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30th anniversary of the establishment of the Independent Students' Union - NZS

The emergence of the Independent Students' Association (NZS) in autumn 1980 in Poland was a response of students to the creation of Self-Governing Trade Union (NSZZ) 'Solidarity' and reflected their need to import to their universities the values as well as the hopes of the so-called 'Polish August'. Prior to 1980, the Socialist Union of Polish Students (SZSP), related and subordinated to the Polish United Workers Party (PZPR), was the only organisation legally entitled to organise and represent students. Since 1977, there had been attempts to create another student organisation by anti-communist dissenters but these stood no chance to effectively rival the mighty SZSP.

The idea to start an independent students' union was first raised in Gdańsk in August 1980 during the Solidarity strike. It was at the University of Gdańsk where the students formed the first Interim Founding Committee of the NZS in early September 1980. Similar committees mushroomed at other Polish universities and colleges in the weeks to follow. On 18 and 19 October 1980, a congress of representatives of 59 students' committees held in Warsaw started the NZS, approved its statute and appointed the governing body - the National Founding Committee. The motion to register the NZS at court in line with the newly passed regulations that allowed to register trade unions was rejected by the Regional Court in Warsaw on 13 November. This led to riots at many universities, and in Poznań the students organised sit-in strikes.

On 22 and 23 November 1980 at Warsaw University, the national congress of NZS delegates decided to apply for the association's registration at the Ministry of Science, Higher Education and Technology and not through court. In its resolutions, the congress demanded a reform of tertiary education, as a result of which, among others, students would have the right to choose foreign language classes and political subjects. Moreover, NZS activists demanded that the communist police (MO) and security services (SB) be banned from entering university premises without the consent of the university authorities, and that a one-year military service for graduates be replaced with military training given in the course of the studies.

Moreover, the students stood up for the imprisoned anticommunist dissenters from the Confederation for Independent Poland (Konfederacja Polski Niepodległej - KPN), an organisation voicing demands for full independence of Poland. The endeavours to register the NZS extended over time as the Ministry of Science, Higher Education and Technology intentionally delayed the necessary decisions. The delay was caused by the communist authorities, who championed the monopoly of the SZSP and opposed the introduction of an independent students' organisation in opposition to the SZSP.

Though the authorities consistently refused to legalise the NZS, the organisation was active at the majority of universities and colleges, arranged meetings, published bulletins free of political censorship, acted as a partner to university authorities and supported 'Solidarity' among university students. It helped to activate student communities and instilled the feeling of participation in the changes which were then taking place in Poland. It was best seen in the NZS demands for a new parliamentary bill on higher education, increasing the powers of collegial bodies at universities and students' participation in these bodies, introducing the right to elect deans and heads of universities, capacity for self-government of universities and the universities' right to independently create academic curricula, extension of university studies from four to five years, restoring jobs to university teachers fired on political grounds prior to 1980, allowing access to books prohibited for political reasons and kept in special library sections not accessible to students.

At the start of 1981 the University of Łódź emerged as an increasingly active centre of the NZS, where students of the Department of Law and Administration started to articulate the demands of the movement. Shortly afterwards students of other departments joined the students of law and set up the interdepartmental commission. Though they addressed their demands to university authorities, the demands covered deep democratization not only of academic, but public life as well, in the whole of the country. The commission negotiated with the university head, and with the Deputy Minister of Science, Higher Education and Technology afterwards, however the talks proved futile and turned up the political heat. On 24 January students launched a strike involving all universities and colleges in the city of Łódź. The NZS in Łódź raised 40 demands covering various areas. NZS activists demanded an extension in the participation of students in universities' regulatory bodies to one third of each regulatory body's composition, the right to democratically elect the universities' executive authorities, universities' independence in matters of science and education, changing the rules for students' military training, abolition of obligatory classes in political science and Russian language, as well as legalisation of the NZS.

Prior to the start of talks with the representatives of the communist government, the leaders of the student strike in Łódź and of the NZS National Founding Committee debated the right of the SZSP activists to participate in the students' strike organisation body. They also debated the extent to which striking students should stress the demands for changes related to the society as a whole, including the registration of the NZS. The organizers of the students' protests in Łódź were moderate in this respect, whereas the national committee representatives were more radical and politicised. The demands as well as a sit-in strike by the students of Łódź universities made students of other academic institutions express solidarity and support to their colleagues. According to estimations, over 30 thousand students were on strike or ready to strike in support of demands phrased by dissenting students.

The talks with minister Janusz Górski and the commission called by the communist government took place between 29 January and 18 February 1981, with short intervals. The registration of the NZS proved most challenging to the government, which finally gave in under the pressure of strike spreading to other academic centres and thanks to the support of the NZS registration by the 'Solidarity' trade union. On 17 February, the ministry finally registered the NZS. The day after, in the city of Łódź representatives of the government and students' delegates signed an agreement which deeply changed academic institutions.

In the following months of 1981 the NZS was growing and it participated in the implementation of the principles of the Łódź agreement. NZS members published around 260 magazines free of political censorship and were active in defence of imprisoned dissenters, members of the Confederation for Independent Poland (KPN). In November 1981, the NZS instigated a pan-national solidarity strike with the Radom Higher School of Engineering, where 'Solidarity' and the NZS were unsuccessful in their demands for deposition of the resented head of the school.

At the dawn of the martial law on 13 December 1981 and in the following days, over 400 NZS activists were arrested, including Jacek Czaputowicz, Jarosław Guzy, Konstanty Radziwiłł, Jacek Rakowiecki, Maciej Kuroń, Wojciech Walczak and Wiesław Urbański. Others, like Teodor Klincewicz, went into hiding and organised underground 'Solidarity' movement. Underground activity undertaken reflected also the need to continue the NZS. Samizdat magazines were published and political graffiti appeared in the streets; many NZS members participated in street demonstrations called by underground 'Solidarity'. Another segment of the NZS initiated the pacifist movement Peace and Freedom (Wolność i Pokój - WiP). On 5 January 1982, the government proclaimed the NZS illegal, which banned its overt activities at universities and colleges, but many of its members participated and even directed students' self-government bodies.

From 1986 onward, a new generation of students made attempts to revitalise the NZS as an underground movement. In 1988, NZS students supported workers' strikes and gradually returned to overtly public activity at universities and colleges, and participated in street demonstrations. In 1989, NZS representatives supported the opposition representatives in the Round Table talks that started the process of political power transfer from the communist party to the democratic opposition. A number of NZS members questioned the consent made with the communist party PZPR and took part in actions organised by radical political groupings. The registration of the NZS, promised during the Round Table negotiations, did not take place. The refusal to register NZS by the Regional Court in Warsaw on 23 May 1989 resulted in protests taking place at a number of universities. The NZS was finally registered on 22 September 1989 in the time of the cabinet of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland's first noncommunist Prime Minister since 1945.

Professor Andrzej Friszke, doctorus habilitatus