Austerity has been a disaster for students as it has been for so many people. But the student movement is not responding adequately to the crisis. Katherine Connelly explains
Young people face massive levels of unemployment, insecure and low paid jobs and are pressured to accept, and even be grateful for, the chance of working for free in 'internships' after being forced to amass huge debts at university. When the government tripled fees in 2010 there were huge, angry student demonstrations, including the student invasion of the Tory HQ at Millbank.
But this year's demonstration called by the National Union of Students (NUS) was considerably smaller and ended not in students turning upon the government but a minority turning on the NUS leadership.
The NUS campaign for the march was uninspiring. Good demonstrations are built when the slogans inspire and resonate with people, when campaigning is intensified beforehand to persuade people to attend and bring their friends, and when people feel that their march can make a difference.
The NUS largely failed to do these things. The slogan 'educate, employ, empower' sounded like a recruitment company jingle, rather than a punchy expression of opposition to what is being done to our education.
A misguided approach
But much of the left's response to these problems was disastrous and has helped to weaken rather than strengthen the movement. On the day of the demo a group of left wing students tried to persuade, and then physically force, people not to follow the official route but to stay in front of parliament. This led to a split of around one thousand.
When the main part of the demonstration reached Kennington sections of the left heckled speakers and threw eggs and fruit at NUS president Liam Burns. Other union leaders were also heckled and abused. At one point some left groups were chanting 'general strike, general strike' over a young student who was explaining that she had been driven to working in strip clubs to pay her fees
This kind of behaviour created the atmosphere for the stage invasion which followed. The rally had to be ended in chaos as activists stormed the stage and speakers couldn't continue. The result of all this is confusion and demoralisation for those students who came and gloating articles in the press happy to report that the student movement is eating itself alive.
It should be obvious to everyone on the left that Liam Burns is not the main enemy. The eggs should have been reserved for Cameron, Clegg or Gove.
Splitting the march and disrupting the rally are going to disillusion people with the whole movement not the NUS leadership.
The problems go back to well before the demonstration. It would have been better in the first place if, as Counterfire argued, others on the left had pushed for the NUS leadership to mobilise for the massive TUC demonstration on October 20th. That would have given people the confidence to start organising over student issues on a far larger scale.
More student activists should have spent the summer and early autumn mobilising for 20 October as a step towards building the student demo.
Unfortunately too many left groups appear not to be interested in unity. They are focussed on what differentiates them from other students and other sections of the movement and attacking the NUS.
Anyone who was around will recall that it was the NUS-called march in 2010 that kicked off the mass opposition to fees in the first place, and that this was the biggest student demo in years. Clearly the national NUS is not providing adequate leadership for students. Criticism is necessary.
But the answer to this problem is not to abuse or physically attack them but to pressure local student unions to mobilise on the widest possible scale, and where they won't, to organise a wide mobilisation through the movement. This is elementary for anyone who wants to reach out to the wider student body.
But rather than seriously trying to build mass campaigns in every college, working with the student unions where possible, some groups are increasingly inward looking and sectarian, more comfortable sloganeering and sniping than getting out on the campuses. London, where these groups are strongest, had a low turnout on Wednesday.
The way ahead
The student movement must turn its back on sectarian infighting, ritual sloganeering and the obsession with publicly abusing and shouting down official movement leaders.
The situation for students is too serious. We need a broad, united movement that is linked to the millions of others who are suffering from this government’s policies.
The task is now to go back into our colleges, link the anger that students have with the widespread anger against austerity in general, organise rallies and meetings in the colleges against the cuts to courses and departments, against the marketisation of education, and the looming unemployment that we face.
If we can build a mass movement in the colleges we can put pressure on the NUS and, more importantly, start to threaten the main enemy in Whitehall.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. Her book, ‘Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire‘ was published by Pluto Press last year.
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- Introduction to Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire