MADRID: Spaniards, already reeling from a gruelling recession, are stepping up their resistance to government cuts to education spending that have led to larger class sizes and a huge jump in tuition fees.
Thousands of chanting high school and university students marched through the streets of dozens of Spanish cities, including Madrid and Barcelona, on Wednesday against the cuts, which aim to slash Spain's public deficit.
"Without education, there is no future," said one sign held up by a protester at the march in Madrid.
Demonstrations will be held again across Spain on Thursday, this time involving parents as well as teachers, to mark the end of a three-day strike called by Spain's Students' Union.
Between 70 and 85 percent of Spanish high school students have taken part in the strike, according to the union.
"We fought hard to create a public education system that has quality, we can't let them dismantle it now," said Leonor Andres, a 50-year-old mother of two.
Andres, who has a 14-year-old daughter who is in high school and a 20-year-old son who is studying engineering at a public university, said she had been directly affected by the government education cuts.
"University has cost me double. Last year I paid 1,200 euros for tuition and this year it was 2,400 euros. And there is the rise in the value-added tax, which you feel everywhere, in the cost of food, transportation," she said.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government raised the country's general value-added tax from September 1 by three percentage points to 21 percent as part of its austerity drive.
Certain products like school text books which enjoyed a reduced value-added tax rate of 4.0 percent are now taxed at the general rate.
Ana Medina, a mother of two teenagers, said the measure is unfair because it affects mostly those of modest incomes.
She said there was a growing gap between rich and poor in a country where the unemployment rate has soared to around 25 percent following the collapse of a property boom in 2008.
"Many families have seen their grants eliminated, for textbooks as well as cafeteria meals," said Medina.
The number of students who will receive grants this school year will drop to 344,260 from 923,895 last year, according to education ministry figures.
Without the grants, more and more families have opted to send their children to school with packed lunches but certain regions like Madrid and Barcelona want to charge them for use of the cafeteria, a move that has angered parents.
Other regions like Valencia have made cuts to the school transportation system for primary school students.
"All of this seems shameful to me," said Medina, adding she was also angered over the reduction in the number of teachers at public schools.
A month after the start of classes "my children don't have teachers in certain subjects," she said.
Public spending on education has been reduced by over one billion euros this year compared to 2011 and public schools employed nearly 3,000 fewer teachers during the 2011-12 academic year, according to the education ministry.
The spending cuts have caused class sizes to balloon, forcing the cancellation of activities such as laboratory experiments which require smaller groups, said Andres.
Many students say the higher tuition fees combined with the reduction in grants was making it difficult for them to continue their studies.
"Tuition fees have risen sharply. Last year I paid 700 euros and this year it is 1,300 euros," said 21-year-old journalist student Laura Ruiz.
"If I don't get a grant, I won't be able to continue my studies."