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Student movements all over the world, covered in The University and Social Justice, show the potential student protest has to challenge the current order, finds Graham Kirkwood

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The University and Social Justice: Struggles Across the Globe, eds Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally (Pluto Press 2020), x, 260pp.

Reading this excellent collection of essays on student, and to a lesser extent workers’, struggles in higher education, what strikes you are two recurrent themes. Firstly how consistently student struggles, which initially start over relatively small issues such as bus fares, generalise quickly into struggles over the nature of the education system itself. The second thing that strikes you is the extreme violence meted out by the state and its forces against students and their supporters. The most shocking example given in this collection is the massacre which took place in Mexico in 1968 when between 300 and 400 university and high-school students (exact numbers are not known) were murdered by state forces on 2nd October 1968 to clear the way for the Olympic Games.

There are chapters from all around the world including Latin America (Chile and Mexico), from Palestine, Turkey, India, Canada, France, South Africa, Nigeria, the Philippines and the UK. Topics covered include feminism and anti-colonial struggles.

Chile

For me, the most informative chapter was that on Chile by Javier Campos-Martinez and Dayana Olavarría. A theme which recurs throughout the book is student discontent and struggles over the introduction of the market into higher education worldwide. There is nowhere better to start the analysis of this than in Chile, the cradle of these neoliberal policies. It is shocking reading this how many of the features we are now having to deal with such as fees and school competition originated in Chile under Pinochet.

Chile suffered catastrophically from an extreme right-wing military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973, when the generals seized power from a left-wing reforming government led by President Salvador Allende. Chilean parliamentary democracy ended in a country which had had democratic elections since 1932. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Chile moved back to a form of parliamentary democracy, albeit, crucially, with a constitution drawn up during the dictatorship.

Under Pinochet’s rule Chile became the world laboratory for neoliberalism designed by the most radical of right-wing economists, Milton Friedman and the Chicago economists. Repression on an unimaginable scale was accompanied by the privatisation of much of the public sector including the higher-education system, everything had to be run for profit; ‘the market ruled almost every aspect of people’s lives’ (p.101).

Under the dictatorship teachers’ unions were banned and thousands of educators disappeared, were tortured and exiled. Funding for schools became subject to daily attendance of students forcing schools to compete. ‘Private universities proliferated with almost no regulation or public oversight’ (p.101).

In the chapter titled ‘Learning from Chile’s student movement’, Javier Campos-Martinez and Dayana Olavarría detail recent student struggles beginning with the ‘penguin revolt’ of school students in 2006, so-called because of the students’ uniforms. Beginning from small demands over bus fares, it developed into an almighty struggle against the neoliberal structures of the education system (p.103). The state responded in a number of ways, first with savage repression and then later with the creation of presidential advisory councils, and the inclusion of ‘moderate’ students into state funded positions. A recurring argument of Campos-Martinez and Olavarría is that each time the post-dictatorship Chilean regime faced revolt, it somehow managed to subvert it to intensify the reach and sophistication of its neoliberal reforms (p.105).

In 2011, a new wave of student struggle erupted beginning in a private university in Santiago. By May, a million people marched across the country, with 400,000 in Santiago. Again the movement was met initially with violence with hundreds of students wounded by police in August 2011. The student agenda developed into demanding a full overhaul of the privatised education system placing it back at the service of the public good and accessible to all. To head this off, the government again pulled some of the student leaders into ‘a government program to incorporate the students’ ideas’ (p.108). Because nothing was done to address the structural issues, the reforms which were passed ended up benefiting the privatised universities and the better-off students.

The final wave of struggle detailed is ‘the feminist wave’ where students, since 2018, have taken up issues around gender equality across campuses. By May 2018, 29 universities had seen strikes or occupations in support of the demands of the feminist movement.

As the authors of this chapter say: ‘the difficulties in implementing deep transformations in the system have also been a constant’ (p.112). They quote Guzman: ‘The constitution must ensure that if adversaries come to govern, they are constrained to follow an action not so different from what we would have done … the range of alternatives … is small enough to be extremely difficult to do otherwise’ (p.112).

This is the nub of the matter, time and again the Chilean state has been able to absorb and reform ultimately to its own benefit. This is what makes critical analysis of this process most urgent, the question is how we break this cycle.

UK

Also covered in detail are the UK student uprisings of 2010. Just to recap, the newly elected Tory/Lib Dem coalition government in 2010 had increased tuition fees to £9,000 despite the Lib Dems pledging in the election to oppose any such a move. The first demonstration on 10th November 2010 in London saw over 50,000 students converging from universities all around the UK, which led to an attack on Conservative Party headquarters gaining headline news and forcing a sharp debate across the country and a large degree of support for the students.

Jamie Woodcock spells out clearly how the mass protests over the war in Iraq in 2003 and beyond, and the later upsurge in Palestinian solidarity on campuses across the UK in 2008, were key to understanding from where the 2010 protest movements came. As Woodcock himself says, he ‘walked out of school in 2003 in protest at the invasion of Iraq, arrived at University towards the end of 2007 in time for the financial crisis and the Palestine solidarity movement, participated in the student movement of 2010, then later became involved in on- and off-campus worker organising’ (p.25).

Throughout the series of protests held in 2010, the violence meted out by the state was shocking. Kettling became the tactic of choice for the police, encircling protesters and forcing them to stay without facilities for hours on end. And straight forward old-fashioned brutality was meted out to young protesters, most notoriously to Alfie Meadows who was left needing brain surgery following a truncheon blow to the head on the day Parliament voted to increase fees. Woodcock recounts how on that day, 9th December 2010, his own contingent from Manchester went back with one student with a broken collarbone and another with a broken arm (p.32). The police really were bastards that day. The need for solidarity is clear.

Conclusion

As the market has been allowed to rip through higher education in the UK, particularly in England, student struggles have not ignored its effects. The university management’s greedy response to the Covid crisis has seen students locked up in halls and exposed to the virus on a mass scale for the pursuit of profit. Unsurprisingly students are drawing their own conclusions that the marketisation of higher education is a driver of this insanity.

As Azim Choudry and Salim Vally, the editors of this collection, quote, young people today are at the sharp end of the ‘broken promises of capitalism in the age of outsourcing, contract work, deindustrialisation, and deregulation’ (p.7). Students will resist, will generalise to political demands and will face state repression. For those of us in unions either in education or outside, solidarity with students is an obligation for all of us.

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