We must fight for the future of Ukrainian education.


Commons Direct Action/Pryama Diya

September 1, 2023

Interview with the Direct Action student union

To mark Knowledge Day, Common spoke to activists from the Direct Action student union about the right to education in a country at war. They explain why they decided to relaunch the union, what the obstacles are to protecting students' rights, and share their plans and dreams for the future of Ukrainian education after the war.

The editors of Common: The union's history goes back almost 30 years. Many of our editors and contributors also joined Action direct when they were students. But in the mid-2010s, the union fell into disuse. Could you tell us how you came up with the idea of reviving it?

Direct Action: The rebirth of the union began with a wave of dissatisfaction with the forthcoming reform. In 2021, the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science launched a new reform aimed at optimising higher education establishments: universities that were "unprofitable for the state" were to be integrated into more efficient universities. This meant losing the material base of these educational establishments, mass redundancies of teaching staff and the abolition of state-funded places for students. Of the 150 largest state universities, a maximum of 80 were to remain.

Students and teachers were outraged by the reform, which led to demonstrations in various Ukrainian cities. The most significant and important action took place on 2 December 2021, when students and all concerned opposed the merger of the Kharkiv National University of Construction and Architecture with the Beketov National University of Oil and Gas. Future Direct Action activists also helped to prepare the demonstration. The lack of a powerful trade union and organisational experience was a major obstacle at the time, as the students did not take into account the universality of their problem, had no experience of fighting for their rights on a regular basis and set themselves only vague objectives. Organisations affiliated to the administration did not want to take part in protest activities, and independent student associations remained silent or supported the neo-liberal mantras about the need to privatise education and the whole social sphere in Ukraine.

Legal, economic and educational problems were piling up exponentially. Only the left had a critical vision and an understanding of a valid alternative, but there was no left-wing youth organisation in Ukraine at the time. We knew that the Direct Action trade union had existed and we spoke to its former members, who are still powerful activists. We were inspired by the successes and efforts of our predecessors and dreamed of a new stage for the student movement.  A few months after the autumn demonstrations, a full-scale invasion began. The number of challenges for us increased dramatically. Since then, we've been actively involved in volunteering initiatives, helping students at a local level and joining in student actions close to home.

The education system, eroded by years of state irresponsibility, began to writhe in pain. It became  almost impossible to maintain a necessary level of learning, as students were in danger every day and, in some parts of Ukraine, directly threatened with death. Evacuation, destruction of accommodation, eviction from dormitories, loss of contact with parents, loss of jobs and a general  lack of a stable life... In these extremely difficult circumstances, the students also came up against  total incomprehension on the part of the university administrations. The level of abuse increased significantly. Many of us felt these problems acutely.

Finally, we analysed the new conditions, pulled ourselves together and realised that there was no point in waiting any longer. In February 2023, we, a group of 3 to 5 left-wing activists, launched an open call to students wishing to join the Direct Action union. The result was unexpected, as our organisation began to grow rapidly: the lack of access to offline education and the small number of genuinely left-wing organisations in Ukraine played their part - young people were hungry for activism.

Action directe in previous generations was an anarcho-syndicalist union. What are your political positions today? How does the current generation of students view left-wing politics?

We are seeing the following trend: since the start of the large-scale invasion, many people, including young people and students, have felt the need to get involved in the social, public and political life of the country. This can be explained in various ways, for example by the fact that everyone is trying to find their place in the resistance to Russian imperialism, whether through volunteering, organising various training courses or taking part directly in the fighting.

Of course, for many, the formation of a new Ukrainian identity is negative: "we are not Russia". Whether this is a productive strategy for building a community is another matter, but it is clear that young people largely form their worldview by contrasting Russian authoritarianism with democracy, the persecution of the gay community with inclusion, and so on. As a result, we are seeing a rise in left-wing cultural views - these people generally describe themselves as liberal, in sense of  the American tradition - also among students.

That's why we're now trying to work mainly with this segment of the public. There is no doubt that Direct Action today continues to demonstrate the need to combine political and trade union visions in order to organise a powerful student movement. The issues we raise would be superficial if we did not emphasise that our strategic demands are first and foremost political. For example, affordable and free education is a demand of this specific sector - education - but it is only through an in-depth transformation of the whole social and political system that such demands will take on their full meaning.

