November 17th marked the 75th observance of International Students’ Day. First started in 1941, the day marks the anniversary of Nazi troops storming Charles University in Prague and commemorates the work of student activists. The day is also a chance to celebrate the value brought to universities by multi-culturalism.
November 1939 saw students take to the streets of Prague in protest of the murder of Jan Opletal, a Czechoslovakian medical student who had been killed at an anti-Nazi protest a few days before. In retaliation to these demonstrations, on November 17th the Nazis shut down all universities and further education institutes in Czechoslovakia and executed nine student leaders without trial. The Nazis also sent an estimated 1,200 protesting students to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where up to 35 students are thought to have died.
The European Students’ Union (ESU) said, “Each NUS has its national priorities and therefore carries out actions that it deems relevant, without forgetting to express solidarity among each other.” For example, in the Czech Republic observance of the day focuses heavily on the students murdered by Nazis in the 1940s, with a memorial at the site where Jan Opletal was killed, often attended by the country’s Prime Minister, President, and academics.
However, other European countries often use the day to celebrate multi-culturalism in universities and to celebrate the unity of students from different nations. In past years, the Flemish and French student unions in Belgium have come together on International Students’ Day to discuss pertinent student issues and to have productive dialogues.
In 1973 a protest by Greek students against the oppressive military junta that controlled the country from 1967 to 1973 ended in bloodshed on the day. After they had usurped power, the army had immediately instigated oppressive laws and bans upon the student community in Greece. From 1967 student elections had been banned and the national student’s union was served by non-elected, pro-state leaders.
The November discontent followed a strike in the early months of 1973 by law students at the University of Athens, who opposed the practice of students being drafted without their consent. The University of Athens protesters faced police brutality, as did those on International Students’ Day of the same year when Athens Polytechnic demonstrators were attacked by state forces. The November protests culminated in an army tank crushing the gates of the university; 24 civilians were killed and hundreds of students were injured in the days of protest and suppression. Now this day is commemorated as ‘The Day of the Greek Students’ and is observed by all institutions of education in Greece.
UEA’s Campaigns and Democracy Officer Amy Rust said, “Although student activism is as old as Higher Education itself, it’s the organised expression of it through local and national unions that has had the most impact.” Reflecting on the history of the UK’s NUS, Rust said, the union was “formed as an international organisation for peace in the aftermath of the First World War, and since then students have played a key role in advancing causes related to both education and students themselves, and wider
social and political issues- like the battle for equality and liberation at home, and campaigns like anti-apartheid in South Africa through-out the 80s.”
“Today the student movement is in rude health, with over 6,000 campaigning societies in over 200 students’ unions helping students transform the world,” she said.
In what seems like an era of ‘othering’, International Students’ Day provides us with an annual chance to consider the importance of international unity in the student
movement. Limitations on the number of international students coming to study in the UK have
been announced by Theresa May’s government.
The future of UK higher education institutions in a global context seems uncertain as the triggering of Article 50 approaches. Most worryingly of all, many students have been made to feel afraid and even physically unsafe in light of xenophobia being legitimised by political parties across the Western nations. International solidarity is needed in the student movement; and International Students’ Day serves as a sharp reminder of the tragedies of the past, but also as an impetus for the future of student activism.