Britain Goes French: The Student Occupations

On Friday 26 November a group of students at the University of Cambridge, myself among them, occupied the university’s administrative headquarters. Over 100 of us quickly made the space our own.
 
We held the room until this morning (Dec 6), when, following a collective vote, everyone left together in order to focus on further actions later this week. Our protest is part of a widespread and growing student mobilisation against the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat (Lib Dem) coalition government’s plans to nearly triple university tuition fees and sharply cut direct state grants to universities. These proposals – based on the recommendations of the Browne Review, a cross-party panel of “experts” chaired by a former chief executive of BP and staffed by representatives from various business constituencies – amount to a conceptual shift in the purpose of higher education: this is viewed as a primarily private good best distributed via the market, rather than a public good whose provision should in principle be determined collectively.
 
Student opposition to the proposals is based not only on objections to increased fees, but a rejection of what many view as an overly narrow understanding of the value of education. For these students, education should be prized not primarily for its contribution to “innovation and economic transformation” (in the words of the Browne Review), but as an end in itself, an intrinsically and unquantifiably valuable public good.
 
The government justifies its measures principally on the grounds of economic necessity. After insisting that it “won’t patronise the public”, prime minister David Cameron explained that there isn’t “a bottomless pit of money we can dig into” and “difficult choices need to be made.” The deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and business secretary Vince Cable – Liberal Democrats in their spare time – have likewise appealed to the “financial situation” to justify their violation of a pre-election pledge to “vote against any increase in fees”.
 
It is hard to explain the government’s proposals for higher education in terms of deficit reduction – according to an independent study, they are likely to“increase public expenditure”. Yet students opposing the government’s policies have been dismissed as ignorant children throwing tantrums. Many leading, mainstream economists – such as Martin Wolf, David Blanchflower, Paul Krugman, Ha-Joon Chang, Christopher Pissarides and Robert Skidelski – reject the government’s deficit-hysteria as a dangerous “fantasy”, but they have been marginalised in political discourse.
 
The mobilisation against the government’s measures has exceeded expectations: there have been multiple national demonstrations, with moreon the way, comprising tens of thousands of students, school pupils and lecturers. The scale of the protests is remarkable since the effects of the government’s proposals have yet to be fully felt, and given months of scaremongering about the “deficit crisis” and “bloated” public spending that preceded them.
 
In parallel to the national protests, a wave of spontaneous, locally driven student occupations – many continuing through their second week– swept the country in November, again on an unprecedented scale.
 
What is the significance of the protests? Based on my own experience in both the national demonstrations and the student occupation in Cambridge, I believe the protests have already had several positive effects. People have been disabused of more than a few delusions about state beneficence; it is harder to accept rightwing fawning over the heroism of the police in light of their often brutal treatment of peaceful protestors. A generation of activists is being equipped – through direct action workshops, media training, and the simple need to respond in an improvised fashion to rapidly changing events – with the tools required for effective political action.
 
People who have taken politics into their own hands, and felt the thrill of political empowerment and the fulfilment of collective action and solidarity, are unlikely to return to a state of apathy or inaction. Power structures exposed as fragile and contingent have already lost much of their power: a university vice chancellor is a lot less intimidating and remote once you have occupied his office. The student movement, to paraphrase Tocqueville, is transforming docile subjects into citizens, and that transformation may be difficult to reverse.
 
One of the most encouraging aspects of the occupations is their inclusive and relatively non-hierarchical process of decision-making. I suspect that for many people this was a wholly new experience. It is true that informal imbalances (between more and less experienced activists, and more and less confident public speakers) linger. But everyone has been encouraged to participate in shaping the thinking and policies of the group as a whole, and this was a hugely (I think transformatively) empowering experience. The Conservatives have called for a “big society” to replace the areas of the public sector that they have set about destroying; ironically, the “big society” that is emerging is the one arising spontaneously to resist the government’s “austerity” policies.
 
Students appear to understand the point that their “end” will be shaped to a large degree by the “means” employed to achieve it: basing the movement on non-hierarchical structures that foster participation is consistent with the goal of an assertive, politically engaged public. This, along with a streak ofself-criticism, bodes well for the long-term health of the movement.
 
The student opposition thus far has been decentralised, and the National Union of Students (NUS) has consistently lagged behind the grassroots. After the occupations were well underway, the NUS president, Aaron Porter, apologised for his “spineless dithering” in failing to back the protests. In other words: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” The NUS leadership will have to become more radical if it is to stay relevant to the constituency it purports to represent. Meanwhile parallel networks have arisen to co-ordinate student protests, primarily through online social media. Still embryonic, these networks offer the potential for national coordination without local groups having to surrender initiative to a relatively conservative, central bureaucracy.
 
Student resistance is doing much to undermine public support for the Liberal Democrats (forcing them to cancel a public conference for fear of public protest) and there is growing pressure on the Lib Dem leadership from within the party itself to reverse its position on tuition fees. At one point, Vince Cable suggested that he might abstain from the government vote on a rise in fees – a policy he himself is proposing. Already, then, student protests are having a perceptible impact on the political terrain.
 
The student movement has, to date, displayed a keen awareness of the links between the struggle against the marketisation of higher education and broader resistance to the government’s public spending cuts. When public sector and other workers begin to mobilise seriously against the coming attacks on their welfare, the student movement will be ready to join them. At that point, defeating the government’s policy agenda will start to become a realistic prospect. The students I have been marching and occupying with over the past few weeks are principled, but they are also hard headed. They’re in this for the long haul, and they’re in it to win. They believe they have a good chance. I wouldn’t bet against them.

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