On 10th November 2010 an estimated 55,000 people marched in London against UK government plans to raise higher education tuition fees from £3200 to £9000 per student per year, while simultaneously cutting all public funding for social sciences, arts and humanities subjects and reducing it significantly for science subjects. When the protest reached the Conservative party head quarters (‘Millbank Tower’) thousands of protestors stood outside chanting, some made a bonfire in the courtyard with the placards and a few others were involved in more confrontational acts such as smashing windows and daubing graffiti on the walls. A number also made it into the building and on to the roof. At the time, the government spin machine went to work trying to delegitimize the students’ concerns as a consequence of the actions of a ‘violent minority’. They were initially successful. There was an outpouring of disdain from commentators on the left and right, and even the president of the National Union of Students expressed his disapproval.
The day looked set to be recorded as a one off, a voicing of concern by a minority of academics and students. Yet, two weeks later, on Tuesday 24th November, there was a national day of action, called by the National Campaign Against Cuts and Fees. 135,000 university and school students as well as academics came out, and this time they protested in their local areas. There were protests in most major cities, with the ‘kettling’ of school pupils as well as adults in London providing some of the most dramatic scenes, and a number of universities saw students occupying lecture theatres or other learning spaces. Then, on 30th November a second national day of action saw more universities ‘go into occupation’, more protests around the country, and sit-ins in a number of city council chambers, most notably in Birmingham.
A total of 18 universities saw occupations on the first ‘national day of action’ (24th November), increasing to up to 25 on the second (30th November). These include SOAS, UCL, Warwick, Leeds, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Oxford. At UCL the university management called in the bailiffs, at Warwick they put guards and later police on the doors, refused to allow students to leave the room and return to the occupation again (there were no toilets in the room), banned public speeches and lectures through the doorways and turned on the air conditioning to freeze the occupiers out. Leeds VC Michael Arthur called the police, as did most other university managers. The police have been acting alongside university officials and to maintain a political process in which proper debate is being supporessed ,with thousands of people kettled in London for 9 hours last week, many of them children. One observer said that never at any protest had he seen police officers look ashamed at what they were being asked to do. Meanwhile, lecturers at many universities delivered food to occupiers, gave ‘free’ lectures and offered public support for the actions. The Unite Union is trying to set up a national collection for the occupations, Green Party politicians and musicians have made an appearance, Noam Chomsky has publicly commended them, and messages of solidarity have been sent from people all over the world.
What is interesting about these occupations is that students are not simply sitting in a room and refusing to leave. Every occupation has expressed a desire to create an alternative learning space to a neoliberal market driven place of education. Six months ago young people were widely criticized for being a depoliticized generation only interested in facebook and shopping. One of the most powerful messages emerging from the recent occupations and protests is that this, at least for a significant minority, could not be further from the truth. Expressing this sentiment, the occupations have spilled out in to the public realm with Leeds University students planning a take-over of a vacant area of their city for a week long educational project and discussion on the spending cuts more widely. Goldsmiths students have given a five minute lecture in a bank in the guise of the ‘University of Strategic Optimism’, and UCL students last week created a ‘flashmob’ protest outside Topshop on Oxford Street in protest against tax evasion on the part of the owner, Philip Green. These occupations are being widely covered in the media and supported by letter writing campaigns and petitions to university VCs, MPs and newspapers. There has been a sudden proliferation of not only media but also academic comment on the topic, with social networking sites leading the way.
Sally Jefferson, a Cambridge student said of the occupation at her university “we’re inspired by the solidarity we’ve received from academics, students at other universities, and local residents”. Those speaking out in solidarity with the students also feel inspired. At the National Coalition of Resistance (the purpose of which is to resist the austerity measures generally, in all sectors) conference last Saturday Lyndsey German of the Stop the War coalition was typical of the speakers when she said that “the students have changed the whole discussion, we must stand up with them”. Barnaby, a school student perhaps expressed the sentiment of his peers most succinctly when he asserted “we are no longer the post-ideological generation, we are now the generation at the heart of the resistance”.