Isabel Jezierska: 'Maybe it's time to speak out?'

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Isabel Jezierska
Isabel Jezierska Source: Personal Collection

Demonstrations by students and university staff in Estonia have, until now, been slow and infrequent. However, demonstrations are a natural part of a democratic society and a legitimate way to influence leaders to change their policies, writes Isabel Jezierska, MA student at the University of Tartu.

As a child of the 1990s, I was taught to be grateful to those who fought for a free state, and that this gratitude included the practice of not complaining (read: "not protesting"). The idea of going out into the street, banner in hand, seemed embarrassing and inappropriate. And so, before studying at the University of Sheffield in England, I had never been to a demonstration. In 2018, when the "Emajõe chain" against the proposed construction of a pulp mill was organized, I was already living and studying in England.

Democracy, it seemed to me, was something that either exists or doesn't exist. However, taking part in the strikes at the University of Sheffield, I realized that democracy has to be recreated collectively every day.

My first demonstration

Right at the start of the second semester of my first year at Sheffield, 42,000 university staff - specifically, members of the University and College Union (UCU) from 64 UK universities - went on strike. With a total of 130 universities in the UK, the number of universities joining the strike was a significant achievement for the UCU. Most of the lecturers in the philosophy department at the University of Sheffield were union members, so we had no lectures or seminars for nearly two weeks.

The UCU were protesting against the neoliberalization of universities, pay and pension cuts, bureaucratization and marketization. They argued that universities must not become platforms for (providing) higher education services, with the management akin to business owners, university staff like Bolt taxi drivers who provide these higher education services, and students as consumers, who buy them on the market of higher education.

The strikers were ordinary academic staff, forced to take to the streets to defend the environment that supports higher education. They were also demanding better working conditions across the board.

The hostile attitude of students

Some students were unhappy about the lack of lectures and seminars (during the strikes). Rather than protesting against the management because lecturers were increasingly overburdened, some students were indignant that they were not getting the lectures and seminars they had been promised (in return) for their tuition fees. This is what happens when the neoliberal view of universities becomes the dominant one.

The majority of students, of course, stood in solidarity with the university staff, signed the petition that we launched (we collected nearly 1,700 signatures) and flooded the rector with emails. The rector's office is, by the way, obliged to reply to all such correspondence, so this was quite a strong gesture from the students.

In the petition, we expressed our solidarity with the strikers and promised to seek the recovery of our tuition fees through the courts. One of the initiators of the petition did take the university to court and got some of their money back. However, others did not have the legal support of this philosophy and history student, whose father was a lawyer, and were left without a case.

In truth, it was the students who were on strike, because there had been demonstrations by university workers for a few days (already) before that. Time and again, lectures and seminars were cancelled and students showed their solidarity with the lecturers, but the struggle went on and on, with many becoming frustrated that even the most radical of walkouts did not have enough of an impact on the university management or the authorities.

The most active group during the strike were members of the University of Sheffield's Marxist Club, who marched alongside the workers who were picketing outside various buildings on campus, and also handed out biscuits and tea. I joined them for a chanting workshop organized by the University of Sheffield Students' Union.

The first time I tried my hand at chanting was in Estonia, when I took part in a demonstration in support of women's abortion rights in Poland. It was a tempering experience. Like many other Estonians who are still unfamiliar with protesting, I had to deal with a certain amount of shame when voicing my demands in public.

Those of us who have been to protests in Estonia well know the awkwardness you feel when the protest is silent or boring, or when you don't have a placard to hide behind. Chanting empowers protesters and helps to ease the sense of embarrassment. It also helps if organizers give short, punchy speeches that inspire rather than exhaust. Estonian demonstration culture has a lot of room for improvement in this respect.

Exposure to "radicals"

I loved studying at the University of Sheffield - not only because we were taught by inspiring lecturers and good philosophers in the philosophy department, but also because I met students from working class backgrounds who shared a similar worldview to mine. At the same time, however, I was a young person from a post-communist country with a critical outlook on the world. This was probably why I got on best with Andreea from Romania. We were both afflicted by the communist legacies of our home countries.

