Cops, lefts and anarchos on campus
Last week saw an outbreak of student protest. Daniel Harvey reports
The sudden re-ignition of student protest on campuses began on December 5, when students from the University of London began an occupation of Senate House Library in Bloomsbury. A set of demands blasted the “undemocratic and unaccountable” university management, and announced the solidarity of the students with outsourced cleaners. These cleaners and other workers have formed the Tres Cosas Campaign, whose successful rank-and-file action has in the last month delivered pay and pension improvements, bringing them closer in line with those of in-house staff.
To extend this earlier success, the students demanded that all staff at the university receive a pension, that there is a halt to further outsourcing, that pay limits be introduced capping the highest salaries at 10 times those of the lowest paid, as well as publishing financial records currently kept secret. On top of this there were demands related to students specifically: that vice-chancellor Adrian Smith publicly oppose the sell-off of the student loan book proposed by the government recently, and that the rent for student accommodation be tied to the maximum ‘maintenance loan’, which is currently set at £4,988 a year.1
Elsewhere, students at the University of Sussex also went back into occupation making similar demands – a continuation of the struggle for student-worker solidarity on that campus last year. An occupation followed at the University of Birmingham, which hosted the National Coalition Against Fees and Cuts national meeting a fortnight ago.
The response of university managements has been uncompromising. On all three campuses police were immediately called in to ‘neutralise’ the protests. In Sussex, five students were immediately suspended. In London police evicted the occupation in an angry clash with students on December 6, during which acts of police brutality took place. TV news coverage shows riot police clearly punching students in the face, and a female student being violently thrown to the ground and slammed against a police van. There have been witness reports of students losing teeth after being hit in the face by police freely using fists and batons.2
There were 41 arrests in London – although only one student was charged (with common assault), while all the rest were released “pending further investigations”. But this came with draconian bail conditions attached, banning any further involvement in protests or “gathering in groups of more than four people” under any circumstances. Michael Chessum, the current president of the University of London Union, was arrested in an earlier protest – for organising a demonstration without informing the police. His bail conditions banned involvement in any protest within half a mile of any university campus anywhere in the country. This was rescinded after he complained publicly about the adverse repercussions that would have for the head of a major student union.3
That particular union is, however, on the verge of being abolished as part of a number of ‘reforms’ being pushed through by management. In this case the democratic structure of ULU is to be replaced by a student liaison service – something like a corporate customer service. Combined with the move to dramatically increase tuition fees in 2010, when they were tripled to £9,000 a year for almost every major institution, there is a marked corporatisation of higher education, transforming it more and more into a private business.
It is widely felt that it will not be long before the current caps on tuition fees will be lifted. There have been calls for an increase from senior figures, particularly at Russell Group Universities. At Oxford, the vice-chancellor, Andrew Hamilton, has suggested £16,000 a year.4 As universities have been pushed further towards market competition, they are clearly looking to outspend rivals and attract increasing proportions of wealthier foreign students.
Within the existing university management too, there has been a dramatic increase in salaries, as vice-chancellors like Adrian Smith have become CEOs, along the lines of any other boss in private industry. A good part of the increase in tuition fees is going towards enlarging management bureaucracy. As part of the growing business ethos there are steps being taken to thoroughly depoliticise campuses. It emerged last month that at Edinburgh University a gagging clause is to be made a condition for student union funding: student representatives would have to give university management 48 hours’ notice before criticising the running of the university. Eventually this was withdrawn, but only after fierce public opposition.5
The closure of ULU, despite its typical bureaucratic problems and remoteness from its student base in some respects, must be seen as part of this process of depoliticisation. It was, of course, ULU under the leadership of Clare Solomon that began the student mobilisation against the hike in tuition fees in 2010. ULU took the lead where the National Union of Students held back – Aaron Porter, NUS president, failed to offer anything but token resistance. He later went on to form a consultancy for private firms wishing to enter the higher education market.6
University authorities have clearly decided that the immediate crushing of student protests is the most effective way to end the opposition to privatisation. It was the December 2010 Parliament Square demonstration that marked the high water mark of that earlier period of resistance: students, including in fact this writer, were attacked by riot police, several of us receiving bad injuries such as broken bones. All were kettled for hours on WestminsterBridge.
It was then that Jodie McIntyre was thrown out of his wheelchair and Alfie Meadows was nearly killed, having been when struck on the head in an unprovoked assault. Meadows was later charged with violent disorder, but acquitted after a protracted legal battle. Police presence at student demonstrations became heavier and heavier, even as student mobilisations grew smaller and smaller.
For myself, certainly, the experience of being within a foot of being splattered at MillbankTower by a fire extinguisher thrown off the roof was defining in some ways. Being part of a generation of students who were angry but directionless forced me start to thinking seriously.
At this point, you can sense a certain haze of nostalgia creeping in, and this is exactly the problem with student politics today. Young people are fighting against the privatisation of education, debt bondage and all the other indignities associated with the removal of grants and the prospect of unemployment and workfare. The problem is that the organisational framework is so weak that there is hardly anything that can be called collective memory. In short, the generation of 2013 has not been able to learn the lessons of 2010, let alone 1968.
Yet something has changed quite markedly in the last few years. The process of forcing through changes in higher education has accelerated substantially, whilst the new alliance between a business-oriented management and the police apparatus make universities look and feel much more authoritarian places. It also seems that the police strategy has self-consciously evolved to one of cracking down on student movements early, before they can take root and expand. The ‘Cops off campus’ slogan itself testifies to this newly oppressive climate.
Can students develop the political toughness necessary to fight these battles? At the moment individualist, libertarian sentiments seem to hold sway. For instance, Aaron Bastani and James Butler rail against the movement’s lack of durability and the continued grip of dogmatism.7 However, what they propose is creating ‘spaces’ based on an idealised view of education. Butler admits the need for collective memory, but, of course, rejects any kind of “party!”. Meanwhile Bastani insists: “We don’t need leaders”.
An approach which not only lacks self-knowledge, the pair are acting as leaders, they are taking a lead, but can easily tip over into intolerance. There is already a certain hostility to left groups. In Sussex this was taken to the extreme when students from the Autonomist Student Network trashed a Socialist Workers Party stall and ritualistically burnt all the copies of Socialist Worker. The whole stunt was accompanied by chants of “SWP off campus”.8 This is not just a response to the ‘comrade Delta’ cover-up. It is an authoritarian reaction to the authoritarian politics of much of today’s left. The SWP, Counterfire, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, etc, are seen as manipulative and dishonest. True, but the best way to fight manipulation and dishonesty is through debate, openness and democratic organisation.
4. The Independent October 9.