What started out as the yearly protest by a handful of students against university entrance exams and fees has become an unprecedented student movement. This week Spain's education minister, Jos'e Mar'ia Maravall, met with student groups for the fourth round of talks since the protest began in December. While offering to reform admissions policies, the government refused to scrap the entry exams altogether. Students rejected this offer. The calls for boycotts and marches continue. On Wednesday, masked youths attacked the Education Ministry with gasoline bombs following a peaceful demonstration.
Protest over specific education issues has blended with a more general feeling of unease about the future and bleak job prospects for the young. Government spokesman Javier Solana described the movement as a ``mood - something difficult to negotiate with.''
The extent and virulence of the protest has taken education officials by surprise and shocked the public. Indiscriminate police action during demonstrations and vandalism instigated by clans of young people outside the student movement have added a large dose of tension to the protest. Rival student organizations have also marred talks with officials by going ahead with unauthorized demonstrations and clashing violently with police.
The successful French student movement in December undoubtedly encouraged Spanish students to try to force government concessions and policy changes. This year, two new student organizations were ready to take up the challenge. The Sindicato de Estudiantes, an openly Trotskyist student union, seized on the opportunity to mobilize high school students.
The main issue of entrance exams has been contested since they were first applied in 1974. According to the Education Ministry, rejection rates have actually dropped from 30 to 18 percent in the last four years. But current overcrowding means students who pass exams may be shunted off to centers other than their first choice. Meanwhile, barely 100,000 of Spain's 800,000 student population receive grants, and fees remain quite high for a state-backed system.
Anxious to cut the protest short, Mr. Maravall now has a proposal that includes increasing grants by 25 percent for 1987 and 30 percent for 1988, making university free for those from low income families, and keeping fees in line with inflation.
But the students' concern goes beyond the question of immediate economic solutions. For those leaving school, the outlook is dismal. With 21 percent of the active population out of work, Spain's unemployment rate is the highest in Western Europe. The jobless rate for those between ages 16 and 24 is over 45 percent.
``The years of ... indifference have passed,'' says Juan Ignacio Ramos, a history student and leader of the Sindicato. ``The situation of families hit by unemployment and the lack of money has changed the mentality of a lot of young people.''
Ironically, many of today's Socialist Party executives were once student ringleaders themselves. In 1969, Maravall's activities led to his being banned from entering any Spanish campus. Maravall has worked as a minister to create more schools, raise compulsory schooling from age 14 to 16, and defend a reform of private education against powerful church interests.
But the generation gap persists - this time, with students who have grown up since democracy's return in 1976. Frustration and disenchantment have spread as many youths say the Socialists' promises of change haven't been realized.
The inherited scholastic tradition still weighs heavily on the Spanish education system. It is a strict system that leans on rote learning and offers few curricular choices and poor laboratory and sports facilities. Spain's per capita spending for education lags far behind that of other European countries.
A poll published recently in the daily El Pa'is showed that 67 percent of the parents backed students in their protest.
One high-ranking Socialist official admitted that the government was worried about the protest fanning out to other sectors. The students have sought support from workers, and the powerful, communist-backed union Comisiones Obreras has offered its backing.
The Spanish left, discontented with the government's economic policies, also remains sour over last year's anti-NATO campaign. The government won the referendum, even though an impressive number of voters said no to NATO. The first anniversary of the referendum is in March. Leftist groups, which in the past have tried to mobilize the students in vain, now hope to join forces.
The momentum gained by the student movement threatens to keep it going for a while. Unless Maravall manages to halt it, the most solidly supported government in Western Europe in terms of votes could be seriously shaken by spreading protest in the streets.