Occupy and resist: the return of student radicalism?

Published

As universities around the UK and the world are occupied by their students, James Foley examines whether students are reclaiming their radical past.

In the last two weeks, more than twenty universities in the UK have seen campus occupations by students angered at Israel’s invasion of Gaza. The format of the occupations was established by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London: occupy a small but strategic centre of the university, present the university authorities with a list of demands, and prepare for a long stay until they relent.

Most of the occupations have been remarkably successful. BAE Systems, which has extensive research links to university engineering departments, has been made a pariah for providing Israel with technology and parts for its F-16 fighters; various student unions and universities have agreed to boycott Eden Springs mineral water, after it was discovered that its parent company Meya Eden sources its water from illegally occupied territory in the Golan Heights.

In Scotland, Strathclyde and Dundee Universities have scored a series of concrete victories. At Dundee, students marched on the Principal’s office with a list of demands, including divestment in BAE, boycott of Eden Springs, and scholarships for Palestinian students. The university body has agreed to disinvest its BAE shares, while members of the student union voted overwhelmingly to condemn investments in the defence sector in general and to support, in future, “ethical investments”.

Strathclyde students occupied their Registry overnight. Their actions forced the university governors to cancel their contract with Eden Springs and organise a debate with a representative from BAE; additionally, the authorities have offered scholarships for three Palestinian students.

Louise Whiteside, who started the Stop the War Coalition student group in Dundee, said, “We’ve had a remarkable victory in Dundee, the movement around Gaza has brought a real vibrancy onto campus. Our Stop the War group has grown significantly in the last few weeks. Everybody has pulled their weight, done their research and made a big change at the university. We have proved that protesting does work, and students have the power to make a difference. I’m really proud to be a part of what’s happening in Dundee, and I’m certain we will keep this momentum going.”

While the wave of occupations and protests was backed by 17 members of the University and College Union (UCU) National Executive, others — university authorities, conservative academics, the National Union of Students (NUS), and some student groups — condemned the sit-ins. Nottingham University forcibly removed students on the grounds that they were “disrupting lectures”. Academics from the political right also condemned the actions.

Most significantly, the NUS, which had led the campaign against Apartheid in South Africa, distanced themselves from direct action politics. “The protesters need to find new ways to campaign vocally without causing disruption to students on campus,” said Wes Streeting, NUS President. The Gaza issue has brought out underlying differences on the direction of the student movement. At last month’s NUS extraordinary General Meeting, around 30 students stormed the stage to protest the NUS’ failure to take a stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In many ways, the context of these occupations is more interesting than the phenomenon itself.

If you trust the forecasts, three million people will be unemployed by the end of the year. Nearly half of these will be under 25, many of them holding degrees that, in these lean times, do not amount to very much. The graduate unemployed will have the particular misfortune of being saddled with a massive debt burden from fees, loans, overdrafts, and credit cards.

The existing student bodies have proved incapable of responding to the shocks and convulsions that have left the economic system on the brink of global recession. NUS, long the bastion of student democracy in the UK, has recently voted to bypass most of its democratic channels in favour of a rigid, top-down bureaucracy run by non-student political appointees.
The “modernisation” of NUS has had two major policy implications thus far.

Firstly, despite strong evidence that debt is reinforcing class inequalities within the higher education system, NUS has abandoned all pretence of a campaign for free education in England. “Sadly,” laments NUS President Wes Streeting, “for students in England it isn’t realistic, or credible, and it doesn’t have any chance of being endorsed by any British government under Gordon Brown or David Cameron”.

Secondly, whereas previously the student movement was known for its controversial international solidarity measures (such as the anti-Apartheid campaign), the current NUS leadership defines itself as “pragmatic”, i.e. unwilling to court controversy unless it results in direct economic benefits for the organisation.

There are now two forces that might constitute a “student movement” in the future. The first is a “modernised”, apolitical NUS bureaucracy. NUS represents seven million students, and has considerable power to campaign on key issues. However, the evidence is quite clear: the existing student bodies will not ‘campaign’ unless they can exert political influence of the most narrow variety — they are happy to have a coffee and chat with Labour politicians, but not to lead a student movement against the Labour government’s policies. According to their opponents, this is partly because holding a position in the NUS bureaucracy is seen by many as the mainline from student politics, to influence inside the Labour Party.

The fledgling movement of student occupations and demonstrations over Gaza provides a second force to consider. It is currently very small. While a few of the occupations were large, most were the actions of about 50 students.

However, the movement scored remarkable successes around the country, despite opposition from the existing student bureaucracy and despite their limited forces, because they were audacious and they took on the university authorities directly. If the tactics of direct action continue to score successes, they could be implemented on a larger scale to force concessions on wider issues like debt, fees, and grants.

