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Students Rise Up

Glasgow Uni Occupation on TUC demo in London 26 MarchThere is a new wave of militant struggle amongst students which could provide lessons for the anti-cuts movement. Liam Turbett looks at how the movement developed and where it may be going.

Over the course of 30 days towards the end of 2010, mass struggle returned to the streets of the UK. Few could have predicted the scale, the energy or the militancy of the movement which would emerge off the back of what should have been just another bog-standard A-B demonstration in central London: the ‘Fund our Future’ march called by the National Union of Students (NUS) on 10 November.

Events would rapidly overtake the NUS leadership, though, when thousands of students, now famously, stormed the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank on the banks of the Thames. The student movement had arrived, and would continue to dominate headlines for the next month and beyond.


Across the country, students were spurred into action. The NUS demo had attracted around 50,000 students, vastly more than both the NUS and police were expecting, but it was the visual impact of the Millbank occupation that would have such an immediate effect in schools, colleges and universities across the country. The sheer audacity of the Coalition’s proposals, to triple fees at English universities to £9000 per year, also made the lines of battle clear. And with every mass movement needing its bogeymen, the Lib Dems were well qualified for this role. Having gone out their way to court the student vote in last May’s elections on the basis of scrapping tuition fees, they were now proposing to triple them. Online videos of Nick Clegg promising an ‘end to broken promises’ abounded.

Across the country, students began organising. In Glasgow, grassroots, mass meetings of students and education workers emerged seemingly from nowhere, forming the embryo of a new organisation, ‘Glasgow against Education Cuts’. This collective would come to organise a series of militant demonstrations in Glasgow city centre, and later lead to the emergence of a school students union in the city. Significantly, no one particular group was able to dominate meetings or control when and where demonstrations would take place. Not only because the organised left was suddenly in a minority, with a huge influx of previously unpoliticised students, but due to the methods of organising which were used. These placed an emphasis on non-hierarchical organising, practical unity and the techniques of popular education. This model was replicated across the UK, with student assemblies springing up in most cities.

New Organisations of Struggle

With the NUS flailing around in the background, unwilling to call more demonstrations and instead calling for students to ‘lobby’ Liberal Democrat MPs, it was groups such as GAEC, and the London based, left-led National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, that suddenly emerged at the forefront of the student struggle. National days of action were called, with localised demonstrations in nearly every university town and city across the UK. Spontaneous school walk-outs also occurred, with estimates of over 100,000 on the streets across the UK on these days of action. Partially, this was designed to build up maximum pressure on the Coalition – in particular Liberal Democrat MPs, almost all of whom had signed a pre-election pledge to vote against any increase in fees – ahead of the Commons vote on fees reform, which was expected sometime before Christmas.

Dozens of universities entered occupation ahead of the vote, which was then announced at barely a weeks notice for Thursday 9 December. Once again, huge demonstrations took place across the country. Snowy conditions had seen Glasgow schools close for a week but despite this several hundred students gathered in the city centre. What followed was a game of cat and mouse with the police, as the protesters charged around the city centre. Embracing the tactics developed by the UK Uncut protest group, tax dodging businesses and banks were the main targets of the roving march, forcing a number of shops to close down. Demonstrations like these went beyond the normal routine of an A-B demonstration, followed by speeches from MSPs, student bureaucrats and other such figures. By taking direct action, the demo was a far more exciting, empowering and effective, particularly in terms of media coverage. It also caused chaos for the police, who sent an ever-mounting number of officers, not to mention a helicopter, in an attempt to rein in the demonstration. One officer was heard to proclaim: “You said we could stop them sergeant, can we fuck!."

Put the Kettle On

Elsewhere in Scotland, Edinburgh students attempted to occupy the Scottish Liberal Democrats head offices, while in Aberdeen students invaded their local Tory office. For a movement which began at Millbank, direct action would prove an important part in building and sustaining it in the weeks that followed. Whole layers of young people were exposed to the true nature of the police and the state: in Glasgow, a number of activists were arrested on trumped up charges both before and during the demonstrations, with draconian city-centre exclusion zones given as a condition of bail. But this was nowhere more so than London, where the Metropolitan Police ‘kettled’ thousands of students, often in freezing conditions, on a number of occasions. Then on the day of the vote itself, the police baton and cavalry charged demonstrators in Parliament Square, as the vote took place within Westminster.

Ultimately, the vote would be lost. This came despite a sizeable Lib Dem rebellion, which saw the government majority reduced to a mere 21 votes. The battle cry went up across the country that ‘this is just the beginning’, and that ‘what parliament does, the streets can undo’. But with the Christmas holidays approaching, and little prospect of immediate follow-up demos, would the student movement, which had come about over 30 chaotic days since 10 November, be able to recover from this loss?

Radicalised Youth

Since December, a couple of demonstrations, and one national day of action on Saturday 29 January, have taken place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, turnout has been down. Even the mass TUC demonstration on 26 March did not have the same layers of young people and students seen on the demos last year. However, all is far from lost: whole sections of youth were radicalised in a short period of time and amidst kettles and police violence, were exposed to the true face of the state. Significantly too, from the very beginning the emerging movement did not shy away from direct action and confrontation with authority; indeed, it grew off the back of this principle. It had laid the ground for a wider fight back against the Coalition’s austerity programme, and in terms of militancy, responsiveness and scale, laid down a bearer for the labour movement to catch up with.