Right at the beginning of our studies, we joined the Marxist club for fun. We couldn't understand why we should read the works of Marxists and post-Marxists when communism has caused so much suffering to so many. But it was a very intellectual environment – club members gave lectures and seminars and liked to argue with us, and as students of philosophy we enjoyed it very much.

In retrospect, of course, I realize that I had made a mistake, thinking that socialism = Marxism = communism = Soviet Union = totalitarianism = evil. I have noticed that many Estonians make the same mistake of equating these concepts and ideologies, and it is easy for far-right and populist politicians to take advantage of it.

In addition to this, another of my errors of thought also came to light: that protesting and striking are not democratic, and that radical gestures such as cancelling lectures for weeks or occupying educational buildings do not belong in a democratic space.

In fact, demonstrations, pickets and strikes are part of the toolkit of democracy, which, as citizens, we can use to raise important issues to discuss and address as a society. Demonstrations can be necessary in situations where those in power are not ready to engage in dialogue with the community and solve problems together. Powerful demonstrations are sometimes the only way to initiate debate.

Why speak out?

Staff at the University of Tartu face the same problems as those at the University of Sheffield, but for some reason we don't march, we don't picket, we don't protest. Our salaries too, are low, our workload is growing, more and more courses are taught in English and therefore fee-paying. Students are often burnt out and lecturers have to lower academic expectations.

The state has not increased funding for higher education enough, but expectations in higher education have gone through the roof. Many staff are on fixed-term contracts or looking for work in the private sector in order to leave academia. Many consistently do work for the university for free (myself among them), and many have to teach at the expense of doing research, or perform administrative tasks at the expense of teaching.

I took part in two university staff demonstrations in Sheffield, in 2019 and 2020, but there were also demonstrations at the start of 2018 and during both semesters in 2021 and 2022. The staff at the University of Sheffield are striking and protesting, even though they are opposed not only by the state, but also by the university management, whose main aim is to generate revenue for the university.

The rectorate of the University of Tartu is (still) an ally of the university staff. Funnily enough, the rectors of the universities here now seem to stand alone in their fight for fair levels of  higher education funding, while the staff and students look on as if it were of no concern to them.

I am still in correspondence with several of my lecturers in Sheffield. On several occasions, after writing to them, I have received an automated response saying that they would not reply for two weeks due to a strike. I am sharing here extracts from emails sent by, what I consider to be, (two of) my best lecturers. The first, who was one of the organizers of the strike, wrote:

"The university administration seems determined to destroy our pension system, and with it the teacher's union. They want to cut our pensions by up to 35 percent on the basis of an assessment of the financial situation, which they themselves know to be inaccurate. Our wages are now increasing by just 1.5 percent, while inflation is currently at 12 percent and rising fast. The last time our wages rose in line with inflation was in 2009. At the moment, it looks as if that will never happen again, and we are getting poorer every year. Everyone is angry. I am ashamed to be part of a university community like this and I don't even put the name of the university on my publications anymore."

Another wrote:

"How am I? Well, not great really... Hence, the slow reply. The past 2 years of Covid life have taken a toll on me, I think. I am perennially exhausted, it would seem. The good news is that it does not look like I have anything serious. But the less good news is that the university bosses have decided to beat up on us, just as we've given all that we had to transition back to normal teaching (despite the drole de pandemie that still lingers). I am truly heartbroken. I don't want to be on strike. I don't want to fight. I want to get on with life. But we have no choice. /.../ Students at Sheffield more generally though are doing ok, I think - except for the fact that we have been striking again, so that can't be fun for them... However, I must say that the 35 percent cut to my pension that the bosses have implemented for no good reason (the pot is full, but some business people have decided that it is unsustainable) will probably mean that I have to drive an Uber around when I can finally retire at the young age of 68!"

This comment originally appeared in the University of Tartu journal Universitas Tartuensis here (in Estonian).


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Editor: Michael Cole

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