NUS President Liam Burns and a number of Guardian columnists have claimed that student power is on the rise. But in their exuberant optimism, they fail to address the process by which the government is pushing through a ‘consumer-model’ of higher education, cloaked in the language of student power. The agenda of Universities’ Minister David Willetts and UK vice-chancellors has nothing in common with the cry for student power that echoed from the streets two years ago, during the biggest student revolt since the late 1960s.
In many universities, students are now represented on almost every decision-making committee. They have a say about capital investments at a university level, they influence how subjects are taught and can even grade their teachers. Thus many within the student movement and commenting on it believe that students have far more power than they used to have.
However, membership in the governing body of a university which is strapped for cash, intent on cutting unprofitable courses and which values the ‘student experience’ higher than the education it provides does not empower students. It effectively renders them powerless. Willetts and the vice-chancellors are rubbing their hands at the prospect of students presiding over cuts to lecturers’ salaries, evaluating their teachers’ bad performance, and arguing for ‘value for money’ in their education.
In the current climate of cuts, existing divisions between students and academic staff will only be reinforced by advocating this flawed model of student power. Academic staff no longer live in ivory towers. In fact, the university sector is highly casualised, often forcing PhD students to work for free and leading lecturers to concentrate on the marketing and branding of their course rather than the teaching itself.
Rather than working co-operatively, students are co-opted and lecturers are forced to compete against each other. In one section of the “Higher Education White Paper”, Minister Willetts wrote about ‘putting students into the driving seat’. The only problem is that he has tied us to the seat and set the car on fire.
Having to deal with a student representative on the board of governors or in the Senate is something Willetts and his lackey vice-chancellors can live with. Having 400 students demonstrate against the decisions these bodies make is something they handle less well. The student revolt in 2010 showed a different kind of student power, a force which successfully united students with academic and non-academic staff in demonstrations, strikes and occupations. The slogan of student power hardly featured. Instead, they chanted: “Students and workers unite and fight!”
Today, students are learning the same lesson that students learnt in 1968: Student power collapses if isolated. It must succeed in mobilising broader social forces, most importantly, the working class. In 1968, French students of the Sorbonne university ignited the largest general strike in history. Today’s student strikes have a long way to go to match the energy of ‘68. Nevertheless, the strikes have been successful in sparking new social struggles and reigniting old ones.
Students in Quebec have been asserting themselves in the streets for more than 130 days now. They have won concessions from a neoliberal government and have brought the popular classes of Quebec behind the demands of the movement. Undoubtedly, police and legislative repression has played a significant role in galvanising support for the Quebec student protests, but one cannot underestimate the role of the trade union movement.
This autumn could see a new phase of student protest in the UK. With the TUC demonstration for pensions, a student demonstration by NUS, and a new round of industrial action by teachers and lecturers being planned, workers and students can create the kind of power which has the ability to change not only our campuses and universities, but also the society we live in.
Mark Bergfeld has been on the National Executive of the NUS for the last two years. He is part of the Education Activist Network and tweets at @mdbergfeld