Students in Britain: Following on from the first wave of struggle

IN THE space of one month, the way young people are viewed by the mass media – and by themselves – was turned upside down.

Frequently criticised for being apathetic, in the first wave of the movement against education cuts (10 November to 9 December), they showed that they were extremely political, determined and active. They engaged in the first battle against the coalition government, bringing them within 22 votes of defeat in parliament.

The initial 50,000-strong demonstration, organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU – academic staff), was the biggest student demonstration in recent history. It was also the first national anti-cuts demonstration since the coalition took power, and since the economic crisis. What a start to the battles to come! There was a vibrant mood and a determination to fight the cuts.

The initial demonstration was called on the issue of university fees. But the movement was clearly against cuts in teaching budgets in schools, colleges and universities, as well as hikes in university fees and the slashing of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA – a means-tested grant available to college students). It is a movement of solidarity, with university students fighting against fees increases that will not affect them, and college students opposing the slashing of EMA when only those in their first year will be affected. Many college students came out on the day of the fees vote in parliament, and university students have played an important role in organising protests on EMA.

The movement had victories, too. During the course of the protests, both the Welsh assembly and the Scottish parliament agreed to continue with EMA payments. For Welsh students the level of fees will be frozen at their present level for now. In Scotland there are currently no tuition fees for students (although a university education still means racking up huge debts). Scottish ministers are not proposing to change that, although the elections in May could see a change of government and policy in the parliament there.

In England fees are presently set to rise sky-high, up to £9,000 a year. EMA is frozen at its present level for those who receive it, prior to being phased out in June. These measures mean that many universities face the threat of closure, of becoming private businesses or, at best, returning to polytechnic status. For working-class and many middle-class young people, university would be ruled out under these proposals. Some will find that even college is harder to justify. But there is a clear determination to continue the struggle and ensure that these planned cuts are defeated.

The movement quickly developed outside of the control of the official structures of the NUS. The NUS played a central role in organising the initial demonstration, with local student unions having the financial resources to provide transport. However, it provided no viable strategy to continue the movement beyond a call to lobby MPs. As a result, the NUS quickly lost the momentum.

November 24th, a fortnight after the NUS demonstration, was called by the ‘unofficial’ student movement. This day saw a reported 130,000 take action around the country, larger than the school student walkouts against the invasion of Iraq. Many school and college students staged walkouts, something that was implicit in the NUS call for a mid-week demonstration but which was now organised explicitly, on a far larger scale.

Socialist Students accurately anticipated the mood, calling for mass walkouts in our national material in the run-up to the NUS demonstration. In contrast, the Socialist Workers Party did not expect 24 November to happen on the scale that it did, only organising an after-school protest outside Downing Street.

Further days of action were called in the run-up to the parliamentary vote on fees by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, through its Facebook group. New layers of students would organise walkouts and join in the protests in their areas each time. However, there was also a real danger that the movement could have been worn out by constant days of action, especially those college students receiving EMA as they stood to lose a week’s EMA payment (up to £30) every time they walked out.

The national demonstration on 9 December, when parliament discussed and voted on tuition fees, was well over 30,000 strong. This was organised without the official structures through the London Student Assembly. This body brings together London anti-cuts activists and the national education campaigns, playing a semi-national role as in this case.

No single organisation can claim to have led this spectacular movement. In many areas, local Youth Fight for Jobs groups (and, in the colleges, Youth Fight for Education) helped to organise protests and many of Socialist Students activists played leading roles.

The movement represented a huge outpouring of anger by young people against the education cuts. It was also on the wider issues of youth unemployment, the quality of jobs available, the betrayal of the hopes in the Lib Dems and the feeling of voicelessness in the political system. This movement appeared to come from nowhere. In reality, it had been building up for a long time. Once the anger was unleashed, however, it brought out a huge desire to protest and fight back, with all the drive, spontaneity and inventiveness of hundreds of thousands of young minds. This flood was only brought to a halt, temporarily, by the vote in parliament and the winter break.

On the streets, college students played a vital role in leading demonstrations and protests, often outnumbering those from universities, and often taking more radical action. They started from a relatively unorganised base, many without anti-cuts groups or student unions equipped to fight. They quickly organised themselves to attend protests and coordinate walkouts.

