The last few weeks of the autumn term at universities saw a rise in student protest and resistance to austerity, prompting a draconian crackdown by university managements and the police.
The driving force behind the protests is a growing opposition to the privatisation of higher education, part of wider Tory attacks on the whole public sector.
Considering what students and workers in education have been put through since the coalition came to power in 2010 – tripling of tuition fees, massive cuts to funding, wage cuts for staff and now widespread privatisation (including student debt) – it is no wonder that the anger demonstrated so vividly in the 2010 demonstrations is beginning to vent itself again.
Over the past year students at Sussex University led a campaign against the privatisation of the university’s lowest paid workers and organised significant support for the recent national UCU, Unison and Unite strikes.
In the strikes this year especially, Sussex students have shown a real commitment to support staff striking against a real wage cut of 13 percent by occupying in the week leading up to the strike and ensuring a large student presence at the picket lines.
This demonstration of solidarity led the vice chancellor to adopt tactics of intimidation by suspending five students.
At the University of London, students faced unrestrained police violence on campus for occupying the management building in support of the national strikes, the university’s cleaners’ demands for better conditions and against the closure of the University of London Students Union (ULU).
Birmingham students also occupied against the marketisation of education, highlighting the increasingly undemocratic and profit-driven nature of universities, and were forcibly evicted.
After the wave of occupations and demonstrations around the fee rise in 2010, university managements reacted repressively in an attempt to deter students from voicing opposition to the neoliberal agenda in higher education.
The fact that these instances of student resistance have included opposing attacks on workers’ wages and conditions is significant, but there is more to do to build significant links between staff and students if a serious national fightback in the universities is to get off the ground.
The recent experience at Sussex highlights the need to build campaigns involving the broadest layer of students and workers possible. After the suspension of the five students the campaign at Sussex made a conscious decision to push outwards beyond the usual milieu, and make serious efforts to involve the Student Union.
At a stage when many people felt disgusted at management’s draconian measures, we did well to mobilise this support by calling an emergency meeting of the Student Union that was attended by over 600 students, and passed a motion calling for a strike the next day demanding the reinstatement of the five, and another day next term when the disciplinary hearings take place.
This was accompanied by support from the UCU branch, which organised staff statements and petitions and even threatened to call a local industrial dispute around the suspensions.
Media pressure from the support of a number of MPs added to a climate of real resistance against management, with large numbers of students, lecturers, workers and public figures voicing opposition to the suspensions.
We have much work to do to try and build on this promising development, but the fact that the suspensions were lifted without the threat of direct action or occupation is testimony to the need to build a campaign involving as many people as possible.
Similarly, the “Cops Off Campus” demonstration that brought more than 2,000 students to ULU campuses used the Students Union as a base to bring new students in, and significantly enjoyed support from the Unison branch and the “3 Cosas” campaign to improve conditions for low paid cleaners.
We are seeing isolated surges of the student movement, and new ones could potentially spring up over a range of issues – the cost of rent, the privatisation of student loans and the lack of democracy on campuses.
If they are to have significant impact, it is crucial that they develop strategies that include broad layers of students, and don’t just rely on the actions and occupations of a minority.
Most important however, is that at every opportunity they link themselves with the trade unions, strikes and campaigns by workers. The attacks on higher education, from privatisation to wage cuts, are part of the Tories’ austerity plans that make ordinary people pay for the economic crisis.
We need students and workers to fight together on every battle on every campus so that we can build a movement that doesn’t just challenge the repressive actions of management or the privatisation of staff, but challenges the whole Tory agenda.
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