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Strike against university budget cuts has uneven support in Catalonia

Students have protested against the Catalan Government’s measures intended to adjust university budgets. Protesters have criticised “privatisation”, with budget cuts and university tax increases. However, the Catalan Government denied these claims and said it had no intention of laying off 4,000 lecturers and researchers. As with other strikes, the figures presented by both sides are contradictory. Organisers talk about a “success” and stress that in some faculties classes were completely suspended. Nevertheless, official information states the uneven support of students for the strike action, ranging from 25% to 40% depending on the faculty.

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18 November 2011 06:27 PM

by

ACN / Sara Gómez

Barcelona (ACN).- The call for a strike among Catalan university students and staff was unevenly followed, depending on faculties, but with a general poor support from teaching and administration staff. Most faculties were only partially affected and the majority of classes were held although in a few faculties there was a large majority of students on strike. In addition, groups of students demonstrated on the streets throughout Catalonia in isolated, but loud protests. They threw eggs at the Barcelona Stock Exchange and cut traffic on some roads. In the evening, around 10,000 students, according to the Barcelona Local Police, protested in the centre of the Catalan capital. They demonstrated on the streets against the budget cuts affecting Catalonia's public universities, and the increase in academic fees this year. They also wanted to send a warning regarding the 2012 budget, as there have been rumours of further budget cuts and the lay off of 4,000 lecturers and researchers. However, the Catalan Government has denied it wants to get rid of teaching staff and stated that the budget for next year is still under discussion. The Catalan Deputy Minister for Universities, Antoni Castellà, said it was "surprising" that a strike was taking place just three days before the elections, mostly protesting against measures already announced in June and implemented in September.


The austerity measures announced and implemented by the Catalan Government, run by the Centre-Right Catalan Nationalist Coalition (CiU), in order to reduce the public deficit have been provoking social tensions in 2011. However, in the last few days, coinciding with the Spanish elections and the talks for the 2012 Catalan budget, demonstrations have increased. On Tuesday and Wednesday, one doctor's union called for their members to go on strike. The Catalan healthcare system was not paralysed, but a percentage of its doctors went on strike (20% according to the Catalan Government and 71% according to the trade union organising the strike). Just one day after that strike, it was the turn of university students and some members of staff. They protested at the budget cuts affecting Catalonia's public universities in 2011 and they sent a warning regarding next year\u2019s budget, after rumours of further budget cuts surfaced. An unknown number of students did not attend classes on Thursday, as they are no clear figures available, and the strike was unevenly supported depending on the faculty. However, it seems that the strike was mainly student-supported, involving very few teaching, research and administration staff.

The strike was \u201Ca success\u201D according to the organisers

Before the protests began, members of the Platform in Defence of Public Universities (PDUP), one of the groups responsible for the strike action, already described the day as a success after assuring that many faculties decided to halt activity. The PDUP stated that this action shows the community\u2019s \u201Cdiscomfort\u201D towards the \u201Cbudget cut policies\u201D of the Catalan Government. According to them, these decisions \u201Cwant to completely commercialise public university\u201D.

Anna Planes from the student association supporting the action expressed her satisfaction for the \u201Cmassive participation\u201D and stated that they respected the position of those who decided not to go on strike. She also warned that education fees will rise again next year and university \u201Cwill become a place for elitists\u201D. Armengol Gassiot, professor and member of the trade union CGT (one of the organisers of the strike), described the day as \u201Chistoric\u201D. The professor assured that the protest was a demonstration of the frustration felt at the universities. He claimed that \u201Cthey have had enough\u201D and believes they hold an important role overcoming the crisis. \u201CCutbacks at universities is like cutting the future\u201D, he added.

Official figures claim support for the strike was low and uneven

The Department for Universities and Research denied that the figures were accurate by those on strike. They claim that the data collected by Catalonia\u2019s public universities proved that the CGT union organised protests had a \u201Clow incidence\u201D rate. According to the Catalan Government\u2019s information, the day passed off \u201Cnormally at all faculties\u201D at the University of Barcelona (UB), with only 25% of the planned classes suspended. At the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), also in Barcelona, 40% of students went on strike. At the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) the strike had mixed support depending on the faculty: almost all students supported it at the Faculty of Political Science and just 1% did so at the Faculty of Medicine.

At the University of Girona (UdG), protesters closed all access to the faculties of Arts, Education and Psychology. In Tarragona in southern Catalonia, around 300 secondary and university students went on strike and protested in the city centre. In Lleida in western Catalonia, over five hundred students and university staff protested in front of the headquarters of CiU (the political party that now runs in the Catalan Government). They also threw eggs and stuck newspaper-made scissors on the walls of the building.

Street protests and egg throwing

Throughout the day of strike action, students blocked Barcelona\u2019s Gran Via at its intersection with Passeig de Gràcia. Later on, they announced two surprise protests that took place first at the offices of  Banco Santander in the city, where they waved their banners and chanted their slogans, and second, at the Barcelona Stock Exchange, where they threw eggs with orange paint against the façade. In the evening, many students marched on Barcelona city centre.

The march against the Catalan Government\u2019s announcement of university budget cuts gathered an estimated 10,000 students in Barcelona city centre on November 17th, according to Local Police. However, the organisers of the protest assured that participation reached 20,000 people during the whole demonstration that finished with an assembly at Catalunya Square. The demonstrators shouted proclamations against the budget cuts, which would eventually imply job destruction and an overcrowding of classes, and complained that the Catalan Government is promoting policies to \u201Cprivatise\u201D public universities. Messages against budget cuts and privatisation were the most heard during the two hours the assembly lasted, with shouts of  \u201CNo, no, no to privatisation\u201D or \u201CThey call it cuts but it is privatisation\u201D.

The Catalan Government refutes rumours on job destruction

The Deputy Minister for Universities, Antoni Castellà, which depends on the Catalan Ministry of Economics and Knowledge, reiterated that it is \u201Cabsolutely false\u201D that the Government is planning to eliminate of 4,000 jobs in 2012 at Catalan public universities. This was one of the main issues the Platform in Defence of Public Universtity (PDUP) used as an argument to call for the strike. On the other hand, Castellà considered it \u201Csurprising\u201D that the student and staff strike was carried out only three days before the Spanish general elections, when most of the proclamations come from decisions that were made at the end of last June and implemented in September, such as the tax increase.

The Deputy Minister for Universities urged the demonstrators to respect \u201Cthe rights of those students who want to attend lessons and the teachers that want to lecture\u201D. \u201CIn democracy it is possible and it must be possible to demand through the action of attending classes\u201D, declared Castellà.

2012 as a negotiation year

Antoni Castellà is currently debating next year's budget, together with university presidents and other agents. He sent a message of calm to the students by assuring that \u201Cthey do not have to fear\u201D the 2011 academic year, despite a cut of 16% in the budget. The year \u201Cstarted normally and all students have the credits they need to enrol and the teaching staff\u201D have maintained their positions. One of the main objectives of next year, said Castellà, is to further the negotiation with the Spanish Government to achieve the transfer of powers in the area of scholarships and the price of university fees.  

Budget cuts to reduce the public deficit

The Catalan Government has put the control of the public finances as its main priority, which means it aims reduce the public deficit in order to calm the financial markets. The Catalan Government has the challenge of reducing the defeicit, in an economic context that does not favour the increase in revenues. In 2011, the Executive presented an ambitious austerity plan reducing public spending by 10% on average, some departments being more affected than others. The budget cuts affected all areas to a different degree, including specific areas of welfare, such as public healthcare and universities, since they concentrate most of the spending. However, social policies were less affected in percentage points than public works or more political areas, which had severe budget reductions. These past few weeks the Catalan Government has been negotiating the budget for 2012, and the reduction of the deficit remains a priority, while the economy has not recovered and neither have revenues.

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  • An empty classroom at Lleida's University (by O. Bosch)

  • An empty classroom at Lleida's University (by O. Bosch)