The Free Hetherington

Clearly in Scotland, we’re in a different situation. For us, far less was hanging on the outcome of one parliamentary vote; indeed, the demonstrations and occupations that took place in Scotland towards the end of last year were as much in solidarity with English students than in relation to events up here. Its testament to last year’s protests though that the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems are all entering the Scottish elections with promises of continued free tuition for Scottish students. None wish in government to be confronted by a student movement of the scale seen last year.

In 2011, protests have turned from being on a national scale, mostly around fees and government cuts in education spending, to more localised, campus specific cuts and restructuring of universities and colleges. Glasgow University is a case in point.
On Tuesday 1 February, students – mostly those who had been involved in the post-Millbank demonstrations – entered and occupied the Hetherington Research Club, a disused former post-graduate social club that had been lying empty since its forced closure in February 2010, following financial problems. The building, now known as the ‘Free Hetherington’, has since been re-opened and turned into a vibrant social and educational space, as well as an organising base for the battle against cuts at the university.

But the occupied space is now more than simply a protest – although a list of demands has been presented to management, the occupation is much more about maintaining a non-commercial space, particularly for organising political activity, on campus. As occupier and SSP member Jack Ferguson wrote in a comment piece for The Guardian recently:

“The Free Hetherington has now moved beyond a protest against cuts to a living example of the alternative. Students have democratically organised the space as a resource for the local community without any support or funding from the university. An incredible range of social and cultural events has been staged – film screenings, film screenings, art and cooking classes, and free performances from artists, including Billy Bragg, and Scotland’s new poet laureate Liz Lochhead. After protesting for free education for all, we have made it a reality: staff have donated their time to give guest public lectures. An incredible atmosphere of interdisciplinary debate has been fostered. This is all on top of the nightly free meals and tea and coffee, supplied by donations and by recovering food that would have been wasted from supermarkets. It has brought together a huge number of students who did not previously know each other, and given a physical space to students determined to fight back against cuts.”

Fighting Cuts

The occupation took on greater significance after its first week, when senior management plans for the university were leaked to the Herald newspaper. (2) This revealed proposals, apparently on the cards since last summer, to scrap a number of courses entirely, including nursing, social work, anthropology and several modern languages. On top of this, the entire Department of Adult and Continuing Education, which caters for 5000 adult learners and offers a vital lifeline into higher education for the entire city, is set to be scrapped. Despite management rhetoric of ‘inevitable cuts’ and bridging a ‘£35 million shortfall over the next three years’, it represents a clear attempt to restructure the university towards a neo-liberal, commodified vision of what education should be. Spearheading the proposals are a senior management group headed by free market zealot Principal Anton Muscatelli, who earns a much-derided £280,000 a year.

The proposals sparked uproar both on campus and across Scottish society; newspapers were flooded with letters of condemnation, and 2500 staff and students joined a demonstration on campus. While the Free Hetherington occupation has since day one played an important role in building this momentum at the university, it took a bizarre turn of events in March for it to be plunged into the national media spotlight, and for it to emerge as central to the war raging at Glasgow University.

From Defeat to Victory

On 22 March, management made an attempt to evict the occupation, with security entering the building. As students and supporters began to gather outside, police back-up was called in increasing numbers. Within minutes, a police helicopter was in the air, where it remained for the following 4-5 hours, as dog units and up to 100 officers swarmed outside.

But the eviction attempt would backfire spectacularly. While the 7 occupants of the building were dragged out by police, by this time around 500 supporters and onlookers had gathered outside. After forcing two police vans from the vicinity, around 300 students then marched on the university’s historic centre, the location of senior management offices. Entry was forced into the Main Building, and the plush Senate room occupied. Within hours, management were forced into a humiliating climb-down, offering both an open staff and student meeting with Principal Muscatelli, and the return of the Hetherington to the occupiers.

The occupation has emerged stronger from this astounding victory, and the clamour for Muscatelli, and the rest of the senior management group, to stand down has grown stronger by the day. In the days following the failed eviction, the main staff trade union on campus, the UCU, passed a unanimous motion of no confidence in management, asking them to resign from their positions. Support from students, shocked at the sight of security and police forcibly ending a peaceful occupation through violence and intimidation, has also grown substantially.

The Future

For Muscatelli and his cohorts, a temporary reprieve has been granted by the arrival of the Easter holidays. Nonetheless, their position is now surely untenable, with academics and students in open revolt against them.

This time last year the ‘student movement’ was isolated to the organised sections of the left and the bureaucracy of the NUS. But over a few short weeks, the storm that would erupt around the issue of student fees would see hundreds of thousands of school, further and higher education students on the streets and taking an active role in politics for likely the first time. The movement blew up around very specific circumstances: the brazen simplicity of £9000 fees being imposed by a government of public school boys, the betrayal of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems on the issue just months after the election, and the spectacular direct action at Millbank. But it has also shown that the passivity and apathy that we’re lead to believe prevails among the mass of the population, is a lie, and that all it takes is a spark.

The fight continues at campuses across the UK: the UCU union were the only trade union to call national strike action ahead of the TUC march in London, and are raising the possibility of co-ordinated strike action in June. Meanwhile students on campuses across the country continue to resist cuts, and the wider neo-liberalisation of education. Universities and colleges, in Scotland and elsewhere, look set to remain a battleground for some time yet.