Post by Greg
All Photos © 2012 Kevin Michael Briggs
Earlier this year, I joined an organizing effort at UNC against proposed tuition increases of 40% over the next five years. For me and many of my peers, these tuition hikes represented the ever-advancing encroachment of privatization in public higher education. In the meetings we attended led by university officials, a diploma was spoken of as a commodity. Peer universities spoken of as competing corporations.
Even after a month-long process of building a diverse coalition and struggling to articulate the concerns of many different student constituencies on the tuition issue, administrators at UNC failed to meet students on a level playing field. At the university Board of Trustees meeting, a couple students were given the chance to speak for a few minutes each, after the board had kept students standing and waiting for hours. At the Board of Governors meetings, not one student was able to speak. The limited number of forums that were held for the general student population on the tuition issue were poorly advertised; they involved long and tedious presentations by administrators, after which a few questions were entertained. Even in the committee formed to analyze the tuition issue, students (and faculty and staff) were far outnumbered by administrators. The message from university officials was consistent: the chancellor and his staff are the autocrats of the university, and if they deign to speak with students, it is only out of benevolence, not with recognition of students’ right to have a say in the policies of their institution.
What Kevin, Daniel and I witnessed today was a very different relationship between students and their university, when members of PMII (Pergerakan Mahasiswa Islam Indonesia—Indonesian Muslim Student Movement) organized a demonstration against a new condition of admission to the university. Universitas Islam Negeri of Yogyakarta, under pressure to raise its international rankings, has instituted a measure disqualifying prospective students from admission who have graduated from high school more than three years before the year of their application. The 1984-esque, eerily named International Organization for Standardization (ISO) considers in its ranking schema the percentage of students that enter the university directly after secondary school.
Members of PMII argue, with strong evidence, that the measure directly contradicts the constitutional stipulation that “Setiap warga negara berhak mendapatkan pendidikan” (Every citizen has the right to obtain education). The new measure would disproportionately affect the poor, they say, who often need to work and save money before they’re able to begin university. They go further in claiming that their university is trying to raise its international ranking so as to secure more financing—a move they say represents industrialisasi pendidikan (the industrialization—or commercialization—of education). It rings true with the perception of concerned UNC students (not to mention the impressive movement in Montreal).
The kordinator lapangan (field coordinators) of PMII first tried to schedule meetings with the rektor (chancellor) to discuss their concerns. When these requests were ignored, they began planning the demonstration. Around 9:30am this morning, the student march arrived in the lobby of the central administrative building—chanting demands that the rektor come down to speak with them. The students—numbering around fifty—refused to listen to pleas from building managers to quiet down or leave. They brought with them signs proclaiming the new rule to be unconstitutional. And tires—a threat to the administration that if their demands were not fulfilled they would set thick, rubbery fires in front of the building.
Thirty minutes after their arrival, the rektor descended the spiral staircase of the building, a security detail following him. Different students adopted different strategies of addressing him: while some stood further off shouting slogans and reacting sharply to every one of the rektor’s hesitations. Others—mostly the kordinator lapangan, dressed sharply in green blazers with the PMII logo—rushed into the center of the action and confronted the rektor directly, entering into a dialogue. With cameras flashing and filming from every angle (Daniel did an exceptional job of catching the most heated moments)—their multi-pronged strategy worked. Within an hour or two, the rektor had agreed to completely dismantle the new policy, marking the decision with his signature, and he also fulfilled some of PMII’s other demands regarding student fees.
This morning’s events invited reflection for me, as someone who believes in the power of direct action and protest but has yet to join fully the world of activism. The protest movement I joined earlier this year culminated in feelings of strength—we felt we had shown the potential of student power. But witnessing the boldness of PMII’s demonstration this morning, and just as importantly, the immediacy with which the administration addressed their demands, shows just how far student activism in the United States has yet to come. University administrations, much like other institutions (the Democratic party included), doubt the power of students to organize effectively or lobby for their values and interests. This is why the UNC administration’s reaction to tuition protests this year was blasé. Why the Obama administration has turned its back on the issues that young people care about most.
The contrast could not be sharper in Indonesia, where the memory of a student-led revolution to end 31 years of authoritarian rule remains fresh. The tires that members of PMII brought with them this morning are powerful messages to those in positions of power—that a belief in the struggle for justice burns as brightly now as it did in 1998.