The student movement to save higher education from the ‘reforms’ of the government is at the moment fighting a battle on many fronts. Firstly, and most spectacularly, there are the militant street protests from the 10th of November through to the 9th of December (with more to come) aimed directly at the government. Secondly, and more crucially for the long term, there are the occupations of school and university spaces which aim at putting pressure on the management bodies of individual institutions not to implement the government cuts. At least, as per my understanding that’s the general aim, whatever the specific demands may be.
Contrary to the impression given by the mainstream media, this student movement is dynamic and highly conscious politically. Everyone – from school kids to postgraduates – realize that this isn’t just about not wanting to pay higher tuition fees, but about the further degradation of education. This will perhaps be the final assault on the arts and the social sciences in this country. If it succeeds, not only will the markets’ stranglehold on lives and livelihoods be further tightened, but the only academic subjects that deal with human and social values will become completely redundant – except for a few rich aficionados to indulge in, who don’t have to earn their living anyway.
Students also understand that this is a battle to save the public services from being lynched. Despite my reservations about the Education Activist Network and the London Student Assemblies, there is a consensus among all students of all ages that students, workers, pensioners, the unemployed and all other interest groups should fight together. There was one school girl who, in a meeting, made intelligent connections between poverty, prisons, unemployment and related these to our present fight. The analysis is reaching deeper down, and even though some leftie groups might want to use the situation to their own advantage, the movement is still diverse enough to balance it out. Kids, especially, even though they stand in solidarity with trade unions, are in no mood to be slowed down by bureaucratic bodies. They want direct action and are impatient to get on with the agitation. Most importantly, many of the young students who had never been in demos before and knew nothing about the way police operate are now fully awake to the seedy realities of police brutality. No one is wasting time debating whether violence is right or wrong; they realize they face a big and powerful enemy which needs force to be brought down to its heels.
Of course, socialists are controlling the narrative within which this battle is being fought. Debate is not going beyond a critique of the Con-Dem government and of privatization. Very few people have mentioned, in passing, that it was the New Labour government that introduced the tuition fees as well as the cuts. People are talking quite enthusiastically of breaking the coalition but no one is talking of the alternatives. I reckon that they are simply assuming that Labour is the alternative, or that no one is thinking that far ahead. This is quite worrying. Perhaps someone within the student movement should take the lead in this matter and extend the debate to a critique of the state itself and of modern credit-based economy.
This brings me to the London Met occupation. We walked in on the evening of 2nd December into the Tower Building on the north campus and shut down the Finance and HR departments. The targets were carefully chosen to accentuate the business-minded, profit-based nature of that institution which we intended to challenge. We were also appalled by the financial mismanagement at London Met amounting to 36.5 million pounds which the management will pay off through retrenchment and bleeding future students dry. In fact the situation is so bad that one security guard confessed to us that the university might not last a year.
The occupied area included a lecture room which became our ‘headquarters’. Our idea was to use the occupied space as an alternative, communal, free educational space open to members of the general public. Our slogan was (and still is) ‘Occupation is Liberation’. We, the occupiers, are a diverse group of people – everything from liberals, to militant Marxists, to socialists, feminists and anarchists. It was a boiling cauldron of different, contending ideologies, and we ended up having very heated discussions on anarchism, capitalism, classless societies etc. We argued over possibilities, technicalities as well as about what education is. We arranged lectures on the student revolt of ’68, on sexism in 21st century advertising, about antifascism and such other social issues. We fantasized about abolishing the post of vice chancellor and other parasitic elements. We debated with the apathetic student union leaders on what their responsibilities are – and won. The student council voted 24 to 1 with 4 abstentions to support our occupation.
We had supporters and sympathizers coming along and delivering talks and donating money, not least of whom were the staff members of London Met. A member of Green Peace came down late at night and donated bagels. Steve Hedley spoke as well and donated some shiny new RMT badges. We had a barrage of media attention – everything from Evening Standard to the Islington Tribune. Many anti-cuts groups developed links with us, expressed their solidarity and invited us to speak at their rallies and meetings.
However, it all came to an end on the 10th, the day after the demonstration. The vice chancellor Malcolm Gillies, rather than trying to engage with us and address our grievances, chose instead to bring an injunction against us and kick us out as students causing ‘nuisance’. We are considering the option of challenging the injunction, as well as trying to find ways of circumventing it. But the heartening thing was when we were evicted students from SOAS and other occupied universities came down to show support, shouting slogans with us against the VC, shouting slogans all the way to a pub in Aldgate where the staff bought us all drinks. I’ve never experienced such student camaraderie ever before. Down but not out, the group is still meeting, keeping active and planning further mobilization.
London Met occupation was a prologue to people reclaiming the social spaces that are legitimately theirs. One of our favourite slogans came from a ’68 leaflet: ‘There is a beauty in the streets’. We had our fair share of dilemmas. For example, how do we deal with the security guards whose jobs clashed directly with our purpose? We explained to them that we were fighting for them as well, because our list of demands (available on wearelondonmet.wordpress.com) included no redundancies as well as the payment of the London minimum wage to all employees of London Met. In the end they did their job by helping to evict us but they were quite civil and friendly, and they all said that they privately supported our actions. But that debate is for another day.
To round up, like many other keen observers, I say that the reason the student movement has not yet become a mass movement is because many people don’t yet materially feel the severity of the cuts. Public sector workers, inspired by the militancy of the kids, are planning industrial action on a large scale. But that won’t happen until March. Students are trying to persuade them to call strikes much earlier in order to keep the momentum going. The plan, as is already known, is to shut London down – and if possible, shut the whole country down; occupations of schools, colleges and universities, storming of banks, mass demonstrations in sync with industrial action, reclaiming of streets, establishment of alternative educational and socio-cultural zones – and not the least – building solidarity networks with all kinds of anti-cuts, anti-capitalist groups and campaigns throughout the length and breadth of the country are being planned and organized even as this article is being written. Hopefully, the National Assembly, modeled on the London Student Assembly, to be launched in the next year will achieve that objective without being commandeered by bothersome leftie groups with their own hidden agendas. As an anarchist I’m curious to know if the anarchist movement in England will come together in any organized and visible way, and how that will come about. For now, HAPPY CHRISTMAS!