have worsened the conditions for students and the teaching staff. Due to the lack of lectures and seminars it is impossible for most students to finish their studies in time. The big majority of students also have to work to keep themselves and pay for the costs of their studies.

The answer of the university authorities to these unbearable conditions was to demand a new law which gives them the right to select the new intake of students. This summer the government finally found an excuse to introduce such rules. The European Court condemned the Austrian policy of restricting the intake of students from other EU countries. Following this decision Austria has to treat foreign students like Austrian students. Especially many German students used this opportunity and tried to escape the “numerus clauses” at universities in their country applying for an intake at an Austrian university. The bourgeois media immediately started a campaign warning of a “wave of German students” flooding the Austrian universities. The right-wing government followed this nationalist line and presented this as an excuse to put an end to free university education.

For now these new restrictions have been applied in “only” 8 faculties, such as medicine, psychology etc. However, the ministry of education has already started discussing how to extend these new regulations to other faculties. Other bourgeois politicians are demanding an increase in the fees students have to pay per semester. This is quite clearly the old salami tactic; attack one section at a time! But this latest round of cuts is the biggest attack against free education this country has ever seen.

The bourgeois want to restructure the whole education system according to their interests. Public finance for the universities and schools is being drastically cut. At the same time, these institutions are being opened up to private investment; the costs cost of education will be put on the shoulders of the students and their parents. Faculties such as philosophy, history, pedagogy, etc., i.e. those that do not give a direct “return of investment” are being threatened with closure. The aim is that universities should produce a new elite of “experts”, a kind of workforce which is completely adaptable to the interests of capital. In this way, especially young people from working class families are finding it more and more difficult to study at university. Education is becoming once more a privilege for a small minority of rich people.

Action committees

At the beginning of this academic year the Marxist tendency within the Socialist Youth, Der Funke (www.derfunke.at), took up this issue and called for the formation of action committees in the schools to fight back against this severe attack on our right to education. In Vienna, Linz, Innsbruck, in Vorarlberg and some other towns, school students have built these committees to organise a protest movement against government education policy of.

On Friday, October 7th the committees are organising a first day of action with demos and student conferences with the aim of mobilising for a national student strike on October 19th. The positive thing is that this movement is not isolated in the schools. Next week at the University of Vienna a day of action will take place. Supporters of the Marxist tendency will argue for a joint mobilisation of school and university students. At least in the schools we can already see that the students are prepared to fight for their rights.

Unfortunately the action committees have to deal with lots of political obstacles. Over the last week there have been attempts to build a broad movement including the Socialist Youth, the student organisation of the GPA (trade union of white collar workers) and the Österreichische Hochschülerschaft (a kind of Chamber of University students). However, in the end, the leaders of these organisations were not prepared to organise a big mobilisation and to call for strikes and demonstrations immediately. They still want to wait for now with the promise of action in November without giving any explanation of how they aim to build the movement between now and next month. Their proposal for now is to organise some symbolic protest. The perspective of the Marxists is quite different. From of our point of view what is needed is real mass mobilisation in the schools and universities, linked to the workers’ struggles, to force the government to step back. The coming day of action, and even the school student strike, can only be seen as the beginning of such a movement. Our aim is to defeat the government!

Unfortunately, we have to say that in this struggle the students cannot rely on the official student representations and the leaders of the left-wing political youth organisations who do not have the courage to fight. This means that the movement has to be built from below. The students can only trust in themselves. The action committees have been proven to be the right way to build the movement and to involve also those students who are becoming politically active for the first time. In these committees we are seeing marvellous creativity and a willingness to discuss and find a political alternative to this education policy. If we manage to build a strong youth movement to defend our right to education, the next few days will be decisive.