The traditions of political activism at universities, as well as the greater funding and facilities from student unions, meant that, in many areas, established anti-cuts groups already existed. These were able to fully develop and take off during the course of the movement, also becoming beacons to the surrounding colleges and universities. Although on the street the movement was led by the college students, tactics and strategy were decided, by and large, by university-based organisations. Alongside the general demands against fees and cuts, it is also important that we take up the demand for the right for college students to protest, and to organise politically in their college.

There is a determination to defeat the government’s planned attacks. Even though these measures have been passed into law, it is entirely possible to force the government back. The poll tax became law in 1988, but a powerful mass movement was built, which forced Margaret Thatcher out of office and the repeal of the legislation in 1991.

It is important that students and supporters of the education movement learn from the anti-poll tax struggle and other successful movements to build for success with the present campaign. During the poll tax struggle, some argued that it was the riot in Trafalgar Square in March 1990 that defeated it and Thatcher. The anger that was on display on those protests played a central role, but it was the mass non-payment campaign of 18 million, organised through the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, that defeated the unfair law.

It is organised, mass struggle that has the potential to defeat the Con-Dem government, not confronting the police or rioting. However, it was the police who provoked the street battles – both during the massive anti-poll tax demonstration and on the student protests – with their heavy-handed measures, such as kettling and aggressive intervention against peaceful demonstrators.

Using the clear slogan, ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’, the idea was popularised that people did not have to pay the poll tax and that they stood alongside millions of others who were not paying. Local anti-poll tax unions organised protests, demonstrations, bill-burning, legal advice and support, as well as anti-bailiff activities. This was all organised democratically through these local groups, linking up on an all-Britain basis. This powerful movement, led by Militant (the predecessor of the Socialist Party), had been built up in the two years between the law passing and its measures being introduced. A similar timescale is offered to the student movement, with fees not being introduced until September 2012.

But the university fees are not the only attack students’ face. A huge cut is currently threatened in the teaching budget available to universities. The first batch of those cuts will be announced in April, although many estimates are currently being made in individual institutions. Even if universities receive an increase in the income per student from the fees increase, many will attempt to make huge cuts in universities before then. Colleges also face a decimation of their budgets, with 25% cuts planned and the closure of many colleges on the horizon. The cuts and tuition fees need to be fought together, and be seen as a combined attack on the right to higher education.

It is vital that anti-cuts campaigns continue to build in local areas and that they are launched and developed where they do not exist yet. The education cuts are going to be introduced locally, so this aspect of the campaign is going to be vital. We must maintain a campaign against cuts nationally, and demand that the decisions are reversed. At the same time, local universities and colleges must not be their own gravediggers. They must refuse to implement these cuts and demand that the government restores funding per student to its peak level of 2008/09. If college heads and vice chancellors refuse to defend their institutions, anti-cuts campaigns must demand their resignation.

Even before this current wave of protests, school and college students showed a real determination to defeat the cuts, often organising local walkouts and protests themselves, frequently following the example of staff taking strike action. Now this generation has been infused with the idea that you can fight, and any head or vice chancellor will find it ten times harder to implement local cuts now. These protest waves are also likely to spring up without advance notice, appearing from outside to be spontaneous.

The UCU and National Union of Teachers are seeking to coordinate strike action. This will be one of the next big steps for the education anti-cuts movement. School and college students must support this action, taking part on picket lines, strike rallies and demonstrations. A further day of student walkouts and strike action can be coordinated with this.

A link with workers is vital for the education movement to progress. Already the 10 November demonstration was a joint demonstration between students and education workers, and many trade union banners have been present on the student protests. The education movement has inspired many, and shown that it is possible to struggle against this rotten coalition government.

Many workers were already calling for a fighting policy from their unions against the cuts they face in both the public and private sectors. Radicalised students moving into workplaces could help make that pressure tip over into action, and strikes are going to become an increasing feature of public life. Students should support picket lines and discuss what strategies can secure victories. In addition, local anti-cuts campaigns are developing, and students should make every effort to link up with these and vice versa.

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