Polish students may provide a litmus test for the Warsaw government as the new year opens with martial law suspended instead of lifted outright.
The students - through the new Association of Polish Students - begin the year with a union that enjoys some of the preferences of the fully independent one suppressed under martial law.
For nearly a year after the December 1981 imposition of martial law, the student movement was in limbo while authorities tried to revive a former, more-controlled union. It didn't work.
Stirrings at universities in Warsaw and Torun Nov. 10, a Solidarity anniversary that passed without other incidents, served to remind the regime that youth still must be handled with care.
The new student union was established Nov. 22. Formed as an association in which politics are compartmentalized, it emphasizes social, professional, and occupational interests. After making sure that basic political ground rules would be observed, the government pretty much left the rest of the organizational process up to the students. Most of them seem to welcome this.
The association's founding documents describe it as ''socialist in character'' and bow to the ''leading role'' of the Communist Party in Polish life. That said, the union is defined as open to all students, regardless of political and religious outlook.
That goes some way toward the democratization of student life that developed in Solidarity's heyday. The association obviously does not have the autonomy of the short-lived union formed in February 1981. But its name and charter in effect restore a broadly nonpolitical tradition that prevailed from the early 1950s until Edward Gierek moved in 1973 to bring students back under strict ideological rein.
A few months ago, the authorities realized they had to pacify the young generation if they were ever to gain acceptance from society at large for some common platform for economic recovery.
Eleven million Poles are between 15 and 29 years of age. This age group accounts for 47 percent of skilled workers.
Each year 500,000 graduate and begin looking for work, but fewer and fewer job openings are consistent with their qualifications. A Communist Party report has estimated that by 1985 there might be 57,000 fewer jobs for university graduates and a shortfall of 470,000 jobs for graduates of technical and secondary schools.
The housing shortage compounds the alienation of young Poles. Of 3 million young couples, a recent survey showed, only 18 percent had an apartment of their own when they married. Fifty-six percent had a room to themselves; 17 percent had to share. The other 9 percent started married life apart.
A decade ago, Mr. Gierek promised every family a decent home by the end of the '80s. The housing program got off to a hopeful start but went into a decline in 1975. There is a waiting list with at least 2 1/2 million applicants - most of them young people.
Such conditions compound the problems of juvenile delinquency, crime (often violent), and drug abuse.