Four years ago, in the aftermath of the installation of the current coalition government, students took to the streets and occupied university property in protest against the rising cost of education, cuts to course budgets and student services, and the creeping privatisation of higher education across the country. The protest movement, though short lived, showed remarkable militancy and an ability to mobilise a diverse range of people, from relatively privileged university students studying at prestigious, high-end institutions to poor teenagers angry about the scrapping of EMA. It was also notable for the extent to which the bureaucratic National Union of Students, the NUS, was sidelined almost immediately, left to shriek ineffectually about “despicable students” and “violent minorities” to anyone who’d listen.
Undoubtedly the events of November/December 2010 helped pave the way for the strikes, square occupations and riots that followed in 2011. However, with the central demand of the movement, opposition to the trebling of university tuition fees, lost by the end of the autumn term – and with students going home for the holidays and leaving the occupations that had formed the organising base for the movement on campus – things fizzled out over the next few months. Student anti-cuts organising took a back seat as the TUC manoeuvred for control of the nascent anti-austerity movement. Energy was diverted into supporting rather tokenistic strike action over pensions and fighting for “left” candidates in student union and NUS elections, amongst other things. Moreover, the ramping up of police and state repression and surveillance in the aftermath of the riots made the kind of militant protest tactics that had characterised the 2010 student demonstrations more or less impossible.
However, in the last months of 2014, students were once again marching down the streets of London, this time demanding not just lower fees, but free education. Once again, the NUS distanced itself from the protesters, citing health and safety concerns and accessibility issues – a move which students responded to by paint-bombing their London offices (pictured). Once again, the protest was followed within weeks by protests and occupations around the country. Commentators went as far as describing this as “a new student movement”. What follows is a brief sketch of what is happening now, from the point of view of a participant in the student anti-cuts struggle of 2010/11.
Cast and Characters
The first thing to note in terms of tallying the similarities and differences between the protest movement of 2010 and that currently playing out on campuses around the country is that, for the most part, these are not the same students who took part in those demonstrations. Four years on from those heady days when students smashed up Tory HQ at Millbank Towers, we’re talking about a new generation of student militants here.
The ways and means in which student radicalism reproduces itself through successive generations are complex, but a key part of the recent movement is the resurgence of the National Coalition Against Fees and Cuts, commonly styled NCAFC or NCA£C. Just one of many umbrella anti-cuts groups before November 2010, it rose rapidly to prominence during the student movement, calling a series of “Day X” protests in central London which drew thousands of demonstrators, as well as coordinating action on campuses nationwide.
As the protests fizzled out, NCAFC was riven with internal faction fights and splits, contributing to the overall loss of direction that accelerated the movement’s decline. But by autumn 2014, the group had recovered enough to exert a major influence in the burgeoning Free Education movement, especially after the NUS backed off.
Tactics, Strategies, Demands
The UK student movement that began in autumn 2010 had essentially two main tactics in its arsenal. The first was the protest march, taking to the streets to make the movement’s presence felt through force of numbers, property damage, public disorder and so on. The second was the occupation of various types of university property. Both of these tactics were used extensively around the country, including here in Leeds. The “new movement” of 2014 has already seen both sets of tactics deployed nationwide. This is not that surprising in itself as these have been more or less the default forms of student protest in the UK for decades, although the militancy and size of the street-based demonstrations of 2010 was something exceptional.
In terms of strategy, one attempt to define an overall plan of campaign for the student movement presently available is laid out on the website of NCAFC, in the report on their 2014 annual conference. It’s probably not worth analysing this in detail here, but I’ll list the main points in order of interest:
- protests marches to continue into early 2015
- building links with university staff involved in fighting casualisation
- long term organising towards a “student strike” in 2016
- “reclaiming” student unions, and backing friendly candidates within the NUS
Again, none of this is really new, although there are certainly promising signs of a more long-term approach than traditionally associated with student activism.
Perhaps the most striking difference between this round of student struggles and the last one is in terms of the demands being put forward, the broad goals of the movement as expressed by occupiers and demonstrators across the UK. It’s not that the idea of free education wasn’t being discussed in 2010, but it took a back seat to the immediate priority of fighting fee rises and benefit cuts for uni and college students respectively. With that fight over, the movement rapidly lost momentum. By setting its sights on a more ambitious goal, its possible this recent round of student struggles may be better able to sustain itself long term. Then again, the remoteness of this aim could also make it harder to organise around, as students may be dubious of their ability to achieve this sort of change in the wake of past failures.
The other key difference between today and late 2010 is the nature of the state’s response, and that of university management, to protestors. No example better illustrates this than the experience of Warwick University students staging a sit in as part of the NCAFC “day of action” on the 3rd of December. Not only were the cops called on this small group of peaceful protesters staging a relatively non-confrontational discussion on free education at Warwick University Senate House, but CS gas and tasers were used by the officers to clear students from the building. This marks a serious escalation in terms of the level of police response to even really minor disobedience from the student body.
However, the story doesn’t end there. Barely 24 hours later, Warwick University was back in occupation following a furious response from students in the form of a hundreds-strong “Cops off Campus” demonstration the following day. The new occupation targeted a building described as a “corporate space”, issuing demands to university management and the cops including ending private sector involvement in running the university and providing a better deal for students both in terms of fees and cost of living. Whilst the occupiers were forced to vacate after about a week under threat of legal action, the occupation eclipsed all others in this latest wave of struggles both in terms of length and in terms of the breadth of support from the student body. In this sense, it represents a promising example of students refusing to take state violence lying down, and a high water mark for student actions nationwide.
Time will tell whether this really is the beginning of a new student movement, or simply a momentary blip in the progress of higher education reform that has been accelerating smoothly since 2010. Ultimately the outcome depends on whether the hard core of left-wing activists and organisers on campus, the “usual suspects” who appear to be behind most of the action so far, are able to reach out beyond their own rather insular circles and make the idea of free education resonate with a broader range of students than it currently appeals to. Here, it’s worth looking at the specific demands released by the occupiers in the most recent round of student actions beginning on December 3rd. Both the Warwick and Lancashire occupations included demands not just about tuition fees and police violence, but also about the immediate costs of student life: accommodation, food, gym membership and so on. A win on any of these would be a significant talking point to win over students who might otherwise be harder to sway.
We’ll see if demands like these continue to come to the fore with the continuation of student protests in the new year. At the time of writing, NCAFC has called for free education marches across the UK on the 31st of January. Whether this round of protests manages to push things forwards in terms of numbers and intensity, or turns into a mere rehash of the actions on the 3rd of December, will probably have a big impact on the future trajectory of the struggle.