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Occupations, now part of the tradition of the student movement in Britain, radicalised and polarised the education debate, and involved new leaders that had never been involved in politics before.

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

The immediate effect of the occupations was that they localised and polarised the debate within each university in a way that the demonstrations alone could never do. They served to turn passive agreement into active support. But were demands met? Not in the way that students would have wanted, because most occupations were effectively arguing for a reversal of planned cuts and fee increases. This was the main demand at SOAS. The other main demand was that management release a statement condemning planned tuition fee increases and call on vice-chancellors across the country to unite against threats to higher education. No such statement was made, but towards the end of the occupation a large proportion of SOAS staff had signed a letter to Paul Webley, SOAS vice-chancellor, condemning cuts and fee increases and expressing ‘strong support’ for the SOAS occupation.

The management at SOAS had already made it clear that school policy did not recognise occupations as a legitimate form of protest. People were confronted with a stark decision: do we support the occupation anyway or do we defend the management position that the cuts are inevitable? What if the occupation escalates? What if management are heavy-handed? Four days into the occupation and the entire school was talking about it. It was easier for the students to show support; they clearly had less to lose. For staff, however, it meant siding against their employers. Many took a ‘wait and see’ approach and there were deep divisions amongst the staff, at least initially. But by the second week, when SOAS management threatened to send in bailiffs, and more universities were occupying, a certain sense of pride about the occupation had surfaced. Students now had the moral high ground, and lecturers and support staff became vital to maintaining it. The lecturers helped organise teach-ins and teach-outs (impromptu lectures in nearby public spaces), support staff brought food for the occupiers, and union officials offered to stay awake all night on security rotas when the occupation was threatened with eviction. By this time it was clear that management policy prohibiting occupations had become meaningless.

But the occupations also helped bring the education debate to the rest of society. Should the students be supported in their increasingly confrontational battle to defend education or should the government be supported in its task to bring down the deficit? What kind of weight did the student movement have behind it? Was it possible for the students to force the government to reverse its plans? If the movement could unsettle the government, the whole logic of the ConDem ideology could be exposed for what it is: an attempt to uphold Britain as a global financial centre at the expense of the welfare state. Bringing the education debate to the centre of public attention inevitably opened up arguments against the cuts more generally. This was not accidental. Students were setting an example for workers inside and outside the university: if you support the occupations and the defence of education, what are you going to do when your workplace or library or local council is threatened with cuts? Waiting for official action could mean putting up no resistance at all.

It was the combination of official action – the demonstration called by NUS and UCU that kickstarted the movement – and unofficial action, reflected in the size and breadth of the occupations, that was the driving force behind the movement. The occupations were central forums in which unofficial action could develop because they were a source of constant polemic against neoliberal education: the underlying ethos was the idea of a free education zone, which was about creative thinking, alternative ideas and, crucially, a rejection of the marketisation of education. And the connections were made concrete. The flashmobs at Top Shop and Vodafone were about ‘educating the market’ while the teach-outs in busy train stations were about bringing free education to the public. The rejection of neoliberal education was for many students a rejection of neoliberalism itself.

This radicalisation in turn exposed the limits and weaknesses of the official leadership of the student movement, the NUS. One particularly revealing example was during the UCL occupation when NUS President Aaron Porter publicly apologised for being ‘spineless and dithering’ and promised not only to provide ‘financial, legal and political aid’ to the occupations, but also to call a demonstration on the day of the tuition fees vote. Within days Porter backtracked. The promise of a demonstration turned into a promise for a glowstick vigil, supported by the UCU, and attended by a few hundred people. In contrast, unofficial and non-traditional leaders were stepping up to lead the movement. The University of London Union (ULU), backed by the newly constituted London Student Assembly (LSA), together with the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and Education Activist Network (EAN), called the demonstrations that the NUS failed to call. On 9 December 2010 over 30,000 students marched. It was clear that while the initial NUS demonstration on 10 November was hugely important because it mobilised on a broad scale and provided the backdrop to the occupations, the official leadership was incapable of fully reflecting student anger and intensifying the movement. The movement had already gone further than the NUS wanted, and yet there was a pressing need for an alternative leadership. The ULU, with its popular and fiery leader, Clare Solomon, was increasingly seen as this alternative.

