Students' protest in Albania.

Students' protest in Albania.

Features Student protests against neoliberal reforms in higher education

Student protest as a form of mobilization from below, excluding categorically political organizations like opposition parties and NGOs, has changed the perception in Albanian society about protesting and decision-making. Public opinion regarding the protest in December of 2018 has had the same value as the student movement in 1990—1991 when the system changed, and Albania became a democratic country, and the students are once again bringing hope to Albania!

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2018:4 Vol XI, pages 37-39
Published on on March 6, 2019

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The debate over higher education reform in Albania started in 2011 where the main goal for this reform was credibility and the adoption of the Bologna system (which is used throughout most of Europe) in Albanian universities. Over the previous two decades, private institutes had been licensed to operate in Albania as universities, but among academicians and the general public these institutes had begun to look more like businesses rather than having the goal of providing quality higher education. In 2013, the new government had stated during the electoral campaign that one of its main goals was higher education reform, including tight control over private universities, fees, and accreditation of academic processes within both public and private universities.

Since then professors, academicians, and students have discussed and raised their concern about the level of transparency in what such a reform and new laws for higher education should look like. A total of 24 private and public universities were shut down by the new higher education law (Law No. 80/2015 for Higher Education and Academic Research), which was approved in 2015, and protests by students and professors from the University of Tirana as part of the Lëvizja Për Universitetin (Movement For The University) sought to express their concerns about the unclear processes regarding financial issues within public universities such as students fees for different levels of study and funding for research, university autonomy (most university board members are people who are not involved in academic life), students participation in university decision-making organs, the validity of students’ ID cards, etc. Although the protests from 2013 until December 2018 were supported by few professors and were small in number, they employed powerful symbolism to gain public attention, and the debate about higher education reform was successfully incorporated into debates on TV shows.

On December 6, 2018, the finance department of the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Planning asked students to pay a new fee (which was higher than the minimum wage) and a new decision from the Ministry of Education for public universities to be applied by January 2019 sought to regulate the exams and modules, and in response a group of students, supported by students from Lëvizja për Universitetin, decided to boycott the lessons and to hold a protest in the Ministry of Education, Sports, and Youth building. Within three days the protest had grown to up to 10,000—15,000 students from all over Albania, even including students from private universities. Student protest as a form of mobilization from below, excluding categorically political organizations like opposition parties and NGOs, has changed the perception in Albanian society about protesting and decision-making. The political elite must be responsible for their decisions. Public opinion regarding the protest in December of 2018 has had the same value as the student movement in 1990—1991 when the system changed, and Albania became a democratic country, and the students are once again bringing hope to Albania!

The student protest is a struggle for hegemony towards the professors of the University of Tirana. Arlind Qori works as a lecturer of political philosophy at the University of Tirana, Albania. He is also an activist for the radical leftist organization Organizata Politike; Lëvizja për Universitetin. Here, with Arlind Qori’s permission, I quote part of his report1 regarding the historic dimensions of the protests in December:

“Spontaneity is the key word of this ongoing protest. Nevertheless, within the faculties and the crowd, from the first day of the protest, there were three divergent organizing groups. The first two — in coalition — were the student unions controlled by the two main opposition parties: The Democratic Party (PD) and the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI). Standing in their way was the Movement For the University (Lëvizja Për Universitetin — LPU), an independent student organization which has been the main opposition towards the government’s neoliberal reform in higher education.

PD and LSI, by using their student unions, tried to turn the protest in a more overtly political direction, calling for the immediate fall of the government. But for the overwhelming majority of the students the university cause was the priority and they didn’t want to be manipulated politically. Unable to use the protest, the PD and LSI student unions called LPU activists communist and Marxist-Leninists who were trying to divide the protest.

For several days it was a half-secret struggle within the struggle against the government. There were skirmishes, small acts of violence and a lot of threats. From time to time it was like a real war of position, where the PD-LSI student unions and LPU activists were struggling for each tree, to position themselves better in order to transmit their ideas towards the large multitude of students. While organizationally the parts were equal, PD-LSI were in advantage on the violence front (by using small gangsters in threatening and punching some activists, LPU activists were in a considerable advantage in speeches and creativity (almost all the songs chanted in the crowd came from the LPU repertoire).

Nevertheless, due to the students’ call for unity, the two organized groups seem to have lowered the volume of their own internecine struggle.”

From the students’ perspective, the student protest brought a new dimension of political culture to Albanian society. In Albania the political culture is dominated by the political elite, and civil engagement and protest are almost never seen as tools for decision-making by citizens. Albert Pepaj graduated from the University of Tirana, Faculty of Social Science, with a master’s degree in regional studies. He reflects on the protests:

“Protests have mostly been synonymous with political parties as tools to gain more political power, and this obstacle needs to be overcome. Thus, for us as students in the streets, and also as Albanian citizens, this two-week protest in December was sublime.

