Polish students launch anti-government protest

Hundreds of students countrywide protest a draft law threatening academic autonomy. They insist that a free and democratic university is essential for education.

Ada Petriczko
Ada Petriczko NewsMavens, Poland
Polish students launch anti-government protest - NewsMavens

Why this story matters:

Yes, Poles are on strike again. It seems that for the past 2.5 years, we’ve done little but demonstrate. First, people took to the streets to protect the independent judiciary; then came the epic, pro-choice Black Protests; later the families of disabled adults occupied the Parliament, and now students have mobilized as well.

In the first student occupation strike since 1968, they are protesting the so-called “2.0 Bill”, which proposes radical changes in universities.

The most controversial change is the introduction of external “councils” to supervise schools.

Another alarming proposal curbs scientific research at higher education institutions in smaller towns. This would doubtless lead to their marginalization. This is a problem because, even though they cannot compete with major universities in the number of influential publications, their role as cultural centers for local communities is invaluable.

How does this proposal play into the government’s promise of empowering underprivileged Poles from rural regions?

It doesn't. This bill is yet another step in the assault on democratic values by the ruling PiS party. Since taking power they have systematically attacked the pillars of liberal society -- free courts, opposition media and cultural institutions.

So far, universities have remained a liberal haven. With this reform, however,  the wave of “good change” (as the government calls its reform blitzkrieg) has just reached them.

Polish history shows that whenever students get angry, there is hope for change. On Tuesday afternoon, following the protests, the ministry announced its willingness to compromise on the bill.

Details from the story:

  • The strike began on June 6, at the University of Warsaw. A group of students entered the chancellor’s building. Refusing leave unless the government backed down. They set up mattresses and tents.
  • Initially, about 20 protesters participated, but soon the students of Kraków, Gdańsk, Białystok, Łódź, Katowice, Opole and Poznań, among others, joined in.
  • The most widely debated proposition of the “2.0 Bill” (also known as the Education Constitution) is the supervision of universities by external “councils” composed of "independent experts".
  • Although active politicians are to be prohibited from becoming members of the "councils", students see them as limiting the autonomy of universities.
  • The bill also strengthens the role of the chancellor, modifies rules about financing for higher education institutions, and improves the situation for PhD students -- the last being doubtless a positive development.
  • The Minister of Education, Jarosław Gowin, was planning to enforce the new law by October 2018 but seems to be having a sudden change of heart. On Tuesday, the ministry announced 50 proposed changes to the project. Most importantly, they promised to forsake the idea of external councils. Although Gowin publically called the strike "a youth happening," it clearly left an impact.
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NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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