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Pain in Spain won't go away

Students can choose between nothing, and nothing, says student union activist in Valencia

Students graduating from universities in Spain were already desperate before things really started going wrong with the economy in 2008. Now, as the European crisis drags on through 2012 and beyond, youth unemployment in Spain is at 50.5 per cent – yes, 50.5 per cent according to the latest statistics from Eurostat – students are distrustful of anything that comes from government.

Spain was a frontline state in the economic crisis. First to feel, and first to react to the real consequences of what economists have called the ‘double dip’, the return of recession to Europe after what turned out to be false hopes of revival. This February and March, thousands of disaffected citizens took to the streets of Valencia and later on other cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla, to demand a stop to government cutbacks and perceived corruption, with students particularly protesting cuts in grants, tuition support and university services.

Commentators say that the Spanish government is losing patience with these waves of protest, linked to the so-called 15-M movement or Indignados movement, the spontaneous series of demonstrations and protests that started two years ago. According to the students, the police responded to these new protests with brutality on many occasions.

Cuts tough on students

Inés Sánchez is a student of engineering at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, and volunteers as an international officer for CREUP, an association of Spanish university students. She was not directly involved in the original organising of the 15-M / Indignados uprising, but started to participate later. She interprets the movement as a student movement, spontaneously organised through social media. The protesters include all who are disaffected, but the student grievances are, if anything, some of the most real and with more concern, she says.

»Only recently the government announced more cuts in education and health. Up until now, medicine was free with a prescription by a doctor. Now you have to pay part of it. This is just not fair because we do pay taxes to have a free health system and this is a primary necessity,« she says to the University Post, before turning to the issue of the cutbacks in education.

The Spanish government has cut scholarships for Erasmus students by 50 per cent, suspended loans to students, increased tuition fees, and set up new administration fees for students to pay universities.
In this way, the government has »an excuse to reduce the financing of universities,« Inés Sánchez says »but we believe that it is better for the government at this time to invest in education. If they don’t do this, they will never get Spain out of the crisis. Investing in education is investing in potentially more qualified future employers and workers«.

»The underlying premise of the government’s policy is that students are privileged, belong to the middle and upper classes, and should pay for their education. But families will have to make a harder effort to send their children to university, at the same time as their education will not even assure them a decent salary once they end their studies,« Inés says.

Reforms good, or bad

The cuts that hurt the students at university come at a time when the outlook for students that leave university is even worse. »I have got friends who have two Master’s degrees, know four to five languages, and they still can’t get a job,« says Inés. The raw facts – that there are just no jobs – are hard to accept even for her.

»I don’t know, maybe they see your CV, and are afraid they will have to pay a high salary,« she says pensively.

Those that do find jobs, make do with work that does not use their skills, giving rise to the term ‘mileuristas’: Educated Spaniards who can’t earn more than 1,000 euros a month. These mileuristas are starting to look further afield. According to recent news reports thousands of Spaniards are seeking visas to countries like Chile in South America.

In an attempt to unclog the labour market, the Spanish government has instituted reforms that have cut the number of days employers have to pay severance pay and allow them to lay off workers that are outside a collective bargaining agreement. According to Ines, the effects of these policies are maybe bad, maybe good for students.

»In the short term it will let employers fire even more people, but in the longer term it may contribute to youth employment opportunities,« she says, adding that CREUP as a student organisation has not yet formulated a policy on this.


Governments finance their public spending by lending from domestic and foreign investors like pension funds. Now, these investors are demanding a hefty premium from southern European governments, fearing that they may not get their money back. As we write, the Spanish government pays more than six per cent interest on its debts, far more than countries in the north of Europe.

This means that if the Spanish government is to continue financing students, universities and other public services, they have to pay extra. Maybe it is time that Spanish and other southern European governments just face up to the harsh financial realities and cut back? The University Post suggests to Inés Sánchez.

The response is abrupt. »Here in Valencia, corrupt politicians wasted a huge amount of money on things that are not useful. This is why Valencia has an even higher debt than the rest of Spain, and because of this we are paying more taxes, for example, our fuel is more expensive than in the rest of the country,« she says.

It is not the students that should be paying, she says.

In the meantime, the national government has cut back on grants for Spanish students to learn languages abroad, removed loans to young people and increased fees. For this Spanish student activist you can excuse a bit of paranoia: »What with all the cutbacks, I sometimes think the government is trying to make a society of the less educated. In this way, they can govern easier, with fewer protests and less popular indignation.«

Read an interview with another former Indignados protester, now a student in Copenhagen here.

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