Thoughts on the strike of Albanian students last winter

Thoughts on the strike of the Albanian students during this winter.

During the last months of the passing year, a rather important event has unfolded in my home-country of Albania. This event is none other than the student strike launched against the legislation passed by the Rama government with regard to third-degree education. This law aims to introduce a complete restructuring of the prevailing situation in the sphere of higher education, in favor of private educational institutions. The strong presence of students in the street, with the organization of many protests against the ministry of education, the government and the state, begins on March 4, 2018, and continued until February, with a small pause in their activity during the turn of the year.

Submitted by Mumakil on March 20, 2019

“Whatever you describe to another person is also a revelation of who you are and who you think you are. You cannot describe anything without betraying your point of view, your aspirations, your fears, your hopes. Everything.”
James Baldwin1

During the last months of the passing year, a rather important event has unfolded in my home-country of Albania. This event is none other than the student strike launched against the legislation passed by the Rama2 government with regard to third-degree education. This law aims to introduce a complete restructuring of the prevailing situation in the sphere of higher education, in favor of private educational institutions. The strong presence of students in the street, with the organization of many protests against the ministry of education, the government and the state, begins on March 4, 2018, and continued until February, with a small pause in their activity during the turn of the year. I will now proceed to summarily refer to certain important points of this law.

Firstly, the state will allocate its funding to the universities in accordance with a certain system of evaluation. The extent of funding will be determined by the performance of each university in this system of evaluation. Aside from this fact, public universities will be obliged to compete with one another, in spite of the fact that their respective scientific and cognitive fields are different. The remaining part of the funding will be derived from the tuition fees that will be imposed on the student population. Secondly, the right for an evaluation of the institution will also belong to the students of that university. Thirdly, within the new legislation there exists a provision which states that if a private university is profitable, it will be able to modify its status into a public, higher-educational facility. That is, it will receive exclusive funding by the state, while the former owner - “investor” will be allowed to control administration by formally occupying the position of university Dean. It is important to note here, that while the state takes it upon itself to bankroll the profitable private universities, it has not been made clear in which way these funds will be registered and accounted for. It goes without saying, that the whole funding scheme will be subject to the control of the proprietor. Finally, the law states that any funds that are directed towards a specific department of the university, will still be under the control of central university administration and not under the control of the individual competent department. Last but not least, an immensely important issue that the government is attempting to change through the new legislation, is the ability of the student body to participate in the election of the university administration and in the decision-making process of the institutions. The previous law of 2007 assigned a quota of 20% to the student vote, while the new law intends to bring this percentage down to 10% and the students want to increase their level of participation to 50%.

In Albania, after the collapse of the Hoxha3 regime, a demolition of social and labor relations has taken place in favor of the interests of capital. Workers' rights have been completely eliminated and the state has withdrawn entirely from the sectors of public health and social protection. According to official statistics, the average wage is formally at 250€, but, in real terms, the number plummets down to about 150€. In this historical context of capitalist resurgence and neoliberal aggression, public education was one of the first social pillars to be made the target of a merciless assault. It follows, that throughout the previous period, the students have had to cope with enormous expenses associated with their student life. These expenditures mainly involve the procurement of reading material, housing, transportation costs and the tuition fees for a post-graduate degree.

In this connection, we need to stress that when we analyze the Albanian state, we have to remember that we are dealing with a structure that functions like a mafia and is imbued with corruption in every aspect of its social existence. It is well known within Albania, that some members of the government have ties to the organized crime networks which export drugs and namely cannabis. Corruption runs vertically through the hierarchical levels of the state apparatus and, in effect, comprises the backbone of all state administration. As a whole, the bureaucratic mechanisms of the state, starting from the higher echelons of power, all the way down to the ranks of junior clerks and minor state employees, are in the habit of receiving and circulating “black” money. One cannot complete a single administrative act, without having to extend the proverbial bribe to some minor state official. The rampant corruption in the universities and the difficulties it causes for students should be examined within this general social framework. It is characteristic of the situation that some professors might ask for even up to 700€ in order to allow a student to advance, not to mention the even more outrageous instances when professors have demanded outright sexual “compensation” from female students so as not to fail them in their class.

