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What started off as a defensive movement against fee increases and cuts, ultimately raised questions of free education, the ConDem government's spending priorities, and austerity as a whole.

Michael Bailey and Des Freedman, eds, The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance (Pluto Press 2011), 182pp.

The student movement that spread across Britain towards the end of 2010 will be remembered for igniting the fightback against the ConDem government. The university occupations over fees and cuts were a central component of this movement and, together with the demonstrations, gave it vitality, momentum and strategic direction. While it was the initial demonstration of 10 November that gave confidence to students to organise the occupations, growing support for the occupations within universities gave the movement its defiance and determination, forcing open the possibility of resistance not just to fee increases but to the whole government austerity plan. The occupations also played a major role in generating and sustaining a rank and file student organisation, which ensured that after the National Union of Students (NUS) pulled away from organising demonstrations, mass action could be coordinated by the grassroots. Ultimately, despite Parliament voting on 9 December 2010 to increase tuition fees, the movement was successful in exposing the ConDem government’s ideological support for bank bailouts on the one hand and its refusal to fund a welfare state worthy of public support on the other.

University occupations across Britain had taken place in the recent past. There were some 27 occupations in protest at the Israeli assault on Gaza in early 2009, many of which won scholarships for Palestinian students and public statements by managements in solidarity with Palestinians. In mid-2009, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) organised another occupation, this time over the arrest and deportation of cleaning staff by the UK Border Agency. But the recent wave of occupations over fees and cuts was different. These occupations were taking place in the midst of a financial crisis in which the new government insisted that everyone had to pay, students included. This involved the tripling of tuition fees, the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), and up to 100 per cent cuts in government funding for arts and humanities subjects. For students, the immediate fight was about cuts to education but the movement quickly began making broader and more ambitious demands: free education, an end to the war in Afghanistan, scrapping Trident, and opposition to all cuts. This was reflected in the hundreds of homemade placards students brought to the demonstrations. Far from being a defensive or ‘single-issue’ movement, as some commentators suggested, arguments were being made against the spending priorities of the ConDem government. The occupations provided the forums for this politicisation and directed student anger into collective action.

By most accounts there were 46 occupations across the country at the end of 2010, the greatest show of militancy by students in a generation. For many, there was a recognition early on that university managements were going to get behind the government over cuts and fee increases, and so while the mass demonstrations focused anger at the government, the occupations directed this anger towards management at individual universities. The point was to put pressure on university administrations in order that they direct pressure against the government. The fight against both government and management was necessary, and it was the occupations that brought students – and eventually many staff – into direct confrontation with increasingly demoralised university principle-officers and vice-chancellors.

Every university that went into occupation had their own process of debate and discussion, from securing a space to negotiating demands. The SOAS occupation came out of a packed emergency general meeting about how to respond to the cuts and tuition
fee increases. There was fierce debate over whether to occupy, and the decision in favour was won by a mere eight votes. The democratic origins of the occupation proved important: once inside the occupation, every major decision was the result of an attempt to achieve consensus, and where that was not possible occupiers voted.

The demands of several of the occupations reflected both ambition – tempered with a sense of what was possible – and optimism. While some demands focused on pressuring university management publicly to condemn plans to raise fees and cut budgets, others were about pressuring management to refuse to implement fees and cuts altogether. Still others were about increasing financial transparency, reversing outsourcing policies and ensuring there were no staff redundancies. Most occupations also included the demand for occupiers or supporters not to be victimised for occupying or visiting the occupation. This was essential if the occupations were to mobilise students who were still unsure about its merits, and it facilitated a breadth of support that allowed many occupations to shed any reputation of being led only by the far left. Hundreds of students and staff came in and out of the occupations at most universities, either to attend tutorials or teach-ins or simply to show solidarity.

The reality was that students in occupation were taking risks. The threat of being disciplined by management was always there; there was also the threat of arrest by the bailiffs or the police; and of course the threat of serious disruption to their studies, given
all the time spent away from studying. Everyone had something to worry about. So it was understandable that part of the aim was to gather support and numbers in order to minimise these risks. When the SOAS occupation was issued with a high court injunction, later reduced to a possession order, and management advised staff not to visit the occupation, the occupiers called an emergency staff and student meeting in the occupation space. There was intense discussion about whether to continue the occupation and on what basis. But in the context of growing public sentiment against fee increases, the mounting number of occupations, the looming vote in parliament, and the anger at the government, there was little choice. The vote to continue the occupation was unanimous.

A number of university management, together with others who disagreed with the occupations, portrayed them as immature and illegitimate forms of protest. The opposite was true. The general level of organisation inside the occupations was high, with schedules of activities laid out days in advance, teams of people allocated to specific tasks and lists of duties pinned to the walls inside the occupations, from cleaning the space to coordinating legal work. Crucially, it was inside the occupations where much of the organising for the demonstrations in late 2010 took place: providing stewards, printing leaflets, making banners, organising flashmobs in the run-up and mobilising students and staff across campuses. The size and breadth of the demonstrations once again put management on the back foot and clamping down on individual occupations became increasingly untenable.

The occupations were also forums where creativity and technical savvy could flourish. Occupations such as that at University College London (UCL) were examples to some of the others, with their colossal tweeting record and ability to develop software that enabled new forms of resistance. The mobile phone application Sukey, although it was developed after the major demonstrations, was designed to keep protesters informed of trouble spots and potential kettles during demonstrations. It was just one example of technological self-organisation; it almost goes without saying that Facebook, Twitter and blogs were the core organising tools for both the demonstrations and occupations. Old-fashioned text messaging was also key to informing occupiers and supporters of events, meetings and emergencies.

Occupations lasted anywhere from a few hours or days to several weeks. SOAS occupied on 22 November, and was among the first universities to occupy. Within 48 hours, 16 more universities had occupied. And more and more were planning occupations. Much of the initial media focus, however, remained on the broken windows at Millbank following the 10 November protest. The demonstrations that followed – on 24 and 30 November – gave further boosts to the occupations, where this time students as young as 13 were coming out against increased fees and the scrapping of EMA. By the time the last major demonstration was organised, on the day of the vote in parliament, SOAS and other occupations began thinking about how to end the occupations. The rationale was simple: rather than grow too tired to go on or lose sight of the reasons for occupying in the first place, it was essential that occupations were brought to an end on the occupiers’ own terms. At SOAS it was 13 December, exactly three weeks after it began. A rally was held outside the occupation space, where speeches were made and slogans chanted. Staff and students watched and cheered as occupiers came out with their possessions.

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Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi teaches at SOAS, University of London, and has been active in UCU and the student movement of 2010. She is a contributor to The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, and a member of the Counterfire editorial board.

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