Letter from Beirut

Students on warpath

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Students of American University of Beirut staging a protest against an increase in tuition fees. Photo: Photograph: Vijay Prashad

The sleep-in protest near the main building of the university. Photo: Photograph: Vijay Prashad

Striking students at the AUB. Their action resembles what students are doing across continents.

With the weight of education debt pressing down on them, students across the world have begun to register their dismay at the way education has increasingly become a commodity and not a social good.

INEVITABLY, STUDENTS across the world are frustrated with their educational institutions. Tuition fees rise at rates much higher than inflation, and scholarships are harder to come by. The finances of higher education lead students across the world to the banks for loans. It is a dangerous business. As the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Global Employment Report from last year put it, “In developing regions where 90 per cent of the global youth population lives, stable quality employment is lacking.” The numbers are dire. Almost 13 per cent of young people (74 million people) cannot find work, an increase of three and a half million between 2007 and 2013. This raises an important problem: if I am to take loans to go to college, and if there is no guarantee of employment after that, I shall be weighed down by debt and unemployment to boot.

Miserable truths about the economics of education moved students to the streets from Quebec (Canada) to Santiago (Chile) to Sofia (Bulgaria) to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and, most recently, in Taipei (Taiwan) over a trade agreement signed with China. Students in Taiwan feel that the agreement will be detrimental to their job prospects. No surprise that the students in Beirut, Lebanon, are also part of this new wave. More recently, the students at the American University of Beirut (AUB) have been part of a struggle to roll back a 6-8 per cent increase in their tuition fees. The campus bristled with the energy of an active population—flyers were everywhere, students went on strike, and when they received little assurance from the administration, they set up a sleep-in camp near the main building. Their grievances and protests resembled in all their particulars what students were doing across the continents. Victories are few, but the struggles seem undaunted. The young people indicate that they are fighting for their future. This is not an idle struggle that can be shut down because of insufficient progress. There is no end to this fight, they say. It ends either with an enhanced educational system or with the end of modern education as we know it.

The kernel of the Occupy Movement in the United States was around student debt, which has now climbed above the threshold of $1 trillion. When students have to incur high debt rates to go to college, this impacts them in two different ways. First, it reduces the ability of students from middle-class backgrounds to enter college without borrowing money. The very rich typically are able to cover costs without anxiety, and the few among the very poor are celebrated for their achievements with scholarships. It is the middle class that sees a wall grow around the aspirations of its children to go to college. Second, college debt suffocates the ability of students to experiment with new ideas. They are eager to find courses that will enhance their ability to find a high-paying job once they graduate. To this end, they spend their time finding wageless internships, whose growth has been astronomic over the past two decades. This means that courses that challenge the prevailing social order or introduce students to innovative thinking (whether in the arts or sciences) seem less attractive. College becomes less a social incubator and more a springboard to individual success—not driven by cupidity but by debt-induced desperation.

When colleges are challenged over their high costs, they argue that what they provide is a “high-quality” learning experience. Words such as “excellence” spiral outwards as justifications for unconscionably high prices. As industrial society flourished in the 19th century, it became clear that more and more people would need to be educated to be able to handle the work requirements of the new age. As machines have been designed to reduce the skill required by the workers, mass education seems less necessary—could we have a society where a small percentage of the population receives “quality education” and the rest make do with basic skills? The late Bill Readings saw this in his 1996 book The University in Ruins, where he warned that the market model had overwhelmed a model of what he called “collegial responsibility”. Students weighed down by debt are quickly drawn into the “market model”, impatient with the ethical charge of social and collegial responsibility. The teacher who makes such a demand sounds anachronistic.

As the heavy weight of debt presses down on students, however, it is their own condition that becomes vulnerable. There is no need for them to look over the college walls to seek other issues for moral action. They need themselves. This is the moment that we now inhabit, where across the world students have begun to register their dismay at the way education has become increasingly a commodity and not a social good. The realisation comes not only because of the volume of debt but also with the inability of those debt-burdened students to find meaningful employment. It is these two sides of the coin that provoked the most recent wave of student unrest across the planet.

“We Won’t Pay”

Students at the AUB march across the campus. They yell, “We won’t pay”, and call upon their fellow students to walk out of classes to the main plaza. It is a strike. Three demands govern their strike: a financial contract that their fees will not be unduly raised during their four years on the campus, financial transparency so that the budget will be available to the students, and more democracy on the campus, with elected student representatives on all decision-making bodies. These demands are reasonable. The student body has discovered that 89 per cent of the operating budget is financed by their tuition. One student says to me wryly: “No taxation without representation.”

