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The History of November 17th

Why exactly do we celebrate students’ day in Europe?

November 17th is a day of remembrance and gratitude for the acts of those students who came before us, many of whom dedicated their lives for the liberties and rights that us students enjoy so freely today – and sometimes take for granted. The 17th of November is the day where students are put in the limelight and activities are organised throughout Europe by the European Students’ Union (ESU) and National Unions of Students.

Without delving too deeply into why we students celebrate this day, allow me to give you a brief outline of some of the major incidents related to the 17th of November and how Students’ Day came about:

November 1939: Prague, Czechoslovakia:

Demonstrations by Czech students against the German occupation resulted in the killing of Jan Opletal – an aspiring medical student by Nazi soldiers. The student’s funeral procession which was held on the 15th of November led to thousands of students, who used the occasion as another anti– Nazi demonstration. In a brutal retaliation all Czech higher education institutions were closed down; Nazi troopers stormed the University of Prague, more than 1200 students were jailed or sent to concentration camps; and nine students & professors were executed without trial two days later on the 17th of November 1939. The events of this day were first commemorated on the 17th of November 1941 by students in the UK in what became known Europe over as Students’ Day.

November 17th 1973 Athens, Greece:

Students’ rose up in Greece on Students’ Day 1973 in what is known as The Athens Polytechnic uprising. After barricading themselves and constructing a radio station from the equipment that the students found in the laboratories they started broadcasting pro-democratic and anti-regime messages to the entire city of Athens. They were soon joined by thousands of their compatriots. The student strike against the Greek military junta came to a climax on November 17, with a violent crackdown and tanks crushing the gates of the polytechnic.  The Day of the Greek Students is today among the official holidays in Greece.

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the events of November 17, 1989 remain etched in the memory of all who were students then. On this day a peaceful student demonstration in Prague was beaten back by the riot police. That event sparked a set of popular demonstrations that saw the beginning of the Velvet Revolution and finally the demise and overthrow of the communist regime there.

In a ground-breaking move, the significance of which can only be appreciated in light of the problems faced by students in the not too distant past, the European Students’ Union (ESU) passed their students’ rights charter in 2008 – a European document that declares 35 student rights to be inalienable and finally provides a concrete reference document when it comes to student rights.

Human rights are universal and everyone has the right to have those rights guaranteed. Students’ rights fall in the spectrum of human rights, and therefore should be guaranteed by every country and every higher education institution because the recognition of students’ rights is essential to educational success. However it is not the case, as one might often think. Therefore ESU aims to raise awareness on the situation by undertaking each year on the 17th of November several and numerous actions across Europe, which aims to strengthen Students’ rights, with the Students’ Rights Charter in particular.

Whether it’s fighting totalitarianism or arguing around a negotiating table – students have always been a catalyst for change. ESU will every year be promoting the day across Europe by promoting all activities of National Unions of Students on the 17th of November to recognise outstanding students or organisations who have promoted or fought for the student interest in their respective countries.

On Students’ Day we should take some time to remember all those who came before us, who weren’t as lucky as we are today and because of whom all the freedoms we enjoy and take for granted are a reality.

The International Students Day is a day for reflection on the battles that students still have to face across Europe and around the world as they try to obtain an education.  And it is a day, which reaffirms our resolve to make quality higher education a choice and a right for all.  It provides us with the opportunity to bring attention to the current issues we as students face today. In addition, the Students’ Rights Charter, approved in 2008, can easily be promoted on this day due to its relevance with regards to the history of the day.

Therefore, in this time of crisis where higher education is facing numerous and different challenges across the world and where students’ rights for quality and equitable education are violated it is important to remember to all stakeholders and policy makers alike that we do believe on the value of education for social progress and better standards of living for all. It is ESU obligation and responsibility to prevent students’ rights violations by giving all students the chance to speak up on their behalf and share their concerns on Higher Education.

Thanks to campaigns and contests students can share their thoughts in a creative way on what their rights stand for in times of crisis where several austerity measures are violating their freedom for education.

To name a few:

  • budget cuts up to 10% in most European countries and world-wide
  • the increase in tuition or student fees in almost every European country, and especially in the UK;
  • increasing students’ debt
  • university closures or mergers such as in Russia
  • introducing loan schemes from one side and reducing students grants from the other
  • academic freedom under threat
  • special needs program or support program cuts, like with IrelandEstonia, Belgium or Austria;
  • escalating student debt and drop-out rates, like those found in France, Italy, Germany, Spain or Portugal;
  • the privatisation of many education systems, like with German higher education.

For further information, a dedicated web-part will be launched on 17th of November showing all actions undertaken across Europe and worldwide.


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