Days 6 and 7: more (radical) protests, a street university and pessimism inside “Precarpathia’s finest classical, European university”

The sixth day of protests here saw more open-air democracy, with the city’s student councils meeting outside the Regional Administration Office (aka The White House). The head of the regional administration subsequently offered to meet with student representatives who rejected his offer. The fear was that the meeting would be exploited and misrepresented in local television. While the students call for revolution, or at least bringing down the current government, the head of the local administration – from the ruling Party of Regions – is calling solely for a peaceful Europeanisation, so the kind that would presumably keep him and his party in power.

Alongside the protests outside the local White House, the foundations of a Free University have been laid, with  local writer Taras Prochasko giving the inaugural lecture to thousands of students and others gathered from midday on Wednesday. He was followed by a university lecturer, whose stance in appearing publicly and on stage in these protests in quite exceptional.The current events are certainly a “studentskyj maydan“, or student protest, with little connection to the mass of lecturers. Certainly a number of lecturers are joining their students on the streets, but a general concern among lecturers seems to be over how to account for the missed classes and what sanctions or punishments might follow. Being discussed are compulsory Saturday lectures or counting the non-attendance as an unjustified absence, which ultimately affects students’ grades for the semester.  Despite the Ministry of Education suggesting that students could even lose their grants – and thus have to pay tuition fees of around €1000 annually as a consequence – it seems that for the mass of students are abandoning the university after the first session of the day, and thus striking. A degree of fear, thanks to the mass nature of the protests, has thus been overcome.

However, in conversation with one group of students today – with the topic of the protests largely replacing what was planned for today’s seminar – there seems to be little willingness to engage in future in protest directly against the university authorities. The students outlined, without prompting, aspects of large-scale corruption, bribery or “a lack of objectivity” in grading (favours, payments and obedience count for more than ability in some cases), but the consensus in that group was that since they would graduate in a couple of years, there was little sense in ruining their own degree by entering into conflict with the university authorities. What may have influenced these students, now over two years into their degrees, to act would have been knowledge of how degrees are structured in other European countries. Their university proclaims itself “Найкращий класичний університет Прикарпаття європейського зразка” – “Precarpathia’s best classical university of a European type” – although the students had not yet taken the initiative to discover what this European type is. A few basic sums today found that in order to get their Bachelor degree, the students have some three-four times more contact time than students around Europe. Here they have around 32 hours per week in the humanities, with semesters lasting 16-18 weeks, rather than the 12 weeks in Europe, and the degree still lasts four years, something that is being phased out in most countries. Many of their courses have nothing to do with their major subject, with these additional hours bringing little benefit, since testing is based on rote learning, while lectures and seminars largely restrict discussion and are instead based on transmitting information or “facts” as they are termed by the students. 

It seems that the willingness to take to the streets now is inspired in part by a sense of patriotic duty and an awareness that the future would probably be brighter if Ukraine were to have connections to Europe, although largely the participation is inspired by the sense of safety offered by the mass nature of the protests. Although the protests are calling for bringing down the government, the enemy is abstract and unlikely to directly affect the students’ everyday lives or indeed, what many are most concerned about, their immediate grades.

Cynically, it could be added that alongside these noble motives, a chance to skip class is welcomed. Even if students are absent from classes  – as the empty classrooms and corridors witness today show – it does not seem that they are now necessarily on the streets, marching or joining rallies. Today’s midday protest was much less well attended, although it appears that a large number of local students – after singing the national anthem, a patriotic song and jumping to the chant “khto ne skache, toj Moskal” (If you’re not jumping your a Muscovite) – went to “liberate” a college whose authorities are refusing to sanction protests. In a sense, then, the protests and students’ demands are becoming more radical within the organised core of the local marches and rallies.

However, there is also an increase in general participation in rallies, which have now become a permanent sight in the city, rather than as was the case earlier on in the uprising, that evidence of protests was visible only at the designated times of midday and 6 p.m. All day and all around the city, generally younger people are visible with painted faces or national flags wrapped around their shoulders, suggesting a state of both popular patriotism and popular pro-European attitudes (a quite alien concept for someone coming from Briton), as well as readiness to join any protests at any moment.

So, for now, a sense of radicalism pertains among the local protest leaders, while a carnivalesque atmosphere seems prevalent among the mass of participants. Perhaps enjoying the chance to break the rigid norms of university life, so escaping classes at a time when it is not necessarily officially sanctioned, they can do so within a movement which offers a safe framework for expressing frustrations caused by being in the university system here. Any kind of direct protest against the university leadership, which might actually change more-or-less immediately the students’ reality (such as providing toilet paper or turning on the heating when it is unbearably cold), still remains largely unthinkable.

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