Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Students on strike in Santander, 9 May 2013

Education strike Santander, May 9

On May 9 there was a nationwide education strike (huelga) in Spain, including Santander and the University of Cantabria.   

The first time we heard about the huelga was when Corin was given this flyer (right) at university, informing students about the strike on 9-M (9th May), encouraging them to wake up, choose, get up and fight! and inviting them to assemble on 30 April for a pre-srike information session and demonstration at the university.  
Calls for student participation were broadcast via twitter and facebook (see student union twitter page from May 9 below).  Meanwhile, the student council of UC sent students an e-mail one week prior to May 9 urging them  to participate in 'huelga a la japonesa';  (Japanese strike).  Apparently it's an urban legend in Spain that the Japanese 'strike' by working harder than normal:  disruption by over-production.  Thus, this e-mail encourages students not to cut classes but, instead, focus even harder on their education that day, and attend special events designed to promote a quality education through debate, symposium, and reflection.  'The strike is not a reason not to go to class', says the e-mail.

UC student union twitter page, 9-M
During the week before and after the huelga, I asked various 'players' (i.e. parents, teachers, and students at various levels of education) to share their thoughts. Below I've summarized my findings:  

Disclaimer:  I don't know that these examples are representative; they are just the voices of the people I know here.

University exchange student (Corin)  He was concerned with whether or not he needed to go to class.  Professors assured students that classes would not be cancelled; however, on the day it turned out that most of them were. In the lead-up to the big day, he was handed strike-related flyers, received strike-related e-mails, and heard a lot of noise as students were preparing their rallying calls in the hallways.  

Spanish university student (Carmen)  She didn't have much to say about the strike; she doesn't really know what they are trying to accomplish.  She explained that it doesn't affect her because her professors are giving classes as normal.  However, she acknowledges that many students won't be in class because they will be participating in the strike.  She will not be participating.

Parent of Spanish university student (Margarita):  She doesn't agree with the strike. She pays approximately 2K euros (2600 dollars) per year for her son's tuition, and she acknowledges that this doesn't come close to covering the cost.  The state pays the rest, and she says 'as a taxpayer I know that we can't afford it.  Our country is in ecnomomic crisis'.  She suggests there needs to be a new model for financing university education.  In her opinion, the students are being manipulated by 'the left' for purposes of 'political grandstanding', and the professors shouldn't condone it by canceling class that day.  
strike in the rain!

High school students (Oscar and Paula)  As we might guess, they see it as a free day, a welcomed day off school.  Something like a 'hurricane day' in Florida!

Parent of high school students (Anita):  She feels that the Spanish education system is broken; she doesn't see how they can make any more cuts.  Education and health care are two things all governments must provide, she says, and cuts need to be made in other areas, not those two.  

Primary school teacher (Leila):
  She is not going to participate in the strike, but she believes each teacher has to make his/her own decision based on conscience. Although, she points out, the children will arrive at school that day like every other day, and someone has to be there, if not to teach them then at least to take care of them.   

Primary school teacher (Pablo):  He is concerned that the new government is trying to privatize public services (education and health care) by taking funding away from public schools and hospitals and channelling it towards private alternatives. The public schools, whose mission is to provide a 'quality education for all', are therefore having to do more with less, while taxpayer funds are being diverted to private schools and used for capital improvements.  This is one of the reasons for the strike -- it's not only about cuts, but also re-distribution of funds.  

Parent of primary school children (Ignacio):  He thinks for a while, and then says 'I try to look at the situation logically.' He goes on to explain that in his opinion, health care and education should be provided by the government because they are essential for a stable society.  The problem now, in the economic crisis, is that there isn't enough money to pay for both of them without making drastic cuts.  If the option is either to make cuts or to stop providing health care and/or education, then he accepts that making cuts is the lesser of two evils.  However, he points out that the politicians are still finding money for their 'pet projects' and he blames the current economic situation on politicians, stating 'we need a completely new government.'

University Professor (Jimena):  She summarized the two reasons for the strike as follows:  

(1)  University funding:  The new government has cut funding for universities so that research is being stopped, tenured teachers are going back into the classroom, and non-tenured teachers are being laid off.  Although this is happening in Madrid and many other Spanish universities, it has not yet happened at the University of Cantabria. This, she says, is because of the UC president who is 'fighting for us'.  

