Three years on from the threefold increase in tuition fees in 2010, opposition to the government’s marketisation of university education is regenerating, with protests and occupations across the UK. Both the demands of this emerging movement, and the policing measures it has faced, are a sign of things to come in 2014 and may well mark a broader shift in how we challenge austerity.
Since October, the higher education sector has co-ordinated national pay strikes by all three major trade unions, widespread picketing and a number of student occupations. The political basis of this movement has centred around opposition to privatisation – from the outsourcing of services to the sell-off of student debt.
On 4 December, police raided the University of London’s management offices, where a student occupation was taking place, to demandpensions for outsourced cleaning staff and a reversal of the university’s decision to abolish its student union. The eviction took place without court proceedings, and in the following 48 hours, 40 students werearrested and others were assaulted by the Metropolitan police. Some were placed on bail conditions banning them from congregating in public in groups of more than four. It marked a low point in a series of police intrusion on to the campus, including an activist arrested for allegedlychalking slogans in support of cleaners’ strikes, and my own arrest.
In the same period, the University of Sussex suspended five studentsfrom their studies, and the University of Birmingham threatened to hit two students with tens of thousands in court costs for occupying. At the University of Ulster last week, management has been accused of cutting off occupiers’ water and electricity as they protested against plans toturn their common room into a corporate dining facility.
Commentators have been right to point towards the problem that demonstrations and strikes pose for university managers who seem to regard themselves as executives of large corporations selling education and employability. As our institutions are run more like businesses, with academia reduced to research competition and democratic processes such as elected academic boards eroded, the people who run universities are becoming unaccountable to those who make them function. That is why the most recent wave of protest has sprung to life not only under the banner of support for strikes, but that of “cops off campus“. The demand that police get off campuses is not just about defending civil liberties; it is also about what kind of education system we want – one in which disputes are resolved collectively, rather than with court injunctions and police batons.
What is happening in education matters, and not just because it is the place where many people first come into contact with political ideas. The higher and further education sectors have for years been at the forefront of opposing austerity – from the walkouts that followed the Millbank Tower occupation in 2010 and triggered action from the unions, to what seems to many like a renewal of dissent now.
The education sector is not yet comparable, either in its disruptive capacity or the level of repression it has faced, to those who carried out mass industrial disputes of the 1970s and 80s. But like other social movements, its experience fits a historical pattern of political policing being deployed against sectors of society that most resist the interests of the market. If students and workers in education can build a concerted revolt over privatisation and repression, we may well expose the contradictions in the government’s attempts to marketise universities and colleges, and push it back.