Student protests contributed to government’s downfall

Around 10,000 students from universities around Bulgaria took to the streets in late February to protest against fee hikes of up to 30%. Along with popular protests against general price increases and impoverishment, their action contributed to the downfall of the government.

On the day of the huge demonstrations, Sunday 24 February, student organisations officially joined the protesters.

This was four days after Prime Minister Boyko Borisov announced the resignation of his government and the withdrawal – following massive countrywide protests – of price increases, notably to electricity, that are the biting effects of government austerity budgets.

A general election is scheduled for 12 May.

The students were protesting against fee increases ranging from 8%-30%. Student unions also demanded better representation in university governing bodies.

The University of National and World Economy in the capital Sofia, the biggest economic university in Bulgaria, reaffirmed its intention to increase fees by 30% despite the protests.

Last Sunday, 3 March – the national holiday commemorating the 135th anniversary of Bulgaria’s liberation from the Ottoman rule – more major protests took place.

The student demonstrations were a part of much larger popular protests across the country since the beginning of the year, particularly against ever-increasing prices that are consuming a growing proportion of people’s incomes.

Last week saw the death of Plamen Goranov, a 36-year-old artist who set himself on fire in front of the city hall in the Black Sea port of Varna on 20 February. Two other men are in a critical condition in hospital following self-immolation.

All three cases were linked to the protests over living standards in a country where salaries average just €400 (US$525) a month – a problem many blame on rampant corruption between a political elite and business interests that stifle development and the rule of law.

The main target of the protests were the GERB – Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria – government’s handing of the energy sector over to energy monopolists, with insufficient state control mechanisms, which has led to mounting electricity prices.

The privatisation of the energy sector started 20 years ago and all governments since then must bear responsibility for not enabling diversification of the sector. But the situation was aggravated under the GERB government because rising energy bills were combined with austerity measures that caused deeper impoverishment and economic stagnation.

Higher education and research

In recent months former education minister Sergei Ignatov had become increasingly unpopular over lack of transparency in the distribution of national funds for research, prompting many young researchers to protest in front of the ministry in January.

Last November, Nature reported on the emerging protests: “Bulgarian scientists have never had much faith in their research ministry, but the outcome of this year's grant competition has provoked an unprecedented storm of outrage.

On 22 November, according to Nature, a front-page report in the national newspaper SEGA “presented a hair-raising list of allegations, ranging from large funding allocations to companies and foundations with no experience in scientific research” to alleged conflicts of interest involving geologist Rangel Gjurov, who heads the National Science Fund, BNSF.

The allegations of mishandling research funds led to the resignation of Ignatov and the head of the BNSF, Hristo Petrow, on 28 January.

On 26 February the national student union announced that it would support dissatisfied students across the country and defend their interests.

In a declaration, the National Assembly of Student Councils chair, Angel Georgiev, wrote that NASC represented 280,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students and cadets through 51 student councils at all accredited universities.

“Once again we declare ourselves against the raise of the education fee. We appeal for mass protest action in support of the affected students.” NASC also demanded “immediate changes to the higher education law” to raise student representation in university governance bodies to 30%.

“In the past 10 years we have turned into an instrument in the hands of politicians and rectors’ headquarters, who accept us only as a tool for financing a non-effective and morally old system of higher education in the country,” the declaration said.

European Students’ Union (ESU) chair Karina Ufert said in a statement supporting the Bulgarian students that “the economic crisis cannot be used as an excuse to raise tuition fees or cutbacks for education.

“Bulgaria might fall behind the EU [European Union] 2020 target, together with a high unemployment rate and excessive youth migration,” Ufert said in a press release.

Bulgarian universities have been affected by the demonstrations.

Recently, in response to the social crisis, Sofia University’s academic council voted against its own decision in January to raise fees by 8%.

The academic council said in a statement that its 26 members had voted to empower the university rector to establish a group of lecturer and student representatives to “prepare academic demands regarding swift and radical changes in science and higher education policies, towards overcoming the lagging behind which threatens to collapse education.

“The first step in this direction must be restoring state funding at the level of 2008 at the least.”

The suggestions were deposited with the rector, and voted on last week following long discussion in the council.

The student protests have also had strong impact on Bulgarian politicians. Prime Minister Borisov was hospitalised twice for high blood pressure, and Sergei Ignatov had to leave office even before the government resigned.

Tom Marshall wrote in The Hechinger Report that critics had feared that Ignatov wanted to fully privatise the 274,000-student system, which includes 37 public and 14 private institutions.

“Protesters have haunted his three-year tenure, even carrying a black coffin with a mummy made to look like him. The stress, Ignatov said, made his hair fall out.”