In addition, the proposed changes include cutting student grants and scholarships while raising tuition.  Jimena explains that the way the system has always worked in Spain, the students pay for their university studies through a combination of grants, scholarships, other state funding, and a small parent contribution.  But now, with tuition going up and grants being reduced, it is becoming impossible for people with average incomes to afford university.  What about loans? I asked.  That's not something people do here, she explained.  But, she said 'people are starting to notice the new British system' (government loans) and 'wonder whether something like that will end up happening here'.  (Note:  The government loan system in UK should not be confused with student loans in the US.  In the UK, students do not start paying back their loans until their earnings reach a certain level; then payments are deducted automatically from salaries through the tax system.  It's a fixed percentage of income above the threshold, and typically it's thought of as an 'extra tax we have to pay because we went to university.'  If someone never earns above the pay-back threshold, they never have to pay it back, and they are not considered to 'owe' that money to anyone. They are just 'not subject to the tax.') 

(2)  School curriculum and funding:  The second reason for the strike, said Jimena, is the proposed changes to the public school system.  These include:  

(a)  More hours per week devoted to religion (studying the bible) which will be considered an academic subject for which students get a grade.

(b)  Music and art, which students are currently required to study for four years, will be cut to one year, and made optional.  

(d)  More funding is to be given to 'semi-private' schools.  She explained that there are three types of school in Spain:  Public (free), private (with fees that can be anywhere up to 6K euros a year), and something 'in the middle.'  In this middle category, parents pay about 50 euros a month and the schools also receive state funding.  There is typically a long waiting list for these schools.  The proposed change adds funding to the middle category and takes it away from the public category.

Santander, May 9, 2013

Education international, in a May 8 article, describes the reasons for the strike as follows:

Spain’s education community will use the strike to express its unanimous rejection of the reform plans imposed by the Education Ministry, under the leadership of José Ignacio Wert.  These reforms are an attack on several fronts - on primary and secondary education, on university education and on the education powers of local governments.    
Ideological reform
Wert’s Organic Law for Improving Education Quality (LOMCE) makes far-reaching changes to the current Organic Education Action (LOE, 2006) which has been in force for barely six years.  So far, no group of pupils has been educated throughout their entire school attendance under the terms of this law, and there has been no evaluation of its efficacy.
The unions believe the reforms promote an elitist, retrograde educational model. Pupils are segregated at an early age into educational streams of differing levels, while access to higher education is restricted due to a sharp rise in university fees.
There is also an obsessive attention to external evaluations, without teacher participation. The curriculum is also restricted, downgrading holistic approaches to teaching that are fundamental to the development of the individual. At the same time, the educational powers of local governments are being cut, hugely hampering the possibility of developing education policy at a regional level.
In short, unions warn that the reforms are opening the pathway to the covert privatisation of public education.
Drastic cuts
Since 2010, Spain has lost almost one-third of its education resources, with budget cuts of over €6.3 billion euros.  Thousands of jobs have been lost at every level and stage of education, while the working conditions of education professionals have deteriorated.
Grants and assistance to those most in need have been drastically reduced;  many forms of support and compensation for pupils with learning difficulties have been eliminated; and there has been an exorbitant rise in fees for certain levels of education, such as early childhood education, vocational training, and university education. 

So, on the morning of May 9, I went to the university. The hallways were quieter than normal, but there were students working in the library, professors working in their offices, a few people in the cafeteria, and the occasional burst of noise as students practiced their rallying calls and chants for the demonstration that afternoon.    

Despite the e-mail from the student council urging students that 'the strike is not a reason not to go to class', and despite Corin's professors having said they would be having class as normal, all his classes that morning were cancelled.  His afternoon class, however, was held as normal, albeit with fewer students.  

While high school students stayed at home, many elementary school children showed up to school that morning as normal because working parents don't always have other options. The teachers who did not participate in the strike took care of the children. However, they explained, 'it was a day for babysitting, not lessons.'

As you can see in the pictures, bad weather (it rained non-stop during the entire day of 9 May!) did not prevent students, teachers, and parents from 'taking it to the streets' in Santander.

Below are more pictures from the strike.  Note:  Most of the pictures on this blog post came from the website, in the Cantabria section.  If you'd like to see more photos of the strike, you can click on this link.

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