Students vs. Tuition Hikes

by Didem Türkoğlu, UNC Chapel Hill

from Critical Mass, Volume 44, Issue 1

Students protest tuitions. Perhaps more so than ever. The photos from the protests in Chile, Canada, and South Africa come to mind quickly. Then there are less globally covered student protests in Germany and Turkey. What makes these student protests so significant? In a forthcoming special issue in Current Sociology, scholars focus on case studies from the global north and the global south to provide answers to this question.

In my paper, “Student Protests and Organised Labour: Developing a Research Agenda for Mobilisation in Late-Neoliberalism,” I highlight the importance of alliances between students and the organized labor (against tuitions in public universities) in reminding the social democratic parties of their redistributive commitments. We tend to study labor movement activism and social movements separately with few exceptions. And yet an in-depth analysis of the student mobilizations in Germany and Turkey shows how crucial the unions are to social movement issues even in non-labor policy fields. I present two examples of this alliance, emerging from the quite different political contexts of Germany and Turkey. In Germany, student movements failed to block the introduction of tuitions in 2006. However, in 2008-2011, students managed to get tuitions scrapped under electoral pressure. In Turkey, student movements had been protesting tuition fees for a quarter of a century before an alliance with labor gained the support of social democrats in 2011.

In Germany, the labor unions DGB and GEW, which play insider roles in their fields, helped students sustain and increase pressure on the center-left. In Turkey, where the influence of leftist unions is far more limited, unions such as DİSK and Eğitim-Sen nevertheless helped coordinate student activism in the absence of nationally organized student unions. In Germany and Turkey, respectively, the DGB and DİSK were mobilized for a non-labor issue and used their experience of organizing labor to broker alliances with the center-left and mount an effective opposition. These examples suggest that social movement-organized labor alliances may be effective in shifting social democratic politics in a variety of policy areas that are exposed to permanent austerity measures.

In the same special issue, Cesar Guzman-Concha and Marcos Ancelovici focus on the dynamics of student protest in Chile and Quebec, Canada. In their article, “Struggling for Education: The Dynamics of Student Protest in Chile and Quebec,” they highlight mediation, polarization, and spillover as three crucial processes in the growth and trajectory of the student protests. Lorenzo Cini analyzes the student mobilizations in South Africa in his article, “Disrupting the Neoliberal University in South Africa: The #FeesMustFall Movement in 2015.” He underlines the difference of the political contexts in “young” democracies: higher education remains a top priority issue and college students are seen as legitimate political actors.

Looking ahead, these case studies from very different political contexts provide interesting insights for social movements scholarship as students are mobilized in response to the same grievance: tuition hikes.