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A report on the student movement by Counterfire Steering Committee



The Assault on Higher Education: Context & Consequences

As long as there has been public education, the student movement has been a thorn in the side of the capitalist state. The broader and more diverse the student body has become, the more challenging it has been for the ruling class to instil the right balance of education on one hand, and intellectual subservience on the other. Consequently, the university campus has become a hotly contested ideological battleground.

So central was student activity to the broad and radical upsurges of the 1960s that the Rockerfeller-founded Trilateral Commission concluded in their 1975 report ‘On the crisis of the governability of democracies’ that previously passive, unorganised groups of students, particularly women and ethnic minorities, were laying claim to powers and privileges to which they ‘had not considered themselves entitled before’ – not unreasonably, by virtue of their education. Graduates now expected the kind of social contract the ruling class would never consent and cannot commit to: full employment, decent living standards and some degree of autonomy over our own lives. The Trilateral Commission directly, and correctly, identified the expansion of higher education as one of the primary causes of political instability, and argued for its contraction. Problems of governance, they said, stemmed from an excess of democracy. “Needed instead was a greater degree of moderation in democracy.” This logic was adopted with considerable enthusiasm in Britain, and the introduction of tuition fees by a Labour government in 1998 marked the beginning of a downward spiral and the transformation of our education system. Like the privatisation of the NHS, the marketisation of higher education must be seen as an ideological assault on the very principle of universal education, for which economic crisis provided a welcome justification.

Of all the institutions which maintain modern capitalism, public education is perhaps the most contradictory.  It seeks to promote knowledge, creativity and innovation, but only within the precise parameters set by market forces. An evolving economy requires workers which know more, but not too much; are creative, but not too critical; and innovate while showing the appropriate deference to intellectual property, economic imperative, and the status quo.

Our school system is of the most unequal and stratified in the world. The proposed overhall of higher education, a perfect manifestation of this logic, is no less jaw-dropping now than it was when it was announced. Britain, a country whose education spending was already less than most European countries (just 0.7 per cent of GDP), proposed in response to its economic crisis a colossal 80 per cent public funding cut (100 per cent for the ‘less marketable’ arts and humanities.) The re-structure still threatens tens of thousands of jobs.

The tripling of tuition fees have, particularly in better established institutions, muted the effects of austerity measures. Many courses and departments threatened with closure are now being bankrolled by the current student body, through £9000 tuition fees and the sell-off of the student loan book. They can look forward to repaying that debt for many years to come. This undermines the immediate visibility of cuts on campus and puts debt at the heart of the question.

One area that has not been protected, however, has been the pay and conditions of university staff, and this has led to a spike in industrial disputes taking place on campus. In a reversal of the pattern of the Student Revolt, where student militants blazed a trail for the unions, these disputes have in turn galvanised the student movement itself.

The Student Movement in Britain

2013 saw signs of revival in the student movement, both in London and across the country, with occupations at fourteen universities during the winter term. The rise in industrial action played a key role in this. After 2008, academic staff 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, joint strikes were declared between UCU, Unite and Unison. Both strike days, particularly the first on 31st October, provoked widespread student solidarity, including occupations at SOAS, Birmingham and, most famously, Sussex. 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, the draconian measures taken by university management and the deplorable tactics deployed by the London University’s private security, reflect that change.

When Sussex University responded with the suspension of five student occupiers, the protest movement on campus experienced a groundswell of support, with several hundred students attending a UGM to vote almost unanimously for a student walk-out unless ‘the Sussex Five’ were reinstated. To some extent a similar process was mirrored in London when, following the occupation of Senate House, numerous arrests and police brutality took a short-lived and quite insular occupation over various aspects of marketisation on campus, and in just a few short days generalised it into a mass outpouring of solidarity amongst students and anger against this erosion of the right to protest.

This, of course, is not to say that the student movement has risen above the political confusion and organisational weakness that has so long plagued it. Elements within the Sussex occupation whose priority on social media has been to encourage fellow students to ‘burn the SWP’ illustrates a worrying degree of aggressive sectarianism which too often goes unchallenged. There is a danger that with the disintegration of the SWP on campus, the rejection of serious and centralised revolutionary organisation among students will not be far behind: a position we must challenge wherever possible.

Similar issues have surfaced in London, where ultra-leftism and an antagonistic unwillingness to engage with the student body as a whole has undermined the effectiveness of ULU’s leadership. In many cases, tired political rivalries have stood in the way of effective organisation and a viciously moralistic attitude towards less revolutionary analyses and tactics risk alienating the next generation of students on the brink of entering a new phase of the student movement. Furthermore, the dominant mode of organising along the lines of informal networks has resulted in a culture of inward-looking politics. On one hand this has not obstructed the construction of meaningful solidarity between students and staff – and the growth of student-led campaigns like 3 Cosas is a welcome development. On the other, it has inhibited socialists from providing a co-ordinated national leadership and created a divisive and false dichotomy between national and so-called ‘local issues’ of pay and conditions, which in turn undermines attempts to integrate with the wider movement, and with national issues which bear the heaviest on the interests of students themselves, such as the privatisation of the student loan book.

