Students rally in Spain streets to protest rising tuition costs

Story by Julia Moss and Shandana Mufti // Photos by Maria Amasanti

SALAMANCA—Carrying signs and chanting complaints about the public university and Spain’s largest bank, about 300 students rallied and marched through the city’s main streets on Thursday, demanding both an end to cuts in education funding and more scholarships to meet their needs.

Student protesters chant at the end of their march: "Long live the life of the working class." Photo by Maria Amasanti

Student protesters chant at the end of their march: “Long live the life of the working class.”

The students, who have been protesting regularly for months, started at 8:30 a.m. at a University of Salamanca building on the outskirts of the city. They ended at 2:45 at a state government building close to the central plaza where they spoke about how they wanted to keep higher education accessible to working-class Spaniards.

“We’re marching because we want public education,” says Maria Garcia, a 19-year-old second-year student at the university. “We don’t want government to steal our money or steal our lives.”

In Spain, the cost of higher education has increased by about 50 percent in the last year to an average of $2,800. As a result, the rate of college-aged students not in school has risen by 10 percent, according to data provided by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. The group that organized the protest, called the Colectivo Estudantil Alternativo or CEA – which translates to Alternative Student Collective – described the march as a rejection of Spain’s move to make the people, not the government, pay for education.

“Spain is undergoing quite a deep economic crisis and it has deepened in the last four or five years. And many families are in financial trouble,” said Pau Mari-Klose, a sociology professor at the University of Zaragoza in northeastern Spain. “The new government, which is conservative, has introduced [legislation] in which… there are fewer opportunities for low-income children to continue their studies into college. Beyond that, there are issues concerning financial aid for young people in universities.”

The students protesting spoke about their fears that the Spanish higher education system will start to resemble the United States’ – where tuition is crippling and many can’t afford to attend even public schools.

Ibón Martinez Cavero helped to organize Thursday's protest.

Ibón Martinez Cavero helped to organize Thursday’s protest.

“This situation is now alarming,” Ibón Martinez Cavero, a student and organizer of the protest, said through a translator. “The politics of this government is sending thousands of students to the streets along with the constant firing of professors, the increase of taxes [and the] reduction of scholarships. It is all grouped together.”

The conflict over the tuition increases began in 2013 with the passing of the Organic Law for the Improvement of Educational Quality, or LOMCE. The law is also called the Wert Act of Education after José Ignacio Wert, minister of Education, Culture and Sports. The CEA leadership blames Wert for the high rates of university students dropping out of school. Wert and his representatives declined to comment for this story.

“If you compare higher education with the US, the prices [in Spain] are not very high,” said Belén Rey Legidos, a guest lecturer in economics at Suffolk University’s Madrid campus. “We have not a lot of private universities but the problem is, our students can’t pay the prices in public [or] private universities.”

Legidos made the point that most European Union students go to college for free or very little. Also, the problem is compounded by the reality of Spain’s current economic crisis, which has contributed to a loss of potential jobs for college-aged students. The result is they have no way to raise the rising tuition funds.

“They have no money. They have no funds. More or less, jobs that they would use to fund college are gone. Students have no chance at a future. It’s crazy,” she said.

These strikes are not limited to Salamanca. Students across the country are protesting LOMCE and the stagnation of scholarships and grants. Thursday’s event was characteristic.

Through the lunchtime hour, the protest followed a main street that rings the old city of Salamanca. The participants ranged from high schoolers to graduate students, many of whom were wearing green t-shirts that read “We’ve evicted the classroom. STOP RATES.” Some were also wearing masks and others were draped in the Spanish flag. Organizers passed out fliers that read “We don’t want a university degree if we are to get it after slaving away for more than three years in an obsolete institution.”

They were supposed to be in classes, but skipped their lessons to attend the rally. “It’s a student strike,” said Samuel Darriba, who studies philosophy at the University of Salamanca. “We are walking through the city and telling people about the problem with the education system.”

What students fear most is that the future will be one in which the system offers high-interest bank loans to finance careers, he says, leading to what they call indentured servitude from oppressive debt.

“The public university isn’t the property of the Santander Bank,” said Mario, a first-year 18-year-old student at the university who asked that his last name not be used. Santander is one of the largest banks in the European Union. “University of Salamanca has a lot of money from the bank. The university is like a business.”

While controversy will continue to surround the topic, students ultimately feel there is little they can do to reverse the situation. This reality, however, does not stop them from protesting, as the march in Salamanca illustrates. At the very least, the students say they will be heard.

“Our classrooms and education are getting worse and worse,” says Ágora Liedo, a student at the University of Salamanca. “That is our reality.”


About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.

Posted on May 9, 2014, in Reporting from Salamanca and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Bonnie Hempel

    We are having our own problems here in the States. Our Senator Elizabeth Warren has vigorously been trying to ease the college loan situation but is not having much success. It seems only the wealthy are able to attend college these days.

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