Police violence and a court injunction against occupations won't stop students defending their right to protest and opposing the sell-off of the student loan book
It’s obvious to those of us who’ve been active on the ‘flashpoint campuses’ in London and beyond that there’s life in the student movement again, in a way that there hasn’t been for quite some time. The pan-London occupation of Senate House on Wednesday is testament to that. We stood together against a violent onslaught by police and private security to demand fair pay for our staff, protection for our University of London Union (ULU) and bankers’ hands off our student loans.
The action was spearheaded by the ULU student leadership and brought together the major campaigns articulating student protest against austerity. The apparent distinctions between separate issues are ultimately superficial. Let’s be clear: this is about the corporatisation of higher education being enforced by the Coalition government and its armed wing, the police.
When we occupied Senate House, we knew we were marching into the belly of the beast: the seat of administration for the whole University of London. But the aggressive break-up of the occupation and the subsequent police brutality at solidarity protests have caused shock across campuses.
Violence on demonstrations is not new – indeed, witnessing the vicious attacks on students during the 2010 student revolt played a key role in radicalising many of the students now taking the lead in the student movement, even if indirectly. But occupations have usually been left to the universities to deal with – a precedent that was broken when the police broke up Birmingham’s occupation last Thursday, and then broken again on a whole new level at London’s Senate House.
The relationship between the university administration and its students is changing, becoming more absolute and autocratic. The illusion of dialogue is falling away. The aggression in the police response, and the deplorable tactics deployed by the university’s private security – the assaults on entirely peaceful occupiers, infiltration of the occupied space and theft of personal belongings – reflect that change.
The historical taboo around ‘cops on campus’ has been undermined in recent months, with police activity escalating, particularly around ULU, with students arrested for chalking on their own pavements and, in the aftermath of this week’s protests, with over 30 students arrested, including a quarter of ULU sabbatical officers jailed along with the editor of the London Student.
University management has taken out a high court injunction banning protest on campus. This ‘emergency move’ was taken after what management describes as a ‘campaign of intimidation’ by students, claiming that they had ‘no right’ to occupy the space and that they prevented senior staff from leaving their offices – a gross misrepresentation of the truth, since every effort was made to ensure staff could leave the occupation safely (of which video evidence was recorded).
Perhaps the university management and therefore the police overestimated what they could get away with whilst avoiding public condemnation, and underestimated the level of solidarity amongst students. But they decided to risk it, for two reasons: firstly, they have more reason to do so now than they did before. University managers seeking the market-led reform of their institutions realise they need to break possible resistance to this transformation now, or risk seeing their plans permanently undermined. In the case of the University of London, its function as a purely managerial institution, not directly involved with teaching and research delivered in colleges, makes it all the easier for its own bureaucrats to see students’ (and indeed staff) protests as a cost to be minimised as far as possible. Behind the managers lurks the Coalition, now quite brazen in its efforts to reshape British society permanently in the service of the markets.
The second reason for the crackdown is perhaps the more significant one strategically: they think they can get away with it. They recognise, and no doubt the university has made this case, that the protesters remain too isolated from the student body as a whole. They have no direct reason to fear the tsunami of solidarity tweets, important as these are – what they fear most is mass action, and they don’t think that the student movement has the strength to deliver that. This is our greatest weakness, and a failure to recognise that will be our end.
Three key issues bound the Senate House occupation. First, the attempt by management to shut down ULU has brought together a range of student groups and unions. In May, the University of London, led by Paul Webley, the Director of SOAS, issued a statement that, without any consultation with students, ULU would be shut down and transformed into a ‘student services centre’ run by unelected managers.
Of course, under the new model of market-driven education in which students are re-cast as passive consumer-clients, we are expected to be satisfied with a services centre. But a campaign to defend the union has been launched. This is about improving the ‘marketability’ of universities: if they cannot be sold as stable, profitable and ideologically subordinate institutions able to keep labour costs and internal ‘student disruption’ down. But under the proposals, ULU’s elected officers and democratic campaigns will grind to a halt – a desirable goal for management, given that many of these campaigns focus on mobilising the student body against the trashing of our education system, driven by government cuts and imposed with the complicity of university management. More broadly, the closure will threaten cultural, sporting and other clubs and societies, affecting students across the board, and constitutes a political attack on our right to organise in a union whose history goes right back to the 1920s.
Second, practical solidarity between students and staff is also growing. The grassroots 3 Cosas campaign, along with Justice 4 Cleaners based at SOAS, has been fighting to bring the sick pay, holiday pay and pensions of contract workers in line with in house staff. Workers at Senate House have formed their own union to pursue this goal, pulling 92% support from their ranks for the last 2-day strike, despite intimidation tactics by management, immigration raids and the threat of deportation. Though cast by some as a ‘local issue’, the degradation of pay and working conditions for these workers is a more potent issue by far. It should be seen as part of a broader crusade by university management to restructure labour relations and maximise profits in order to accommodate the government’s austerity agenda.