From this point of view, the union comprises two poles which, in our opinion, are not viable without each other: the vast student community, which is directly linked to the experience of the educational process, its shortcomings and deficiencies, and the militant core, which brings a radical political programme and universalizes the specific problems. This structure implies that to  join Direct Action, you don't need to be reading volumes of Proudhon or Marx, you just need to agree with the minimum requirements, i.e. the inadmissibility of discrimination on a number of grounds - gender identity, race, etc. - and to be a militant. As for the militant backbone, it now includes anarchists, Marxists, social democrats and supporters of more exotic currents of political thought. In short, Action direct is today a left-wing student union in the broadest sense.

What political organisations and trends do you follow, both historically and today? Who are your allies in Ukraine and abroad?

On the one hand, we try to experiment with the structure, to invent new forms and principles of organisation. This is a form of political creativity that requires a great deal of internal flexibility. For example, to involve the less active participants and coordinate our work, we created a body called the coordination headquarters, whose members are elected by lot (in the best old traditions). When we encountered problems in the operation of this body, we would meet to analyse the reasons for them, think about how to overcome the shortcomings, and so on. Today, to a large extent, the coordinating seat works as we envisaged and shows that such "bizarre" and  ultra-democratic forms can work - you just have to experiment with them and improve them along the way.

On the other hand, when we don't need to reinvent the wheel, we turn to historical experience. The student movement has a large-scale history in completely different chronological and geographical contexts. By studying this heritage, and being aware of the differences with the current situation, we can avoid repeating the same mistakes.

This is how we began to study the student union movement in Quebec, a region where it is still strong today. Since the events of 1968, the province has had a distinctive structure of student associations that ensure the re-enactment of teaching strikes and general assemblies of teachers and students. We drew inspiration from ASSÉ, the Association pour la solidarité syndicale étudiante, which existed from 2001 to 2019 and had 34 member associations for a total of 56,000 students, while remaining left-wing. We are continuing to study their strategies, tactics and internal organisation, looking for things that can be adapted and work in our context. For example, the concept of 'students as workers' allows us to address a number of issues in higher education in a different way, creating a space for solidarity not only with other student groups and movements, but also with general trade union initiatives: nursing, construction, and those launched by service workers (where students often work part-time because of low grants).

It is worth noting that we have friendly contacts with the Polish organisation Koło Młodych, part of the trade union Inicjatywa Pracownicza, Poland where our activists recently attended a conference, shared their experience and helped organise training. We also have close links with the French student organisation Solidaires-étudiantes.

In Ukraine, the situation is somewhat different. Most Ukrainian student initiatives, such as the Ukrainian Students for Freedom or the Ukrainian Students League, have fundamentally different principles to ours. The USF is a libertarian organisation that focuses mainly on political issues, leaving social issues to one side. Sometimes their ideological underpinnings produce, in our view, openly anti-student positions: during the reorganisation of the Kharkiv NUBA, in the course of which some members of staff had to lose their jobs and students had to lose their state-funded places, USF refused to cooperate during the protest because it considered this "optimisation" to be expedient.

Nevertheless, we are happy to cooperate with student councils, organisations and other forms of autonomy that operate within universities. Their actions are admittedly limited, as they are governed by the university administration, but joint projects and communication are an important part of our work. It's through student associations at various universities where we don't have activists that we can find out about problems, corruption and so on. Sometimes these student associations are not happy to cooperate with us because they see us as suspicious, but in general we often manage to establish communication.

It was perhaps your "generation" that had the most difficult tasks. What subjects does Direct   Action deal with? What are your main areas of activity today?

Our tasks can be divided into two categories: those related to the State's education policy during the war, and those of a more general nature, such as promoting emancipatory tendencies in the organisation of education, the fight against discrimination, eco-activism, and the popularisation of left-wing ideas among young people.

We all know that during martial law, there is a ban on men of military age leaving the country. This bannn applies to students, whether they are studying abroad or in Ukraine. This state policy considerably hampers the educational process, as students from foreign educational establishments are unable to travel to their place of study. In an environment where local universities are systematically underfunded and the level of teaching declines due to overwork, students lose motivation and do not receive all the knowledge they need. As a result, in the near future we will be faced with a shortage of the professionals needed to support Ukraine's social and economic sectors and, we hope, the successful post-war reconstruction. This is why the demand for access to study abroad for male students is one of the main demands of our union.