After the demise of the socialist regimes which comprised the so-called, eastern bloc, a large-scale restructuring of social and industrial relations took place, not only in Albania but in Eastern Europe as a whole. It follows, that a large part of the proletariat in Albania, namely that part of the proletariat which was not able to immigrate, found itself in a dire economic situation. Of course, this economic distress resulted also from the total breakdown of the economy of the former socialist state. The “studentariat”4 could not have been exempted from the generic process of transition to a model of social organization based on exploitation. The need for a modern capitalist state, for professional white-collar personnel well-versed in the techniques of civil administration was and still remains great. If we add to the above that the only sector of the capitalist economy developing in Albania is the tertiary service sector, we understand the express need for such trained professionals. This workforce, as was the case in Greece and in the peripheral southern countries of the EU, is plunged into the process of production completely divested of workers' rights and within a framework of total insecurity. It follows, that the onslaught against workers' rights can be easily viewed and explained as part of the broader aggressive neoliberal policies instituted by internationalized capital against the bulk of the exploited classes not only in Albania but on a global level. To the extent that the university is seen as a vital stage in a broader process of transition towards the labor market, as well as an institution entrusted with the function of preparing an obedient workforce pliable to exploitation, we can easily postulate the connection between the ongoing neoliberal assault against workers' rights and the new educational law formulated by the government of Rama. The reaction of the government was three-fold. The initial way of dealing with the protests was to ignore them, the next step was to embark on a systematic attempt to defame them, while the government's last resort was to deploy the state's capacity for organized violence by dispatching the police and private security outfits to suppress the struggle, without achieving any tangible results so far.

However, we should look carefully at the struggle of the students in Albania. There are important reasons for this, from a radical point-of-view. This is the first time since the downfall of the socialist regime in 1991, that a mass movement of such proportions emerges in Albanian society. This student movement is struggling to make its voice heard and it conveys its views and ideas using a discourse which is unmistakably left-wing. It strives to highlight the problems with which it is confronted daily and to incorporate in its outlook the concerns of the majority of the student population, not only by talking about their day-to-day needs and difficulties, but also by putting under scrutiny the very social formation which the students create through their present and future social action. Having established a syndicalist union, the students try to organize the struggle against a totally corrupt regime, which doesn't have any inclination to enter into a dialogue with them and within a social environment that has no memory whatsoever of past social struggles. A society that has no recollection of class struggle, or of the protest movements of the past. We cannot help but perceive the Albanian student struggle as an “oasis” that contradicts the ongoing decline of radical policies and political projects for a society of equals that has taken place after the collapse of “actually existing socialism”. And one of the most important events which have happened in the course of this struggle is the effort of the student movement to eliminate completely any affinities - ideological, organizational, or otherwise - with established political parties and their respective youth associations. Another important development pertains to the attempt made by the students to communicate their intentions and aims to a largely subdued and passive society by using a militant left-wing political discourse, albeit still in a nascent form. We do not come across such a militant discourse in any other mass movement operating in the eastern bloc. It is not surprising that the main indictment leveled against the students by the government and its ideological agents in the media and internet, is the ritualistic invocation of the absolute evil of Hoxha and their characterization en masse as pro-Hoxha adherents and loyalists. Or, in the words of the “socialist” Rama: “How can you declare yourselves Marxists without having ever studied the works of Marx?”. To which the students eloquently responded, “how can you declare yourself a 'socialist', while you' re implementing the policies of neoliberalism”?

