Student protests at the University of Vienna. Photo: Manfred Werner. wikimedia commonsWhen the British newspaper the Guardian let their readers vote for the person of the year 2011, the winner was not Angela Merkel or Aung San Suu Kyi, who were also nominated. Instead, the nominee who received the most votes was a 23 year old student and communist from Chile, named Camila Vallejo. She, together with other student leaders in Chile, led demonstrations with up to 200,000 students demanding increased financial support for public universities.

One year earlier, in the winter of 2010, London witnessed its largest student demonstration since 1998. On the 10th of November 2010, 50,000 students took to the streets of London.Although the magnitude of the London demonstration is unparalleled, at least by European standards, it is not unique. In the last couple of years, students all across Europe have been demonstrating—currently it is Spanish students, inspired by the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, who have taken the lead as the most active student movement.

This inevitably leads to the simple and obvious question: why?

In 2009, the Labour Party in the UK commissioned a study on higher education which became known as the Browne Review, as it was chaired by the former Chief Executive of BP John Browne. The study argued for the elimination of the existing tuition cap. The government rejected the proposal, but raised the cap from £3,290 to £9,000—effectively tripling student fees. Spanish students are not primarily fighting against increased tuition fees, but against austerity measures in education and in society in general. These are the concrete reforms that are driving the students out on to the streets. However, the recent developments of austerity measures and increased tuition fees could be understood in a larger context.

In June 1999, 29 European education ministers signed the Bologna Declaration. This declaration not only created a long list of new acronyms for students of European Studies to memorize, but it also established the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). This marked the beginning of what students across Europe now know as the Bologna Process—a process that for most students only mean a new credit system and the new ECTS grading scale. In reality, however, the Bologna Process has had a significant impact on the European education system as a whole.

The stated aim of the Bologna Process is to make higher education in Europe “more compatible and comparable, more competitive and more attractive for Europeans and for students and scholars from other continents”. As a result of harmonizing the education system, it is hoped that it will increase the movement of students and labor across Europe—thereby creating a more integrated European market.

Protests in London. Photo: BillyH. wikimedia commons.This aim might be well intended, but critics argue that the Bologna Process turns universities into market oriented companies and the education they provide into a commodity. These universities are then meant to compete on the open market of the EHEA and—in order for education to be comparable and competitive—learning must be quantified. The complex measuring of education quality is thereby reduced to simple quantification and ranking.

In the recent edition of SITE, a Stockholm-based magazine on art and philosophy, Karl Lydén and Kim West argue that the commodification of education has taken different forms in different European countries. In the same journal, Dr. Sara R. Farris, researcher at King’s College London, described the form it has taken in Italian universities—they have adapted to the needs of the neo-liberal market, turning the university into a more vocational school where business leaders exert influence over the development of the university. The creation of master programs like “Sciences for the Raising, Hygiene and Well-being of Cats and Dogs”, and “Sciences of Alpine Tourism” serve as poignant illustrations of this point. When education is primarily meant to be economically productive, rather than intellectually stimulating, downsizing in humanities and social sciences is only a logical step. 

While the Italian form is marked by the internal commodification of universities, another form is marked by an increase in tuitions fees. In 2011, a new law came into force that stipulates that non-Europeans must pay for university education in Sweden—a welfare state with a long history of free education. Although unions, such as Akademikerförbundet SSR, view this as the first step in the dismantlement of a fundamental right to education, Swedish students have been largely passive to the reform. However, Lydén and West argue that internal commodification of universities through increased presence of corporations, like in Italy, and heavily increased tuition fees, like Sweden and the UK, are different manifestations of the same general process of commodification of education.

So, when the readers of the Guardian vote for a student who vehemently opposes the commodification of education in Chile, it also says something about the battle over education currently taking place in Europe. For many students the struggle is not only against increased tuition fees or new austerity measures, but also against the neo-liberal understanding of knowledge as a commodity.

PHILIP LINGHAMMAR