Police, politicians and the NUS can’t stop the fight for free education
By KD Tait
2014 was the year the student movement moved decisively from the defensive to the offensive. Tax the rich to fund education for all was the demand that mobilised 10,000 students to march on parliament for the first time since 2010.
The demonstration succeeded in spite of the sabotage attempted by the national NUS leadership which withdrew its support on spurious ‘health and safety’ grounds. Despite the media boycott, the demonstration’s success encouraged students to redouble efforts for the follow-up week of action called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC).
The national day of action on 3 December saw protests at 20 universities around the country. Students occupied at University of Manchester, Sheffield, Lancaster and Warwick. Activists in London occupied the lobby of Vice-chancellors’ advocacy group Universities UK.
At Warwick management summoned police to evict students occupying Senate House. Graphic video showed police using CS gas and threatening students with tasers. In a repeat of previous incidents, this gratuitous violence backfired. Over a thousand students protested the next day, ending with the occupation of the Chancellor’s Suite. Whether the rumour that the occupation forced Vice-Chancellor Nigel Swift to cancel a “gala dinner” is true or not, the response shows the best way to stand up to intimidation is to escalate the action.
The 2010 student resistance to the imposition of £9,000 fees made its goal the defeat of the Coalition parliamentary vote. The explicitly political character of the movement enabled NCAFC to mobilise mass opposition on the streets but it also meant that the government’s narrow victory on 9 December destroyed the momentum. EMA was abolished over the 2010 Christmas break without a fight from the NUS, which technically represents FE students.
The UCU strike in 2011 was a missed opportunity to capitalise on the support for education generated by the student movement. A political strike in defence of free, well-funded education could have defied the anti-union laws by linking up with students and building a wider campaign in the working class to turn the slogan ‘what parliament can do, the streets can undo’ into reality. By striking over pensions, lecturers were forced to justify their “gold-plated” pensions instead of forcing the government to justify their attacks.
The leaders of the trade unions had plenty of admiring words for the students’ “inspirational” struggle. But despite their rhetoric, the union leaders loyally assisted the ruling class by trading social peace for petty concessions. When the students were abandoned and then attacked by the Labour Party leadership of NUS, NCAFC was able to provide a political leadership and strategy for escalating the struggle. Unfortunately trade unionists had no such organisation to enable them to fight when their leaders wouldn’t.
As a result, after surviving the student revolt, the Coalition was allowed to reach its first year in office without a single major confrontation with the most powerful organisations of the working class.
The years following the defeat over tuition fees were marked by a turn to defensive campaigns against the imposition of closures, job cuts and privatisation. Hundreds of newly radicalised students were drawn into political activity but the anti-cuts groups and student assemblies built during the 2010 struggle withered away almost everywhere. With a few notable exceptions the anti-cuts movement did not win the leadership of Student Unions or maintain a significant organised presence on campus.
In an effort to overcome this relative isolation, many students opted for more militant tactics. Following the defeat of the vote in Parliament in 2010 the radical student activists made an important outwards turn by taking to the streets to join the UK Uncut campaigns against tax-dodging high street chains. This brought the tactic of the campus occupation onto the high street and brought students into contact with the growing movement against cuts within the working class.
On campus, occupations of management and commercial areas of the university struck a nerve by exposing the role of university bosses in promoting and profiting from the marketisation of higher education. These tactics brought students into closer cooperation with university staff and into open confrontation with university management who were rightly named as the enemy.
University managements, as a professional strata exist in an increasingly antagonistic relationship to students and staff. The defeat of the student movement gave them the confidence to pursue their ideological agenda. The government’s widespread use of courts and police to suppress protest and make an example of students encouraged Vice-chancellors to repeat these tactics on their own campuses. These circumstances set the context for the emergence of a militant movement in 2013.
The regeneration of a student movement in 2014 that isn’t afraid to press for a radical alternative to the current system – and advocate the tactics necessary to do so – is evidence that the seeds of future victories can be sown in the fields of past defeats.
The defiance displayed by Warwick students in the face of management and police attacks on the right to protest is the key lesson from the victory of 2013’s #CopsOffCampus movement. The importance of this victory was that it consciously linked the three fronts of struggle involved in the resistance to the government’s neoliberal reform of higher education – students involved in campaigns to defend education occupied a management building in solidarity with university cleaners fighting for better conditions (Tres Cosas).
After police violently evicted an occupation of UCL’s Senate House, students mobilised three days of demonstrations, ending with the police being forced off campus. The demonstrations ended with a march to the High Court which was delivering its verdict at the inquest of Mark Duggan. In 2014, thousands of students and young people turned out for the marches in solidarity with Eric Garner and the people of Ferguson, called by the London Black Revolutionaries.
Schools and colleges – In the years since which saw the urban uprisings against police murder in 2011, the Occupy movement and a sharp rise in youth unemployment, attacks on youth access to housing and welfare, has created a substantial layer of radicalized youth who have no illusions in the government and are prepared to defend themselves against the police.
The size of national demonstrations and days of action are a long way from 2010 or what is needed to force concessions, let alone the full victory we are fighting for. Nevertheless, the years of setback following 2010 have also been fruitful years of political consolidation and maturity. The survival of NCAFC as a force capable of organising internal pressure within the NUS but mobilising independently of it where necessary means that the experience of previous struggles, defeats and victories can be refined, adapted and generalised for the battles of the future.
This autumn saw the re-emergence of a confident and dynamic student movement, one that has gone from defensive struggles against privatisation and attacks on the right to protest to an offensive campaign that puts the positive fight for taxing the rich to fund free education front and centre. Mobilised without and often in spite of the NUS, it has the potential to make free education an awkward disruption of the Lib-Lab-Con collusion to limit the general election ‘debate’ to the austerity-immigration-deficit consensus.
NCAFC will hold its Conference on 13 and 14 December in Manchester