Understanding the source of the crisis

The escalating student backlash over the New Democracy government’s refusal to reconsider its reforms for higher education should not be underestimated or be attributed to instigation by third parties. The sit-ins in some 300 schools, the massive gatherings and the size of Thursday’s demonstrations are clear indications of a burgeoning turmoil which could easily spread beyond school contours and escalate into a full-blown political crisis. What is the source of this seemingly sudden climax? The extent and the nature of the proposed reforms cannot alone justify the intensity of the reactions. The government’s initiative is more of a modest effort to tidy up the university education system than a structural change. Many academics have their own reasons to be upset. They have turned against measures which they see as a threat to their privileges and vested interests. They are edgy about the proposed evaluation program and are drumming up their objections to the establishment of private universities. But the motives of the protesting students appear to be different. Thousands of young people in universities today come from a run-down high school system. Their employment prospects appear grim, and that impacts on their psychology and ideology. The students’ reactions derive from their anxiety about their future after university; hence their rage is directed against the broader political system, which has in past decades set up a largely useless industry churning out degrees with no practical value. What is needed is neither the repression of reactions through the use of force nor the annulment of the requisite reforms. Political leaders must try to understand the dynamics of the current crisis and restore channels of communication and mutual trust.