The spike in industrial action amongst contract workers has been mirrored on a larger scale as well, with academic staff taking unprecedented levels of joint strike action between the unions UCU, Unite and Unison. After 2008, academic staff have suffered the worst cuts in real wages (13%) since the Second World War, and when sustained negotiations yielded the insulting offer of a 1 per cent increase, the unions showed themselves willing and able to take action. Mass actions on the national stage called by the TUC and the People’s Assembly – 70,000 marching for the NHS in Manchester on 29th September, and actions taken nationwide in 5th November’s bonfire of austerity – have inspired higher levels of confidence among workers, and the Student Assembly Against Austerity has worked alongside other campaigns to promote the same national cohesion on campus. Strike action on both 31st Oct and 3rd Dec was met with solidarity actions from students across the country and with occupations at Sussex, SOAS and Sheffield.
Finally, the privatisation of the student loan book provoked coordinated student actions by a broad range of anti-cuts groups and student unions on almost 30 campuses as part of a national day of action called by the Student Assembly on 20th November. Like the campaigns over staff pay and conditions, this is an issue for which there is a broad and powerful base. £600 million worth of student debt has been sold for around a sixth of its value.
Despite government denials, a secret government report has confirmed that millions of current and former students will see the interest on their student loans soar, amounting to a retrospective second hike in tuition fees. The Student Assembly’s week of action, called for 3rd February, has already been backed by activists at at least 35 universities, and will help enable us to keep up the momentum moving forwards.
Build the movement – time is short
The #copsoffcampus protests, which will culminate in a national day of action on Wednesday, seek to demonstrate that students will not be intimidated and stopped from protesting the onslaught of austerity. But whether or not it succeeds in that aim – and that is dependent on its ability to broaden and connect with the wider student body more– the key issue from here onwards will be maintaining momentum and overcoming the sectarian divides which have dogged us in less dramatic times. The NUS’s failure to take any real action over this issue must not be allowed to hold us back.
In 2010 students lead the way for workers, feeding into the strikes of autumn 2011; this time it was the industrial struggles of the workers that helped galvanise the students. So momentum calls for the building of bridges, not just amongst students but with wider society as well. Friday’s solidarity protest outside ULU was attended by Unite executive member Richard Allday. “Unite is committed to fighting any attempt to limit the right to protest. We fully support all students exercising that right, and I’m here to give you all our support and solidarity, and to condemn the brutality of the police.” UCU have written an open letter to the director of SOAS condemning police brutality, and similar statements are picking up the signatures of academic staff across the country. And petitions like this one have been launched.
What is also needed, with increasing urgency, is some political clarity. Police brutality is abhorrent, and threatens the right to protest, and must be opposed. But it is also not exceptional, being a never-ending reality for London’s ethnic minorities – and neither is it at the heart of our outrage. What it does do, is deflect attention away from the key political issues that got us onto the streets in the first place. We must not allow this campaign to degenerate into a crusade against the police for doing what they always do: protect the bosses and disrespect our rights. Furthermore, an extended focus on ‘students vs. police’ will alienate the broad swathes of the student body whose participation is so desperately needed for the student movement to grow.
The rising militancy of a minority of radical students can never substitute for a mass movement. Direct action has a vital role to play, but it cannot be the only tactic. What is required to break university management, and then break the police, is a mass campaign of tens of thousands of student activists united behind a radical leadership unafraid to act. Minority radicalism can never substitute for mass action. And we must make and win that argument now, and create the space for building that mas support, brick by brick.
Whose University? OUR UNIVERSITY!
At the heart of all these debates around cuts, student debt and working conditions, is the ideological form and function of ‘the university’. Before our eyes, and real enough to put blood on Malet Street, two competing visions are battling it out for control of our campuses. One is the vision of education as a human right and the university as a public institution and an intrinsic good; as a cornerstone of civilised society, an institution with a duty of care and representation to its staff and students, promoting education as a value in its own right.
The other is the vision of a competitive corporate body, ruthlessly dedicated to the maximisation of profits through intensified exploitation of staff and students alike; which treats education as an instrument for producing profit and political subservience and the arts and social sciences as out-dated curiosities to be thrown under the bus of economic progress; a dazzling academic supermarket of meaningless, impotent ‘consumer choice’.
With austerity’s assault on our vision of what the university should mean, that is the only division we can afford to be interested in. Defending our right to protest and opposing the sell-off of the student loan book are two elements of building a mass movement able to fight for it. The sell-off threatens all students, past and present, with an unending burden of debt, and police brutality has provoked a deep anger. The campaign over the deteriorating conditions of both academic staff and contract workers have the potential to be another one, if the movement can place it in its proper context of nation-wide austerity and smash through this false dichotomy between national and so-called ‘local issues’ which, in fact, are blighting insecure and migrant workers up and down this country.
Those who argue that these issues are a distraction from the national campaign against the cuts miss that point; and those who argue that a national campaign and rising level of organisation are unwelcome intrusions on a local campaign do a disservice to local campaigners, and undermine our ability to win. What we need now is vigorous, grassroots organisation from the bottom married with ideological clarity and national organisation. We need this militancy, but also the breadth of a mass movement. It’s a lot to ask – but we are going up against university managements, and ultimately the British state, after all. And we have to build the movement, now; because the vultures are circling, and our universities don’t have much time.
Sign the petition opposing police brutality against student protesters
Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.
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