On 10 December, thousands of Macedonian students took to the streets of the capital Skopje for the second time in two months to express their anger at a new draft law on higher education, known as “external testing” or “state exam”.
While the first protest march gathered some 3,000 students, the second one is believed to have brought together around 10,000 people, and reliable sources have counted up to 12,000 – a first since Macedonia’s independence in 1991.
However, numbers are disputed by the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE and pro-government media outlets, which insist on minimising the impact of the protests.
Ruling party officials, including the Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, have attempted to discourage the students from taking the streets, saying they were “politically motivated”.
Some officials went as far as to label the students as “SDSM activists” (referring to the main Social Democratic opposition party), or “manipulated by (George) Soros” (referring to the Open Society Foundations seen as “enemies” and “foreign agents”): a labelling strategy often used against journalists and intellectuals.
Despite the criticism, students show no intention of backing down.
“This vulgar party politics of labelling and personal discrediting has been on the public scene for a long time now and everyone is fed up with it, so we do not expect the students to be discouraged by it. On the contrary, many students have stated that because of the dirty pro-government offensive, they are more determined than ever to help the student movement succeed,” says Darko Malinovski, a Macedonian student and member of the grassroots organisation Student Plenum.
Seeds of anger
Although the exact content of the draft law on higher education remains blurry, the government’s intention is to test the students’ knowledge externally, most probably through a state commission that would top the professors’ evaluation.
The aim is to “put an end to the corruption in higher education”, where professors have been known to take bribes, the government says.
Although they acknowledge the need to find a solution to this problem, the students see the reform as an attempt by the government to further undermine the universities’ autonomy.
They demand a complete “withdrawal of the proposed reform” and well-thought reforms that will improve the overall higher education in the country “instead of hurried steps”, Vladimir Delov, of the Student Plenum, tells Equal Times.
For Krisitina Ozimec, a journalist and education editor for the “Youth Educational Forum” radio, “The universities’ autonomy is guaranteed by the Constitution. Furthermore, doesn’t such a measure show total disdain for the professors’ work and their ability to evaluate their own students? The explanations about why this measure is being introduced, which problems it is supposed to solve and how it would improve higher education are unconvincing.”
But for the Student Plenum, the opposition to the state exam is only the “tip of the iceberg”.
Frustration and dissatisfaction has been brewing for years over a series of other education-related issues: widespread corruption, mingling of political parties in the autonomy of universities and horrific living conditions in student dormitories.
The inefficiency of the official students’ association, called the Student Parliament, is also strongly denounced by protesters.
“The politicisation of the Student Parliament is a problem that dates back to its creation in 1997. The party in power created a system of dependency, a system that will buy your obedience through political membership. It is a form of student clientelism,” Delov explains.
Since the start of the movement, the Student Parliament, led by a close ally of the ruling party, has remained silent about the issues raised by the students.
The Student Plenum was thus welcomed as a breath of fresh air by many people, even outside the student movement.
“For the first time in our recent history, a civil society movement is not afraid of the political parties,” says long-time activist and former president of the Youth Educational Forum, Marjan Zabrcanec.
He adds that the movement’s influence could be “decisive” for Macedonian activism in general as it will “educate the public about the fact that politics in not only a matter of political parties.”