On an ideological level, the need for political clarity has never been greater. In London, for example, key issues that have risen, quite independently, to become flashpoints of resistance – the deteriorating conditions of workers on campus, the attempt to privatise the University of London Union, the privatisation of the student loan book and even the police crackdown on peaceful protest – share a common root: they are all part of the national onslaught of cuts being launched against every realm of public life. That gives a ringing endorsement to the potency and foresight of our work building a united front against austerity. But to coin the favoured phrase, students must be encouraged to ‘join the dots’ on a much broader scale if we are to build a movement capable of winning victories.

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 police violence, is a mass campaign of tens of thousands of student activists united behind a radical leadership with the courage to act and the political clarity to act effectively. Minority radicalism can never substitute for mass action. And we must make and win that argument now, and create the space for building that mass support, brick by brick. The Student Assembly against Austerity is the arena in which we can accomplish this.

The Student Assembly against Austerity

The Student Assembly against Austerity was one of the key initiatives that emerged from the People’s Assembly. It launched on 2nd November this year and over 150 students from 56 campuses and organisations took part, including NUS liberation campaigns, Bring Back EMA, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, Counterfire, Student Broad Left, the Young Greens and a considerable number of student unions. The assembly itself was not as large as we had hoped, but what it did exhibit was a remarkable and welcome degree of unity.

Our first day of action was called for 20th November against the sell-off of the student loan book. The effective privatisation of student loans as far back as 1998 threatens to bloat the debt of millions of current and former students, as interest rates are deregulated – amounting to a further, retrospective hike in tuition fees. With £600 million worth of student debt already having been sold to the Rothschild bank for around a sixth of its value, it also siphons capital out of the public purse. Though action on the day involved students on 26 campuses and showed a refreshing degree of creativity in direct action, the protests were small. This reflects the weakness of the student movement generally, but also suggests a way forwards.

Part of the problem is that the sell-off of student loans remains a relatively obscure issue for many. It has, unsurprisingly, been poorly publicised, and lacks the immediacy of events like strikes and arrests.  An escalation of educational as well as agitational activity is called for, to raise the profile of what in coming years will no doubt become an increasingly critical issue as interest rates on student debt continue to rise – particularly if youth employment rates and living standards continue to fall. The other part of the problem is organisational. What we have in the Student Assembly, and its unique relationship with the trade unions and other forces represented by the People’s Assembly, is an immense opportunity that will not come round again. What it has already done, very effectively, is build bridges between left organisations, and with student unions. Its openness and non-sectarian approach distinguishes it from what has come before, and like the People’s Assembly it provides a potential home for a wide spectrum of budding campaigns over education, living standards, the right to protest and a host of other conflicts emerging in the context of permanent austerity. At present, however, it is in desperate need of organisational development to strengthen its presence on campus - its success will therefore, to no small degree, be determined by Counterfire’s ability to intervene powerfully and strategically in it.

Counterfire: our role on campus

A relatively small number of Counterfire students played a critical and exemplary role in building the Student Assembly this year, as well as the recent ‘cops off campus’ demonstrations and the Senate House occupation which preceded it. A new Counterfire group at SOAS has been successfully built after the graduation of almost all previous members, and has contributed to the success of several public meetings held by the SOAS Stop the War group. A new Counterfire group has also been established at Liverpool University amidst a spike in political activity there. At Queen Mary’s, the growth of the Stop the War group may be leading to the establishment of a Counterfire society, which LSE is also on its way to.

Overall, however, organisational growth is an issue, and often has to do with the balance of activity. It is not enough, as the scale of the Student Assembly day of action illustrates, to engage solely in campaign work. Particularly in the universities, key theoretical questions must be tackled head-on by Counterfire groups in a way united front groups cannot. As the Coalition government swings right on a host of issues and becomes ever more unashamed of its declarations of ‘permanent austerity’, the need for theoretical counter-argument becomes more acute.

On the other hand, Counterfire’s achievements at the national level indicate the importance of building and working within the movement on a much broader scale. Strong campaigning gives us traction and credibility on campus, helps us grow and provides a living laboratory for our theory. The dialectic relationship between our revolutionary organisation and the united fronts we build in Stop the War and the Student Assembly are the key to our success. Engage solely in abstract propagandism, and our analysis suffers while our groups stagnate; engage solely in movement work and that movement will suffer a lack of direction and effective organisation. Fighting on both fronts is not easy, but it is necessary, and it does work.

What has been achieved at SOAS in recent months was built on an almost entirely blank slate and in a highly sectarian environment. This was made possible in the first place by a highly organised intervention at the very start of the year, ensuring a strong presence at the Fresher’s Fair followed by an open student caucus and public meeting soon thereafter. Freshers’ week aside, such interventions can be launched at any time, and are crucial to establishing the revolutionary nucleus that co-ordinates and drives all other work: a solid group of Counterfire activists that meets weekly and is engaged in almost constant activity, strategising and allocating limited resources according to the needs of the wider movement.

Once established, the existence of and our leadership within the Student Assembly has made our work as Counterfire infinitely more effective. It enables us to grow faster, build broader and engage with a new layer of students and activists. With our national week of action scheduled for 3rd February, plans are developing for direct action, creative protests and occupations across the country. The week of action is the Student Assembly’s chance to mark itself our as a serious political force, and in the coming weeks the involvement of each and every Counterfire student will be critical. Our ambition to revive a strong and nationwide student movement through the Student Assembly, and the growth of Counterfire’s student wing as an integral part of its leadership, must become the focus of our energies.

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