Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Student Protests - the Green Shoots of Recovery?

Children of the revolution in Bolan-esque terms
Students at the London School of Economics are planning to protest today against a visit by Energy Secretary and Coalition minister Chris Huhne. Students are opposing plans to raise student fees. The protest also appears to have the solid backing of the National Union of Students (NUS). This has the potential to be the start of a shift forward in terms of the dynamics of the student protest in the UK, organising collectively to fight the cuts in HE and the imposition of higher fees.

This follows a successful protest last Thursday in Oxford by students who forced Vince Cable to cancel his visit to the University. The protest in Oxford was partly built through a Facebook page which attracted considerable interest. Around 1,500 students, members of the public and trade unionists brought traffic to a standstill in Oxford on more than one occasion despite the best intentions of the police to scupper their plans.

The stopping of traffic....! how dare they. This brings back memories of our own campaign at the University of Salford two years ago. A series of protests, with one stopping traffic at rush hour, demonstrated how students and staff could begin to organise in opposing unpopular savage cuts to courses and staff.

Students protesting against Vince cable (Photo J Pitman)

The NUS and leadership skills

Since the introduction of tuition fees by a Labour government, the NUS have largely been half-hearted in their opposition to fees. There have been some sizeable and angry protests in London in the past especially when fees were first introduced. This author went on many coaches to Londinium and broke through countless police lines in order to lay claim to the London streets in the name of free education.

But the campaign quickly became much like an annual chore that had to be organised to keep up appearances. The NUS leadership now have the chance to place themselves at the centre of opposition to the privatisation of HE. It needs to take a leaf out of the 'green shoots' of student protest recovery in France and coordinate campaigns with the trade unions much like the students have in Greece. The protests also need to be linked up with students in the FE colleges who are also being attacked with cuts in the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). Thousands of these students will be forced into Job Centres as the EMA is their lifeline into further education.

 Larger and more militant protests need to be organised if an effective opposition is to be built in order to drive back the Tory decimation of higher education and the social cleansing of poorer working class students from academia.

Repeat after me... 'I will pay my fees on time'

Free education for all

However, the argument needs to be put that the demand is for free education for students, not merely a cap on fees. The template for the future of Higher Education of the Cameron-Clegg variety can be seen in Africa with spiralling costs, increased fees, huge cuts across the board, larger class sizes and less staff. The process of de-industrialisation that was witnessed in the industrial sector during the early 1980s under the Thatcher administration is being replicated in HE with savage cuts to terms and conditions and the drive for staff to increase productivity. The claims made by politicians and parroted by TV news reporters that we simply cannot afford free education, is a lie. Britain struggled with a far higher budget deficit in the late 1940s and still managed to build the NHS and the Welfare State. It's simply an argument about priorities -  the priorities of profits or the priorities of needs and public goods.

Students..  they're about democracy fundamentally

Students have historically also been at the forefront of the process of democratisation. Witness the role of students in Tiananmen in 1989 and more recently in Iran where they have played a central role in framing the debate and forcing the ruling regime onto the defensive. Student protests have historically provided both a fertile medium in which new ideas can germinate in periods of intensification of class struggle. They can also act as the spark in igniting protests against cuts and austerity across the UK and beyond. The ghosts of May '68 still haunt the politicians and terrify our bosses... yes even at Salford!

A victory in securing free education would force the university system to become far more democratic in that it would provide opportunities for far greater numbers of working class people. Education should be a right for all students, not just some sort of almost 'natural right' or 'inalienable right' of the wealthy and privileged, who will have little problem finding the extra money to cover the costs of increased fees. 

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