Denmark: Massive student protests against cutbacks

In Denmark, after the big student conference of September 22, the scene was set for a big day of action on October 5, the opening day of the Danish parliament. The day of action was indeed an overwhelming success, with around 100,000 students participating.

After the big student conference of September 22, in which 2500 participants said NO to cutbacks on education, the scene was set for a big day of action on October 5, the opening day of the Danish parliament.

The day of action was indeed an overwhelming success. According to the STOP-NOW initiative (the united student campaign organized by almost all of the traditional student unions), around 100,000 students participated in the protests on a national level (and this in a country with a population of only 5 million!).

At the demonstration in Aarhus (the second largest city of Denmark), 10,000 students attended at the height of the demo. This is supposedly the biggest student demonstration in Aarhus since the 1980’s. Quite a lot of apprentices and technical school students attended, as did many pupils. Moreover, many students from the university and from the secondary schools attended, especially from the two secondary schools in Aarhus that have been occupied by the students.


In the demo it became a widespread, common slogan to sing “Say hey, say ho – Anders Fogh (the prime minister) has got to go” and “Those who do not jump, they love Ulla (the minister of education)”, and in general a lot of slogans were shouted against the government. The mood was clearly critical towards the right wing government, and certainly, it did not help that the Young Liberals (The youth organization of Venstre, the government party), had turned up with pamphlets that spurned the demands of the STOP-NOW initiative and when it was rumoured that they intended to block the demonstration, people practically began to storm against them.

Frank Aaen from the Unity-list was among the speakers and delivered a good speech with a lot of enthusiasm. Among other things, he said that there was enough money in this society and that the multinational corporations do not pay any taxes, while the cutbacks to education are still continuing. He also said that it was not just enough to make changes in the ministerial offices but that it was necessary to hold the politicians to their words. He received big applauses for this speech.

The demonstration in Copenhagen reached historic proportions. According to the figures of the police and the established press nearly 30,000 students turned up. The STOP-NOW initiative claimed nearly 40,000. No matter what, there cannot be any doubt that this demonstration gained massive support from the students.

Right from the beginning of the demo, the speeches were directed against the educational policies of the rightwing government. The procession itself lasted for more than one and a half hours, and thousands of students shouted slogans like: “Give in Ulla, Give in Anders, otherwise we will occupy from RUC (a big university) to Randers”, “28 is more than enough (students in each class), we will never give up!”, “We are the raw material of Denmark, let us not be wasted”, “Ulla T, give us SKP (placements for apprentices)”, etc. One of the highlights was when Holger K. Nielsen, chairmen of the Socialist Peoples’ Party (SF) delivered his speech. He thundered against the government’s arrogant refusal of the students’ demands, and said that it was completely correct that the student fought back, because the materials, the rooms and the furniture in the schools were in a terrible state, and so on.

Ulla Tørnæs, minister of education, speaks at Christiansborg slotsplads, Copenhagen

The minister of education herself, Ulla Tørnæs, was invited to speak at the demo, because the organizers thought that people should hear her idea of a better education system. But if anyone had hoped that she would listen to the students and comply with their demands they were to be completely mistaken. From the beginning of her speech there was a stunned silence on Christiansborg slotsplads, were the rally took place. After a couple of opening remarks about “The government’s vision of a better education system”, she finally presented the real attitude of the government:

“This protest is based on misinformation and erroneous messages”. She repeated this several times…but it was as though her voice got more and more strident as thousands of students answered her with a loud hissing and the slogan “Those who do not jump, they love Ulla”, and all the students started jumping. This provoked her to yell: “Is this a dialogue, is this a dialogue?” and then she stepped down from the platform in anger.

When the demo was about to end, the chair of the demo, Jonas Fløystrup from DGS (the secondary school students union), came up with a reply that was spot on: “Dialogue, yes thank you Ulla! But what dialogue is it that we students have obtained over the last 4 years when we have protested – have you politicians, listened to us? Have you stopped the cutbacks?”

The scene that Ulla Tørnæs caused on Christiansborg Slotsplads was due to her completely absurd behaviour. It is nothing but a scandal that a minister can behave so arrogantly and resort to such provocations against the students. Her attitude is not just expressive of herself, but is a reflection of the whole of the government’s hostile attitude towards the students.