There was much debate within the student movement and inside the occupations about leadership, including both the need for it and the dangers of leaders taking over the movement and diluting its creativity, radicalism and breadth. Many were of the opinion that this was a ‘leaderless’ movement. In truth the movement produced all kinds of leaders, including those that had never been involved in politics before. The SOAS occupation would not have happened if a group of students had not argued for occupation in the emergency general meeting in the first place. And it was precisely the initiative that students took to organising within the occupations that allowed the best occupations to grow and involve increasingly larger numbers of students. Without a level of organisation, led by people taking initiatives to a wider group, it would not have been possible to draw in large numbers of staff and students. Organisation meant that people were actually taking a lead, whether it was volunteering to negotiate with management or coordinating an event within the occupation space, and the success of the occupations depended directly on whether students were willing to take leadership roles. This leadership, in fact, portrayed the occupations as open and accountable spaces. In practice, all mass movements have leaderships, however shifting and fluid.

One of the most inspiring consequences of the success of the occupations was the effect it had on FE and school students. For many young people this was the first time they had come out on the streets to demonstrate. Many of them had already made the links: cuts to EMA and universities were part of a wider attack by the ConDem government on the people who can least afford to pay. Not only that, it was seen as a direct attack on young people. The political lessons were short and sharp. There was at least one sit-in at Camden High School for Girls and others were contemplating the possibilities, describing the movement as the fight for ‘something far bigger’. The effects of this radicalisation will take time to materialise but what did happen is that tens of thousands of young people were asking fundamental questions about society: the neutrality of the police and the media, who has access to education and the best jobs, and the nature of parliamentary democracy.

The first London Student Assembly meetings after the Christmas 2010 holidays were crucial to sustaining the political debate generated during the occupations. They were big and positive, and the mood was still determined, despite the result of the vote in parliament and the end of all but one or two of the occupations. The student movement itself was conscious of what it had been able to achieve, splitting the Liberal Democrats, getting six Tory MPs to vote against their own bill, and raising the possibility of a national confrontation with the government over austerity measures.

But it is also true that the movement suffered a setback with the passing of the bill. The question is whether the subsequent post-holiday lull is only temporary. The effect of the vote on the wider student population cannot be underestimated, but the situation was also exacerbated by the left itself, which started to cut itself off from this wider movement. One of the most revealing examples was calling for a second demonstration in London after the NUS, backed by the TUC, called a demonstration in Manchester on 29 January. Instead of having one, united, mass demonstration in Manchester, led by the NUS, two relatively small demonstrations created a sense of division and a general lack of direction. Student leaders need to re-establish that connection with the wider movement. And this has to be done by focusing on opposing the government, not an obsession with the failings of the NUS. While it is true that Aaron Porter had attacked his own members and been weak and indecisive, the movement must be clear that he is not the main enemy.

The strategy for the future must be twofold: first to continue to build on the gains of the student movement and to make future education protests bigger and broader, through the hard and patient work of building student assemblies, engaging in union meetings and so forth; and second to reorient the movement towards building and inspiring the wider anti-cuts movement. It is entirely plausible that we could see another wave of occupations over solidarity with the revolutions of February 2011 in the Middle East or in protest at the closure of hundreds of libraries: occupations are now part of the tradition of the student movement in Britain, and can be reignited. Engaging with the wider anti-cuts movement provides the best hope of bringing back the hundreds of thousands of students who marched on the streets and made occupation a legitimate form of protest.

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Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi teaches at SOAS, University of London, and is active in UCU and the anti-war and anti-austerity movements. She is a contributor to The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, and is on the editorial board of Counterfire.

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