The wave of occupations of British universities in solidarity with Gaza over the past few weeks has electrified the student movement. We now may be witnessing the rebirth of that movement.
Since the rise of neoliberalism under Thatcher’s Tory government, we have not only seen uninterrupted assaults on university education but a retreat of the student movement.
As a result, we haven’t seen serious university occupations in this country for over a decade.
The two developments are related. Increased market pressures under both the Tories and New Labour have not only led to cuts in our education.
They have also seen a change in the nature of learning, with an increasing focus on training people for employment within the capitalist system.
Subjects and intellectual approaches that aim to understand and critique society have suffered while courses centered around business and management are growing.
This has drained the confidence of students to organise and fight. Universities have changed for the worse – and this is the environment in which students form their views about the world.
The occupations have transformed the muted tone on campus. They have created cracks in the status quo and given people the confidence to act.
Several hundred students now have experience of struggle and of winning.
In the process we have seen for ourselves how these experiences transform those who participate – we have become more confident and self-activating.
As student activists we now know we can win. As a student population, we are coming out of this experience more confident and more militant.
So in future it will not be such a big jump for students to feel we can take action again – and win again.
There is a militant mood that is shared across the diverse make up of the activists who have been involved in the occupations.
Already we are generalising the experience of the past few weeks.
More and more people at universities are drawing the links between war in the Middle East and capitalism at home.
Compared to the convulsions in universities in Greece, Italy and France, recent developments in Britain are at an early stage.
But we should not let the spectre of comparison make us underestimate what has taken place – this has been a watershed in the level of student self-activity.
As the government, in alliance with the managers of our universities, plan to push the weight of the economic recession onto our education, students will need to fight back.
Already we are seeing critical assaults on the quality and integrity of our institutions.
Manchester Metropolitan University risks its own economic crisis after losing millions in investments in Icelandic banks. London Metropolitan University is poised to slash teaching posts.
If we don’t have a strong student movement, we will not be in a position to resist further cuts or to demand the quality and vision of education that we really want.
In every occupation, the question of privatisation and democracy in education was raised.
Our National Union of Students (NUS) purports to be the united voice and political arm of all British students.
But in reality it is so out of touch with student experiences that very few students are aware of what it does.
The NUS is no longer committed to resisting university fees or to free education. Sadly, it has increasingly become a home to careerists and aspiring New Labour hacks.
A national union could play an incredibly important role in mobilising student campaigns and taking our fight to management in universities and to the government.
The experience of the occupation movement means that grassroots activists are in a much better position and more confident to resist these and other attacks.
Fighting to affirm the value of university education – one of society’s most valuable social goods – will not just be of benefit to the students.
Universities don’t exist in a vacuum. Students are bound to the rest of society through the labour we are being trained for.
It is through our common struggle that we become conscious of this, and capable of realising the collective aspirations of workers and students.
The recent experiences can create the necessary confidence to agitate for change.
And if we join together, in the lecture hall and on the picket line, we will realise our goals.
Another Education Is Possible demonstration takes place on 25 February in central London demanding free education and grants for all. Go to » www.anothereducationispossible.org.uk