In May 2023, we launched the Studak campaign to fight for the right to academic leave and social  guarantees in the form of state-funded places guaranteed by pre-war legislation. The administration promised students that, after a legal break, they would be able to return to free education, which they had been waiting for. However, in the autumn of 2022, the Department of Education and Science issued Resolution No. 1224, which effectively abolished all state-funded places for these students.

As a first step, we contacted the victims to assess the scale of the problem. To this end, we have sent hundreds of letters to the student councils and rectors of the country's various universities, but we have yet to receive a significant response (we have received around 5 replies). We have also tried to contact foundations to ask them to cover the costs of particularly hard-hit students. In any case, we haven't found any support from universities or government agencies. We are now at a crossroads: some of us see direct action as the last chance to make our voices heard, while others are considering contacting the media.

A few days ago, we launched a petition to transform the former Russian embassy building in Kiev into a community center. Instead of being unused or turned into a new shopping center, this space will become a meeting point where students can share their knowledge and experiences. This will make it easier to generate new ideas and work together to implement them. In addition, the community center will support people who need help and shelter. If the petition does not receive a large-scale response, we plan to run several Direct Action campaigns to draw attention to the project.

Like many other institutions in Ukrainian society, education is in need of reform. How do you see a positive future for Ukrainian education? In short, tell us how a university should be organised so that young people want to study there?

Our union has strategic, ambitious and even utopian visions. There are several, and we have not yet formulated a single position, although we hope to draw up a manifesto setting out the main principles by the end of the year.

Of course, we agree that education should be accessible, even free. On this basis, the members of Direct Action are building different models. Let me give you an example. Universities and the higher education system in general play an important role in the reproduction of society: the knowledge at different levels of practical application that students acquire is used in business, industry, management, politics and so on. The material and political benefits we enjoy are deeply rooted in the education system. Consequently, by studying, writing theses and essays and producing ideas, students do part of the work necessary not only for the development of society,   but also for its reproduction. From this point of view, a student acts like a worker, which means that education should not only be accessible, but also paid for. The idea of a student wage is not new. At the height of the student movement in the 1970s, it had many supporters and was a concrete demand for the authorities.

To this strategic vision must be added the fundamental autonomy and democratisation of universities. We do not believe that students are "consumers of education", players in a buying and selling network in which knowledge has a totally utilitarian function. The knowledge we receive in higher education institutions is not prepared "for us", like pies, which we then buy. It is flexible and is constantly being transformed during the learning process. This is how education improves and adapts to needs.

Students are therefore full participants in this process and should play an appropriate role in the management of the institution. It's not a question of whims, but of improving the university, which is increasingly urgent in the context of post-war reconstruction.

We need to show the students who have been forced to leave Ukraine that changes are under way  in the higher education system, that there will be positive changes. Such transformations are not the fruit of the goodwill of a minister or a president, but require a struggle and the involvement of students. Unfortunately, young people today do not see learning problems as something exceptional, but rather as a normal, 'natural' state of affairs. We often hear things like: "It can't get any better! At such times, Mark Fisher's verdict that we've forgotten how to imagine rings true. In order to move things forward, we try to propose different strategic visions of the ideal education.

Apart from the utopian demands, we understand that there are challenges to be met here and now. These are quite trivial problems that are the starting point for more important work: the lack of silabus [or abstracts] in many university disciplines, poorly formatted academic calendars, cockroaches in dormitories, and many others. Every little victory revives the organisation and takes  it to a new level. It's for this kind of work on the ground that we're currently working on decentralising the organisation and registering branches (union sections) in different universities. It is important not only to focus on the problems of Ukrainian education in general, but also to work on a small scale.

What do you wish students on 1st September?

You must always have the power to choose. To choose what you study, who you listen to, where you go and with whom you communicate. Sometimes the situation is such that it's almost impossible to make a choice: there are thousands of obstacles in your way. That's why we exist as  a union, as a space where every student can overcome the obstacles together and fight for a decent education. That's why it's important not to succumb to standardisation and "averaging". Let education give you the means to think critically about the social relations that surround you, to overcome inequality, injustice and arbitrariness, and not to drag you into a system built on domination and submission.