STUDENT PROTESTS: No time for celebration

Limited participation and the social dimension in higher education policy are dominating the agendas of European student unions. Such issues compelled thousands of students to follow their education ministers across the continent last week to campaign against the Bologna anniversary celebrations in Vienna.

Since plans for the introduction of tuition fees last year, Austrian students have been among the most active campaigners against what they see as a wave of neo-liberal policy that is sweeping across Europe's universities.

Hundreds occupied classrooms for the entire winter semester last year leading to a EUR34 million agreement by the government for improved student services.

Since January, teams of Austrian campaigners have travelled from campus to campus and set up Facebook and twitter groups. This led to international students joining more than 3,000 Austrians in Vienna as part of the "Bologna Burns", a grassroots and democratic organisation.

The group organised peaceful protests against the ministerial conference and the current nature and implications of the Bologna process.

The students' motivations for action vary depending on the country they are studying in. In the UK, the main problem is tuition fees while in France it is reduced university autonomy and in Spain the lack of student participation in Bologna reforms.

Nevertheless, students taking part in Bologna Burns were united in their opposition to the Bologna process and most believe it is used as an excuse for policies which will see business and government gain increased prosperity in return for reducing the privileges of the academic community.

According to Barbara, a member of the Bologna Burns press team, the students were in Vienna because "we want those responsible for the Bologna reforms to understand our situation and understand the degradation of European universities".

To have their voices heard, Bologna Burns organised numerous peaceful blockades last Thursday evening, causing delays to the ministers' meetings and anniversary celebrations so they too experienced "access control".

The blockades were followed by an "alternative summit", held on Friday and Saturday at the University of Vienna. Michael Hartmann, a world-renowned sociologist, spoke alongside teachers, unionists, researchers and around 1,500 students.

The European Student Union attended the ministerial conference wearing the Bologna Burns badge. The combination of ESU's diplomacy with Bologna Burns' more radical activism provoked reactions from a number of important sources.

The European Commissioner for Education, Androulla Vassiliou, stated "Bologna is made for the students so we should take notice of their protests and include them in our thoughts about future reforms".

* Joseph Walters is a correspondent of ESNA, the European Higher Education News Agency based in Berlin