Italy: New wave of struggle against education cuts

A united movement with the working class is the way forward!

The last few weeks have been characterised by a new wave of big demonstrations and important occupations of high schools and universities on a national scale. Those large mobilisations have expressed the clear desire for large sections of the student movement to do away with the drive to commodify public education and to fight for free, secular, accessible and high-quality education.

Open war on public education

The movement developed against the ‘reform’ of minister of education Maria Stella Gelmini. Her reform involves cutting €7.6 billion in four years and 130,000 jobs. These cuts come at a dramatic moment for schools: fees higher and higher, unsafe and dilapidated structures, books more and more expensive, study more and more pressing, overcrowded classrooms with up to 35 students. This is the current situation of public education after 20 years of very hard cuts made by the governments of the centre-right and centre-left.

As far as the situation in universities is concerned, it must be said that Italian universities receive from the state a mere 0.75% of GDP, against an average of 1 .5% in all OECD countries. Even the United States, which made the model of privatization untouchable, has a publicly funds to universities double the percentage of Italy. Italy is at the bottom of the charts, both for total spending relative to GDP in education and for the total expenditure compared to total public expenditure.

The fact that the state denies finance means that students are required to pay. In recent years, there has been a dizzying surge in tuition fees, with increases above 50% in some years. At the present time, it is normal to have to pay hundreds of euros for only the first instalment, regardless of income, and then pay again for a second that is proportional to income. The average annual expenditure that will support a student for tuition alone is €750. It is obvious that, if in order to attend a year of college you have to pay these figures, plus the books, the transport, the accommodation and the canteen, the simple idea of enrolling in the first year after high school does not appeal to most students.

The movement grows and develops

It is in this context that we must place the great protest movement that the country is witnessing. In fact, just over the last two days and, despite the postponement of the vote on the reform in the Chamber of Deputies, we have witnessed a real explosion of anger throughout the country.

The University of Tor Vergata in Rome was occupied by students, several high schools and colleges were occupied in Bologna, in Milan, the student protests led to the occupation of two of the biggest high schools. The same situation exists in Florence, Naples, Turin, Palermo and Catania, where many schools and faculties are occupied and are now managed by students who are organising education and other services.

Tuesday 30 November was the largest and strongest mobilization in the last two years; students, researchers and graduate students had prepared a day of action with demos and rallies in all major Italian cities to protest against Gelmini’s reform.

With the postponement of the vote on reform, many occupations have begun to change their nature to a wider protest against the government. It is a good starting point to start discussing the need for a political alternative that protects the interests of young people, workers and the common people.

The limits of the movement and our demands

Unfortunately, however, despite the enormous anger and radicalization of thousands of young people that can be perceived in the streets, there is a lack of real understanding of how to extend the struggle and develop the movement.

The movement seems to be unable to express clear and specific political demands around which opposition can be built amongst a larger layer of society to the sell-off of public education. In fact, it must be said that the direction of the movement is dominated by little ‘autonomous’ groups from the ‘social centres’ who prefer direct and spontaneous actions and reject any form of organization.

These groups look for direct confrontation with the police and believe they can launch a general riot by throwing stones and bottles at police. These groups of irresponsible provocateurs who provide a golden excuse for police repression have to be immediately marginalized and expelled from the mobilization.

These small groups are able to adopt a radical phraseology that can seduce some students in the absence of a genuine left alternative. They refuse to practice any form of class approach; they refuse to direct the movement towards workers’ struggles by citing alleged differences in interest between students and workers.

With our limited forces, Controcorrente is intervening in the struggle to explain that in order to get a victory against the government we need to build support by broadening the movement and developing the existing links amongst ordinary people to the student movement.

The general assemblies of the students are fundamental to discuss experiences and to determine the prospects for the struggle. For this reason, the assemblies of students must be extended to all those students from other institutions interested in participating, but most of all the assemblies must be opened for the participation of teachers, education sector workers and all those ready to get involved in the struggle for the defence of free and quality public education,.

Committees must be created in every school and college by involving more students and professors by establishing clear demands, organizing concrete actions and intensifying the mobilization involving a larger layer of society. Those committees have to be coordinated on local, regional and then national scales.

It is important to develop a clear platform of demands in order to continue to build resistance against the willingness of the government and big employers to pay off their mountains of debt with our public education.

Resistenze Internazionali, our youth organisation, stands for: a public education, secular, free and high quality accessible to everyone from kindergarten to university. We demand the withdrawal of the Gelmini reforms, an end to privatization, the regularization of all temporary contracts for precarious workers, the introduction of free textbooks and school supplies, and the expansion of the student movement to workers and ordinary people.

As demonstrated throughout the history of great victories and defeats of the student movement, unity with workers is not optional. Unity with workers is the necessary condition to win the withdrawal of the reform from the government and impose a decent education system that meets the needs of ordinary people and not the desires of the market.

The student movement needs a clear orientation towards workers that are already struggling and migrants under attack in order to fight and win a better future for those who work, for those who will become students and students who will become workers.

At this moment, it is difficult to clearly determine the character that the movement will take during the next two weeks. Berlusconi is facing a crisis in his government, and it is possible that on 14 December the government will fall.

In this period of government weakness, a student movement armed with clear and accessible demands, united with the combative sector of the unions, can put pressure on their bureaucracy for a general strike that will have the potential to achieve the withdrawal of the reforms and build the basis for a new left organization.

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December 2010