In the midst of a recession, with the threat of unemployment looming over graduates and current students, we will be forced to fight to defend our interests. This will require national, coordinated action by millions of students (and not just those in the elite, Russell Group universities). Can the tactics of occupations and demonstrations succeed?

A series of student movements around the world point the way forward. Perhaps the most obvious example is Greece, where a student revolt had previously inspired the overthrow of the US-backed dictatorship in 1973-4. Eighteen months ago, student protests and occupations over the privatisation of higher education had led the government to call a snap election, which it won with a narrow majority.

However, by December, when the economic crisis started to hit, the government was in even more trouble. Students once again occupied their campuses. On December 6th, police shot a 15-year old boy in Athens. This led to a series of demonstrations, strikes, and student walkouts. On the Monday morning, students in hundreds of schools organised strikes and descended on local police stations to protest. The following day, teachers walked out against the killing. By Wednesday, the trade unions were on general strike against the government’s neoliberal austerity measures.

There were similar events in Italy. Students occupied campuses, roads, and train stations around the country in response to Silvio Berlusconi’s plan to cut teaching jobs and trim £6.4 billion from the education budget. When police tried to break up a student sit-in protest in Milan, 100,000 took to the streets in protest at the government’s actions.

In Ireland last week, 15,000 students protested the introduction of tuition fees in universities. The demonstrators directed their anger at the ruling party Fianna Fáil, chanting “no cutbacks, no fees, no Fianna Fáil TDs”.

Taoiseach Brian Cowan has told the Irish people that their living standards will have to drop by 10% in the next decade due to the economic crisis. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) President Shane Kelly told the Irish Times, “We’re not going to stand by and allow the Government to use us as scapegoats to fund massive deficits that have been allowed to develop by the presidents of the universities.”

Student protests have even spread to the United States of America. 100 students occupied the New School University, New York, in December, releasing the following statement:

“We have just occupied New School University.

“We liberate this space for ourselves, and all those who want to join us, for our general autonomous use. We take the university in explicit solidarity with those occupying the universities and streets in Greece, Italy, France and Spain.

“This occupation begins as a response to specific conditions at the New School, the corporatization of the university and the impoverishment of education in general. However, it is not just this university but also New York City that is in crisis: in the next several months, thousands of us will be losing our jobs, while housing remains unaffordable and unavailable to many and the cost of living skyrockets.”

Although these protests evolved in separate national contexts, their essential features are similar. They have all involved radical direct action; they have all involved large numbers of students; and they have all been directed at the cuts students are facing due to the economic crisis. Students around the world are making links between living standards and the policies of their government.

After strikes involving millions of workers, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was forced to delay cuts to high school education for fears of further protests. Mass student movements are willing to set their agenda against that of the existing political parties, whereas our political bodies are unwilling to break with establishment politics.

Students in Britain who want to defend their living standards in the context of a failing economic system now face a stark choice. Either we accept the boundaries established by the present student leadership, or we organise around them and hope, by our actions, to shake their complacency.

The movement around Gaza has brought a number of valuable lessons. For instance, individualistic forms of action — such as deciding to boycott Israeli oranges at Tesco — do not inspire people. However, boycotts that are adopted by collective bodies — such as the BAE divestment at Dundee University — can engage thousands of students in progressive political action.

It took the actions of only a few dedicated students — combined with the sympathy of hundreds who signed petitions to bring about an Extraordinary General Meeting — to force the vote in the first place. We should ask ourselves: what if these campaigns were led by the student unions? How many could we mobilise against cuts? What changes could we force on the university and the government if our student leaders were willing to learn from their colleagues in Greece, France, Italy, and Ireland?

Relying on student unions or the NUS to solve problems does not work. These institutions have their own established methods, and they have proved time and again to be ineffective next to the potential influence they could wield. NUS represents millions of students, but the leadership acts more like a timid and ineffective pressure group than a genuine union, and fails to inspire action among its membership, who it dismisses as apathetic.

Politically-motivated students needs to look beyond our campuses. We can act as a detonator to wider movements, like trade unions, because we have the ability to organise on a day-to-day basis on campus. We must recognise, though, that the agenda of the existing political parties is not the same as ours, and look to forces that might support us.

Many student representatives ask me: why would a nurse or a teacher want to back our campaigns? By protesting about our living standards, are we not just draining money from an already limited public purse?

People who make this argument forget that nurses and teachers once benefited from a university education, and will one day look to send their own children there. Thus, they have as much interest in defending free education and grants as we do. If we are willing to search out support with groups of workers who share our interests, they will gladly give it.
In the meantime, let us remember that Glasgow University is our university, our space. Let’s not be too timid to use it.