In other places demonstrations also took place, as in Aalborg with 2-3000, in Randers with 2-3000, in Odense with 3000 and in Esbjerg with 5-6.000. All in all more than 100,000 students participated in this day of action.

Bourgeois counter-campaign

These thousands of students went to the streets in spite of the fact that the bourgeois press and the minister of education, Ulla Tørnæs, had wasted no opportunities in the days prior to the demos to discredit and slander the STOP-NOW movement. They have used every opportunity to condemn the students. The minister of education has even said that the figures used by the STOP-NOW movement to prove the cutbacks in the education system, which come from the labour movement’s statistics, are false! She claims that more money has actually been injected into the system, but obviously that is not what the ordinary students feel!

Also the Young Liberals (Venstre Ungdom, the youth organization of the government party) have launched a direct attack against the movement. Through thousands of leaflets, postcards, stickers and posters they have tried, unsuccessfully, to break the support that the STOP-NOW movement enjoys among the students in the schools, universities, etc.

The mere fact that the Young Liberals have attacked the STOP-NOW movement so vigorously proves an important thing: that they and their adult party are afraid of this movement and of the mood developing in the youth. The bourgeois want to diffuse a myth – the myth of passive, ignorant, and selfish youth. This fits them well, because it is an excuse for cutting into the living standards of young people and because they fear an active youth that demand a decent education, especially because young people can be a source of inspiration for the working class.

The propaganda poster produced by the Young Liberals against the movement

Most of the arguments of the young liberals against the movement are obviously completely false. The STOP-NOW movement has produced a leaflet which counters the allegations of the Young Liberals, such as the ridiculous claim that no cuts have been made, etc. However, there is one issue where the Young Liberals do have a point. That is the issue about “political independence”, where the Young Liberals say that this movement is not apolitical. The leaders of the STOP-NOW movement have maintained again and again that this is a struggle – not in favour of or against any party – but simply a struggle for a certain policy, and a struggle to put education on the agenda.

But at the same time the STOP-NOW campaign has received financial aid and strong political support from the trade union movement (from the LO, the Danish TUC). At the same time it has made it very clear that it and the three workers’ parties (The Social Democratic Party, The Socialist Peoples’ Party, The unity-list) that are supporting the demands of the students are the opposition. And in the same way, it is just as crystal-clear that the right wing government does not support the demands of the students, but in a provocative manner maintains that “the protests are based on misinformation and erroneous messages”.

So it is quite obvious that some parties support the students, and some do not. And it is even more obvious that education policy is a political question that cannot be separated from other political questions. That is why this struggle cannot be apolitical.

The leaders of the movement have argued that the movement is “politically independent”, since the student movement also called demonstrations and struggles during the former Social-Democratic government. In his speech at Christiansborg slotsplads (the square in Copenhagen, in front of the parliament), Thor Möger Petersen, the spokesman of the movement, said that “the government is indeed arrogant if it believes that we students are mere yes-men who just fight for a new government and then will accept all its actions…We will always fight for our everyday life, also if it is Lykketoft (leader of the Social Democratic Party) who is cutting back, no matter if the government is red or blue. We fought the cutbacks carried by the former government, and we will always continue to do so.”

In this way, the leaders of the STOP-NOW movement unfortunately mess two entirely different things up. The first thing is that students must continue to struggle against the cutbacks, and also put pressure on a new government and call protests if it doesn’t fulfil the demands of the students. This is absolutely correct. It is completely correct that students must not be mere yes-men that blindly accept the actions of any government. Fortunately this doesn’t seem to be the case, if one judges from the demos last Tuesday.


But does this signify that the struggle is only about getting new educational policies, and not a new government? NO! These two things are inseparably linked to one another. If we want new educational policies, we need a new government! That is perfectly clear! Because it is not by coincidence that some parties support the demands of the students, and some do not. Venstre (the liberals), The Conservative Party and The Danish Peoples’ Party are bourgeois parties that carry bourgeois education policies. Their policy is in favour of an education system for the elite, with less general education and democracy, and that is what their reforms are aimed at.

