The new college year looks like it will be a volatile one. It has begun with the economic crisis hitting home. Thousands of university applicants have been denied places while the lucky ones have been crammed into overcrowded lecture theatres and accommodation.
Up to 175,000 students are still waiting for their loan payments – while being squeezed between increasing costs and a desperate struggle to find work.
Those in power, in the universities and beyond, are gearing up to make students pay more for their education. Meanwhile they have announced swingeing cuts to departments, courses and jobs.
Management at University College London is planning to slash £20 million from its budget this year.
But something has changed in the last few months – and socialists aren’t the only ones to have noticed this.
University vice-chancellors nervously commissioned a report on how to deal with student protests as a wave of action swept campuses against Israel’s assault on Gaza last year. The Independent newspaper commented in February, “A seismic change is taking place in British universities.”
It was not wrong. The protests were impressive, involving over 30 student occupations lasting from 24 hours to 31 days. Students made a series of demands that vice-chancellors were often forced to agree to.
This was on a scale not seen for years. So where did this new militancy come from and how will it play out in the current crisis?
The sight of the huge military power of Israel laying waste to a small refugee camp, crystallised for many the barbarity of seven years of the “war on terror”.
The anti-war struggles had already sharpened many students’ awareness of what was wrong in the Middle East.
Against the backdrop of major demonstrations and battles with the police outside the Israeli embassy, students decided to “bring the war home” to the universities.
Where the general mood of anger against Israel flared into occupation there was almost always a small minority able to galvanise the mood.
A briefing document written for senior university managers noted, “Political activists… have played a part in organising occupations. The Socialist Worker Party newspaper and other ‘hard left’ publications or posters have been displayed prominently.”
The new mood among students was also being shaped by the growing economic and political crisis. Many had started the university year just as Lehman Brothers collapsed. The world’s rulers were visibly shaken and divided about how to respond.
It created a climate in which the moral and political authority of those in power was being thrown further into question.
One student occupying for Gaza at Manchester Metropolitan University brought his own hand-painted banner, which read, “Capitalism fails”.
In many of the occupations people began to question the priorities of a university system increasingly shaped by business interests. They discussed what our education is for and organised debates and lectures on a series of major issues.
The vice-chancellors also seemed to have lost their nerve when it came to confronting students occupying their buildings. In the end most conceded to the demands and students achieved something they had not experienced for many years – victory.
These were important in themselves. But they have also helped to reinvigorate the student movement by increasing people’s confidence. Importantly, these struggles almost immediately began to generalise onto other issues.
So when university managements used the usually quiet exam period to announce a round of cuts and closures they faced resistance.
At Liverpool University two departments were saved from closure by a campaign that united students and lecturers. London Metropolitan students occupied against job cuts in a struggle that has forced the director to resign.
At Soas in central London, students took over management offices after they believed that it had colluded with an immigration raid. The raid resulted in the deportation of unionised migrant workers.
It seems unlikely that students who have spent the last year taking direct action will sit back and take the new phase of attacks.
This is particularly the case if we see more victories like that at Tower Hamlets College against cuts, which is part of a new militancy that has seen the return of all-out strikes and occupations as a way of fighting back.
This means we could see more confrontations over university issues, and political issues like the activities of the fascist British National Party (BNP) or the war in Afghanistan.
Add to this the fuel of the economic and political situation and you could see something in the universities that has not been witnessed in Britain for a long time.
The job of socialists is to make sure that students and workers unite in these struggles. Building a bigger socialist current among students and workers that is able to galvanise and shape the resistance will be a crucial ingredient in that process.
The Another Education is Possible conference will bring students from around the country together to debate the way forward, Saturday 31 October, 11am-5pm, Soas, central London