New Battles in Higher Education

March 20, 2012

Last week more than seven hundred students demonstrated in defiance against Universities Minister David Willetts and his plans to further privatise the University sector. The march called by the Education Activist Network, ULU and various Students’ Unions across London coincided with the day of walkouts called by the National Union of Students.

Under the banner of ‘Willetts must go!’ students marched from ULU to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Ministry responsible for Higher Education.

Under pressure from students, a 20,000-strong petition by the UCU and his own cabinet, Willetts withdrew the Higher Education Bill from the Commons. However, he is preparing universities for privatisation in similarly shambolic fashion as Andrew Lansley is for our hospitals. His measures are now being implemented without any debate.

En route, students staged a sit-down protest in front of 10 Downing Street. Their placards read ‘Our education not your business’ and ‘Education for the 99%’. The attacks on higher education are not the only ones students face. Over the last year and a half students have suffered other blows at the hands of the state and the police.

One banner at the march read ‘We are all Alfie Meadows’. Alfie is a Middlesex Philosophy student who was so severely beaten by police on the day the government trebled tuition fees that he had to undergo emergency brain surgery. Ironically, he is the one who faces trial later this month. He is being charged with violent disorder whereas no police officer to date has been held to account for the attack on Alfie. Yesterday, students made it clear that Alfie is not alone.

Time and time again the police have issued threats to make use of rubber bullets and water cannon against student protesters. Police intimidation, horse charges, kettling and heavy sentencing of students have left a mark on the movement. Arguably it has peeled off a softer outer layer of protesters and supporters from demonstrating.

As students held their sit-down they chanted ‘Who protects the 1%?, the police protects the 1%’. Anyone who had been on previous student demonstrations could only agree: the police are not part of the 99%.

There are arguments amongst activists. Some believe we should wait until the next general election and make higher education the number one issue. Others believe that we should move on to other political issues. However, new battles lines have been drawn.

Students already have fewer courses to choose from and will now be obliged to take out huge loans from the government to meet spiralling costs. These loans have been ‘sold’ to prospective students as income-contingent, but in truth they are government policy-contingent since the repayment threshold and interest rates can be changed at will and with retrospective effect.

At a local level, students are already experiencing the disastrous effects of Willetts’ so-called reforms. At the University of East London, the academic year has been shortened by nearly a month in order to free their campus up for the US Olympic team. Under the pretence of the Olympics, University management has also privatised all security and catering staff.

Students at the University of East London are not the only ones subjugated to such a “Shock Doctrine”.  At London Metropolitan University, 70% of all courses have already been cut while redundancies are being implemented.

But there are also a number of local disputes on the horizon. Queen Mary London UCU has now officially entered a dispute with management over departmental restructuring. At Goldsmiths College, the announcement to close down the PACE department which offers quality education to students from widening participation background has been met with opposition by students and staff alike.

Importantly, the UCU lecturers in Further Education and post-1992 institutions also voted overwhelmingly for strike action. The government wants to drive down costs to make it easier for private companies to feed off public education – this is why staff are fighting to defend their pensions.

The terrain that students, academics and university workers are fighting on is very different to that of November and December 2010 when the government announced that it would treble tuition fees. Activists inside of the movement are fighting to build a unified movement which can start challenging the government at every twist and turn, locally as well as nationally.

Local disputes, massive student debt, harsh sentencing of student protesters and the introduction of £9,000 pounds in fees next academic year can provide major focuses for a movement which is growing up the hard way. As Rosa Luxemburg once said: ‘The path to revolution is paved with defeats’.

Importantly, activists are starting to develop the kind of links that have the social power to win. At Goldsmiths College, students and staff have started to organise themselves into student and staff departmental committees which were formed for the N30 strikes. These can now be used in defence of the PACE department and argue for strikes and occupations.

And the strike by lecturers, civil servants and teachers on March 28 can provide the necessary social and economic power that we will need to derail Willetts’ austerity agenda for education. As one student said to me on the demonstration: ‘Today we mobilised a couple of hundred so that we can mobilise the thousands tomorrow’. Spring is coming…


Mark Bergfeld is a member of the Education Activist Network.