By Ana Oppenheim, NCAFC National Committee member
Since Tuesday June 5, students and staff at the University of Warsaw have been protesting against a new law changing the governance structures of Poland’s universities. They have occupied a part of the main campus where the Rector’s offices are located and dropped a banner off the balcony saying “we demand democratic universities.”
The occupation started as a response to the so-called “Gowin’s Act,” named after the conservative Minister of Science and Higher Education. The law sets out to expand the powers of the Rector and establish a new university governing body which includes members external to the university (similar to the UK’s boards of governors). Critics say that the changes will take power away from the community of students and workers and centralise it in the hands of unaccountable management, and that the new board could increase the influence of government ministers and business over academia. Furthermore, the protestors fear that planned changes to higher education funding and expansion of audit culture will privilege big universities in major cities (in order to boost their international league table positions) over smaller and already struggling institutions.
The 11 demands published by the Academic Protest Committee, as the campaigners call themselves, include democratic elections of Rectors and academic community representatives on all levels of management, transparency of university finances and administrative decisions, protection from government intervention into research, investment in housing and scholarships to reduce barriers to access, an increase in funding for education and science to at least 2% of GDP (currently at under 0.5%, among the lowest in Europe, although the government has promised a significant increase) and strengthening the rights of campus workers.
Alongside the occupation, which is said to be the first one taking place at the University of Warsaw in 30 years, the committee has organised a number of teach-outs led by prominent opponents of the Law and Justice government. Protests have also been organised on campuses in Lodz and Bialystok. The campaign has been endorsed by a growing number of organisations, including university departments, academic societies, trade union branches in Warsaw and beyond and the left-wing party Razem (although not by UW’s students’ union.) “Academia is our common good which we will defend as long as it is necessary” reads the occupiers’ manifesto.
Follow the Academic Protest Committee here and tweet solidarity at #Ustawa20 and #NaukaNiepodlegla (which stands for “Independent Science”.)
This piece originally appeared on the NCAFC website.