A great deal of effort has been made on the part of the students not to be associated with the past crimes of the “left” aligned with Hoxha and the period of his reign. On the other hand, the political vocabulary, as well as the symbols that have been employed, act as a reminder of a reality that is now lost, without ever having fulfilled the potential, the dreams and aspirations of all those who participated actively in the struggles which helped to shape it and bring it about. Be that as it may, it is quite impressive, at least for Albanian standards, that those students belonging in the syndicalist union expound a modern political discourse, drawing from Marx, the Frankfurt School , May 68’5 , or the ancient Greek philosophers. Even more impressive is the degree of participation of the female student population in the movement (Levizja Për Universitetin)6 , actively engaged in raising consciousness about their problems, about institutionalized gender discrimination, about sexism and patriarchy (even when they don't fully realize it), in an attempt to build a university that will have room for everyone, irrespective of gender, sexual preference, or color.

At the time this passage was written, the students had already organized a series of occupations of university grounds and facilities. This was a step which signaled a considerable escalation of the struggle on their part. The government had repeatedly attempted to institute a “dialogue” in an effort to undermine unity and instigate various types of division in their ranks, but all such attempts have been effectively thwarted thus far. No one can predict with certainty if their struggle will be victorious. However, one can reasonably assume that this movement will act as catalyst for Albanian society and will affect it as a whole, irrespective of the abolition (or not) of Rama's education law. The creative engagement and experimentation of Albanian students with radical political theory on a mass social scale, gives us ample reason to be hopeful. It shows a resilience against the traumatic realities internalized by the largest part of the population during the period of actually existing socialism. Of course, by no means do I mean here that we are dealing with an identical political movement. Rather we are dealing with two different political movements, which depart from the same point of reference. In spite of the chronic lack of volunteers, the pressing question keeps posing itself again and again: What is the way to take back what belongs to us, based on a commitment to the ideals of equality and freedom? And are the old theories of communism and anarchy out-of-date? If our answer is yes, then how can we explain the fact that within a social state of decadence and absolute negativity, the political projects which signify a way-out from this historical impasse are, again, a carbon-copy of the old and supposedly “obsolete” ones? Surely, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that this resurgence of the content of old radical projects is primarily formulated and externalized in the language of rights. Nor can we ignore that the students often allude to an illusive “European average”, as regards the quality of the institutions of public higher education. However, this is more due to the general historical context of which this mass movement is a product, and of the concrete social conditions in which its collective struggle unfolds.

Instead of an epilogue, we must stress that although the students are more than reluctant to admit of being characterized by a single political adjective, they cannot deny that their demands are self-explanatory, in the sense that they constitute a dynamic and militant rejection of the bleak future prepared for them by capitalism. In which way this struggle will be fought depends entirely on the student assemblies. Be that as it may, it is worth mentioning that nationalistic and patriotic symbols, i.e. Albanian flags, are so far absent from student demonstrations. Also, the decisive contribution of the department of social sciences of Tirana university in terms of ideas, practices and popular participation should be pointed out and acknowledged for what it really is. The “necessity” felt by a large part of the students to be recognized as social entities and as a product of this struggle, to carry the whole of Albanian society forwards.

  • 1James Baldwin - (2 August 1924 - 1 December 1987) was an American novelist, playwright, and activist
  • 2Edi Rama - is an Albanian politician, who has been the 42nd Prime Minister of Albania.
  • 3Enver Hoxha - (16 October 1908 - 11 April 1985) was an Albanian communist politician who served as the head of state of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985, as the First Secretary of the Party of Labour of Albania.
  • 4I use this term as a purposeful exaggeration, to describe a transitional phase, a stage in the process of preparation for the necessities and conditions of the labor market, by paraphrasing the word proletariat. I firmly believe that the whole educational system is firmly integrated incorporated in this process, even from the early stages of elementary school.
  • 5I read an essay, which referred to the differences between the student struggle in Albania, in comparison with May 1968 student insurrection. Namely, the difference outlined is that students in Albania abandoned the university so as to burst into the streets and make themselves heard, while in 68 the university was occupied and taken over by French students. This assessment proved to be premature, not because events did not happen in this manner, but because the students in Albania have now taken over the universities and are trying to organize public discussions and events with regard to the problems they face and the type of university they aspire to build.
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