The Social Democratic Party, the Socialist Peoples’ Party and the Unity-list are at bottom Socialist parties that support the demands of the students. They do so because they were formed by the struggles of workers and young people to change society, and because they have links to the trade unions. So it is from these parties that the students can gather support, and it is only through a government of these parties, based on a socialist programme, that the students’ demands can be carried through.

Yes, but some might argue that the previous Social-Democratic government led by Nyrup also made cutbacks on education. This is absolutely correct, but it only happened because the rightwing in the Social-Democratic Party carried the cutback policies. But that does not signify that there isn’t any difference between the Social Democratic Party, the Socialist Peoples’ Party and the Unity-list and then the bourgeois, right-wing parties. The difference is that the three workers’ parties are still parties that can be put under pressure from below, because they are linked to the trade union movement. If the student movement puts forward the slogan of a new government, a workers’ government, consisting of these parties, and at the same time promotes clear demands to this government and threatens to struggle if the demands are not carried through, it will be an effective way to win reforms and improvements in the schools.

What needs to be done?

The demos of October 5 were massive. They were very well prepared and the mobilization has been intense. Prior to the protests, the students occupied 58 different education institutions. This showed the strength of the movement: unity. The thing that strikes one is that the students are not falling into one of the traps of the government. The government is trying to split the different types of students and play them against each other. But the main slogan in the demos was loud and clear: NO to cutbacks on all education!

The problem now is that no clear plan of action exists to extend the protests. Starting October 9 and lasting one week, most secondary school students and primary school students will have holidays. This can create a lull for the movement. But it can also give the movement a breather that it can use to re-organize itself, to meet and discuss and prepare new protests. However, this requires that the student movement goes on the offensive:

  • The struggle must be extended to new layers of students. Especially among the university students, primary school students and apprentices. An intensive campaign must be conducted in order to explain the ideas of the movement to them, show that it is struggling for their demands and to mobilize them.

  • The general demands must be concretised, so that the movement focuses on pressuring for some simple, concrete demands. In this set of simple demands, there must be demands included that concern all different types of students.

  • The leaders of the STOP-NOW movement must advance a proposal for a concrete plan for the continuation of the struggle, or take up any proposals that may come from the individual schools or regional committees/councils and make sure that the struggle is co-ordinated and that it is constantly discussed across educations and schools. A clear plan must be advanced that focuses on how the demands can be won, which days of action must be mobilized for, which activities must be done, and so on. This is a plan that must be discussed in all schools, regionally and nationally.

  • Strike-committees must be formed in every school, consisting of representatives elected by the students in assemblies in the schools, and they must be subjected to the right to recall. This must be linked up with strike-commitees on a regional and national level, that can decide democratically how the struggle proceeds. These strike-committees can be the students-councils, the DGS-regions, or other councils, but they must be elected at assemblies in the schools and recalled if they do not follow the line adopted by the majority in the school and if they do not advance the struggle.

  • A campaign must be launched to involve the trade union movement. As Louis Nielsen, chairmen of the young metal workers’ union in Aalborg said in his speech: “We do not live isolated from one another, even though we do not stand side by side, welding steel or writing long assignments together. The struggle for a better society is therefore a joint struggle”. First and foremost, the STOP-NOW movement must advance the demand for a joint day of action with the trade unions, with strikes. This demand must be written on all the banners of the student protests, and it must be explained in every school, and to every student. Special groups must be organized by the students in the schools to go to the local workplaces and explain their demands and gather support. The first steps in this struggle must be to involve the youth departments of the trade unions in a joint day of action.

If such an offensive is to be launched, students in all the schools and institutions must put forward the demand for regional assemblies, and eventually a national assembly, so that the next step in the struggle can be discussed.

The education system is part of the welfare society, and the attacks against the education system are part of a big attack against the welfare society as a whole. Also the workers in the public sector have struggled against cutbacks, and as late as Wednesday, October the 6, we saw how 10,000 leisure-time teachers and assistants went to a demonstration against the budget cutbacks in Aarhus. The struggle must be extended to a joint struggle in defence of the welfare!

There is no time to waste!

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