The atmosphere at the plaza is celebratory. The students almost cannot seem to believe that they have pulled off the strike. The classrooms are quiet. Many teachers stand on the margins of the crowd. The chants are focussed against the administration, including one—Erhal, the word meaning “get out”—borrowed from Tahrir Square. Victories are not at hand. The administration, like its peers in Quebec and Cape Town, is patient. It will wait until the school year ends. Summer comes, and students depart. Memories of the strike will fade. That is what it is counting on.

Memory of a struggle

The Red Oak Club—a Left club on the AUB campus —organised a screening of Raed & Rania Rafei’s film 74: Reconstitution of a Struggle (2011). The film is a memory of a previous struggle at the AUB against a 10 per cent tuition fee increase in 1974. The students were more militant then, as was their society. Lebanon was in ferment—mass strikes in factories and among teachers defined a society that had moved to the Left as a result of these industrial actions and the Palestinian struggle. The student council at the AUB was dominated by the Left —from Arab nationalists to Maoists—who called upon their fellow students to occupy the campus, which they did for 37 days. The Rafeis’ film takes place in the office of the university president. The student council takes over the office and lives there for the course of the strike. The debate among the students takes place in the council, with the different factions represented in the council. They argue about strategy and tactics: should the strike concern itself only with tuition raises or should it take up the issue of U.S. imperialism?

The terms of the debate about politics are alien to the current context. A character in the Rafeis’ film talks about hanging a picture of Che Guevara outside the university president’s house. Che was murdered in Bolivia in 1967. He had visited the Arab world a number of times, Egypt and Gaza in 1959 and then Algeria on many occasions, to deliver some of his most famous speeches. No wonder then that in Bouchra Khalili’s new video Garden Conversation (2014), she staged an imaginary 1959 conversation between Che and the anti-colonial warrior Abdelkarim al-Khattabi. A man and a woman stand in a forest at the start of the video, the woman playing Che. They talk about strategy and tactics. Che’s suggestion about the moment we live in is instructive: “Perhaps we lack the required intellectual audacity to develop these new ideas with new methods.” The problems are well known to today’s students—debt and youth unemployment. But there is no obvious alternative that they know about. The philosophy of “there is no alternative” retains its hold on the political imagination. Che is a nostalgic figure for posters, but his words are unintelligible.

The form of 74 and Garden Conversation acknowledges that it is not enough to look back at the past with nostalgia. The Rafeis cleverly shunned the documentary form. Interviews with the actual student council members from 1974 would have been disappointing. Mohammad Mattar, the student council president, headed the Maoist faction in the Palestinian Fatah movement. He is now a prominent lawyer who lives at the other end of the political spectrum. Rather than have him and others like him reflect on their activism from another era, the Rafeis brought in current activists to act as the 1974 student council and improvise the kind of debates they would have had. This conceit allows 74 a freshness that is absent from many nostalgic documentaries on the student protests of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. The debates feel current.

Similarly, Garden Conversation stages a meeting that did happen, but whose transcript we do not have. The imaginary discussion between Che and al-Khattabi is a conversation as much about our times, with a hope for a new beginning at the centre of things.

Student protests of the earlier era are remembered for their elan but not for their accomplishments. Neither were they able to found a progressive moral platform for society nor did many of them remain progressives over their lives. One of the problems was that students in the 1960s and 1970s believed that they were going to change the world themselves, that other social forces (workers, for instance) had failed to make a breakthrough. Isolated on campuses and unable or unwilling to take their energy and ideas to the workers, the students found themselves without allies and without consistency. Dramatic acts here and there remained the order of the day. No foundation was built for the development of society with moral and political consistency. 74 ends with the police takeover of the campus in April. A year later, the Lebanese Civil War began.

On the day of the sleep-in at the AUB, civil servants and teachers in Lebanon held a general strike and amassed near the Parliament building. They are building on the mass strikes of last year for higher wages in the public sector. A small group of left-wing students from the AUB joined the demonstration. They came in solidarity before they pitched their tents. The walls of their college and of their careers did not hold them in. What befalls the students also befalls the workers.