“The protest’s goal was only to fulfill the students’ eight demands, thus excluding any demands for representation or any structural changes or even a dialog with the government, but the students were still able to provide a new perspective for Albanian society and the Albanian government.”

For Albert Pepaj and many students this unpredicted event was like none other in Albanian society, and it was a lesson for the government, for Albanian citizens-students brought hope for the future and the idea of being politically responsible.

Albert Pepaj: “Moreover, in this protest student mobilization had another lesson to teach to Albanian society and probably Western society: No Violence! No serious incidents were reported during the two-week protest, and this is what Albania has been missing.”

Albanian students studying abroad in Europe supported and followed the protests. Inxhi Brisku is a political science student at Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic and he can tell about the engagement also outside Albania.

When the students’ protest first began in Albania, the government ignored it believing that it would fade quickly just like the majority of previous protests in the country.

However, the students, having voiced their solidarity with one another and having a strong mobilization among themselves, were not only able to keep the protest going, but also to give national dimensions to the protest. Without overlooking the reasons and circumstances that brought about this massive student reaction, I would like to stress the impact it had on university life as well as society in general.

First, it had a great influence on university life because the students understood the paramount importance of collective organization in a country where individualism prevails, and the main public discourse focuses on the victories that the individual — separate from society — can achieve. The students in this case serve as a good example that by being organized and having solidarity and mobilization changes are possible. The echo of this impact has been heard by all of Albanian society, especially marginalized groups who have begun to understand what participating in such protests really means for them.

Another crucially significant factor worthy of analysis is the challenge that the students’ protest brought to the dual political establishment in Albania and the neoliberal capitalism imposed. Dominating the political scene in the country for the last 30 years, these two political parties have managed to utilize people’s discontent as a means to political ends, and such discontent is used by the opposition party in their favor, which itself would stick to the same policies if it were to take power. The categorical rejection by the students to become entangled with the opposition party during this protest challenged the hegemony of the political parties in public life in the country. On the other hand, the economic core of the students’ demands — the fulfillment of which requires political will — is a clear indicator that the neoliberal reforms (including the higher education reforms) have negatively affected the most vulnerable groups in society and have led them to extreme poverty. The challenge to the economic system and to the hegemonic ideology of the official parties, as well as the importance of organization and mobilization, are important influential factors characterizing this protest despite the fact that the protest might appear to have a more limited focus.

The last day of protest for 2018 was December 18, when the students agreed to pause the protest because of the winter holidays and decided to gather again on January 7, 2019. It has to be mentioned that during the two weeks of protest in December the number of students remained relatively high within the crowd. The last day of the protest coincided with the last parliamentary session, and the Albanian prime minister responded by saying that they should have a dialogue together and that all of the students’ demands will be fulfilled. However, to the students such a dialogue was understood as a political tactic to divert the protest’s attention and to “manipulate” public opinion regarding the student protest. This was one of the main reasons that the students refused the dialogue. Despite this, Prime Minister Rama started a tour of the universities in Albania insisting on his idea for dialogue, but most of those meetings resulted in failure, and the students either boycotted the meeting (according to the students they were not informed about the prime minister’s presence as they joined the meeting with the faculty dean to discuss the situation) or simply insisted that their demands be fulfilled. At the end of December, the government — on the prime minister’s initiative — held a special session and approved “The Pact for the University” that provides for half fees and/or no fees for students with high grade point averages and students with special abilities at the bachelor level, but for the masters programs the fees will remain almost the same or university departments will decide on the fees. In addition, the students’ ID cards will be active during 2019, and improvements in the dormitory living conditions have started. According to the students, however, this is too little too late and is not fair. It is expected that the protest will re-start on January 7 with the same intensity, and the students are likely to ask for the repeal of Law No. 80/2015 for Higher Education and Academic Research.

To summarize, it can be said that for the first time Albania and Albanian society have had a social movement in which the students shared the same goal but from a higher-education perspective, and in terms of numbers the protest has played an important role in public issues, especially in changing society’s perspective on civil engagement. It could be said that Albania is one example where the lack of transparency of government institutions prevents civil engagement from playing its necessary role in the democratization process in which the people hold their government to account for its decisions, but the students (especially LPU) have struggled for more than four years in protest in order to mobilize this social movement. In general, the student movement can be set apart from other kinds of transformative processes by the combination of two forces, namely the need for social change and the force of citizens’ power that ultimately leads to social transformation. ≈


Arlind Qori’s full article is published on the LeftEast website: Vk3aKH4iCwE5a23fT7tA6U17G1eTzwiiAKRg.

  • by Gilda Hoxha

    PhD in political science, University of Tirana. Research interest in social movements and democratic dialogues.

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