VILNIUS - Students and academics have once again gathered outside the Seimas (Lithuanian parliament) to show their disapproval with proposed higher education reform. The protesters demanded the resignation of the education minister and an end to talk of reform.
Organized by the Higher Education Trade Union, the protest was not supported by any official students' association. Protest organizers had originally planned on about 7,000 participants, but only a few hundred arrived.
"No official representatives of students are here today. They have principally agreed with the proposed higher education project and they are going to negotiate only on trivial details. Therefore I want to congratulate official students' associations on becoming first and only in all Europe for cheerfully greeting the taxation of students and burden of loans. All of them must resign," said Nerijus Stasiulis, representative of Citizens' Initiative for Quality and Accessibility in Lithuania's Higher Education.
Protesters criticized the reform, which would introduce performance-related funding, with the best students receiving scholarships, as well as reducing the number of universities. Too many universities and university students, free education and relatively low competition have caused the decrease in quality, according to reform plan authors.
Heated speeches were interrupted by the arrival of Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, Seimas Speaker Arunas Valinskas and Minister for Education Gintaras Steponavicius. This was the first time since last year's protests that high ranking officials have come to speak with the crowd.
"It's a pity the present day [Vilnius] university is not that much different from the earlier [Soviet] one. Do we want to live in modern Lithuania or do we want to live in Lithuania, where some things cannot change?" the prime minister said.
"I know there are critics, I know there are many supporters. We will act sensibly, without insulting others and I hope that in this meeting we can also get along without insulting each other. But discussions and consultations must take place in government's meeting hall, Seimas meeting hall, not in public gatherings," said Kubilius.
Valinskas agreed with the prime minister.
"I agree with Andrius Kubilius opinion that we must talk about most sensitive issues, and I informed the organizers of the protest yesterday that we will receive your representatives in the Seimas Speaker's office today at 3:00 and start a dialogue. I give my word that this law will not be treated the way some other laws were handled before," said Valinskas.
Last year thousands of students protested because they were disappointed with the quality of higher education. Steponavicius played on these concerns, saying "the quality of studies will change with the reform."
"I think this planned reform is targeted to positive change, first of all to young people. Student would get twice as much money after the reform if he will attend university, and a professional lecturer would earn twice as much," said Steponavicius.
A State Border Guard Service helicopter circled the skies and dozens of policemen surrounded the area of the protest, which took place about 75 meters away from the Seimas.
Everyone was searched before entering. Two people were arrested for carrying guns.