A Real Education – The British Student Movement

by Jamie Stern-Weiner

The coalition government set out to undermine the right to an education but through the remarkable student movements that sprang up against it, it inadvertently provoked a generation to think for itself.

First published: 04 May, 2011 | Category: Activism, International, Vision/Strategy

‘Solidarity’ has been the mantra of the British student movement – #solidarity its hashtag. In the face of sneering caricatures and smug prejudice, students in their tens of thousands have been moved, on more than one occasion over the past seven months, to protest the government’s marketisation of higher education[1], including the tripling of tuition fees, and its assault on the institutions of social democracy.

Nostalgic comparisons between today’s supposedly apolitical students and the politicised youth of the 1960s were always suspect[2]; after the largest wave of student activism in a generation, they sound absurd. But while political engagement was never lacking, it hadn’t been articulated and mobilised on a mass scale since the height of the antiwar movement.

The recent surge of student activism changed that, and its significance shouldn’t be understated. One can often tell, when reading a text, whether or not its author came of age before the 1960s – the shift in values and sensibilities in that decade was so striking that the shibboleths are obvious. That shift, most notably in attitudes towards racial and gender equality, had to be fought for, and despite coming under assault in the decades since[3], it has proved impossible to reverse. It is to be hoped that the experience of struggle and occupation in defence of the public good will have a similar effect on this generation. Inevitably this will be partly restorative - participating in the occupations, one could feel old values being resurrected, old lessons being relearned. When members of my college voted to defend fellow students who had just been assaulted by police, it was one of the first times that our student union actually felt like one.

Within the movement individual campus-based groups have organised and learned from each other through loose national organisations and online social media. Students occupying the University College London (UCL), for example, took the lead in developing and disseminating new technologies to aid activists, most impressively Sukey, an application that enables activists to help each other avoid police containment. Students also looked across borders for inspiration. I remember the cheer that erupted when students in Cambridge heard the news that Italian students had occupied the Colosseum. This cross-border solidarity – what the Guardian, reporting in 1968, derisively dismissed as “me-tooism”[4] – was more symbolic than concrete, as when French students and workers demonstrated in front of the British embassy in Paris in solidarity with British students, or when British students followed their Italian counterparts in forming a ‘book bloc”’ on demonstrations (‘everyone’s doing it in Milan, dahling’), but it spoke to the values underpinning the movement. Indeed, internationalism was present at its genesis. When students around the country went into occupation late last year they were following, quite consciously, the previous year’s protests against Israel’s assault on Gaza. Many core activists applied skills – consensus decision-making, ‘legal observer’ training, media management – that they had learned through participation in actions against global climate change; the occupations then became activist schools, where those skills were distributed throughout the movement.

Going forward
The student movement has lost some momentum of late, but to some extent this is to be expected. Structurally, students are well placed to start things they can’t finish. This applies to popular movements as much as coursework. Students tend to have a relatively high proportion of free time to devote to political activities, and living on campus makes organising during term relatively easy. But they are dispersed across the country when term ends, which makes sustained organisation difficult, and their inability, as a constituency, to withdraw their labour power sharply limits their political leverage. Surveying the history of student protest, Mark Edelman Boren concludes that the success of student movements “lies in their ability to manipulate or provoke large-scale social or economic forces.” Even large student collectives “rarely constitute a great enough threat to a government… to force change” and so their effectiveness “depends on their ability or potential to organize a larger uprising to bring greater public pressure to bear on their opponents.”1 The mass student protest last November, its spectacular denouement striking deep in the public imaginary, helped provoke a broader social mobilisation against the government’s austerity measures, culminating in hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets last month in the biggest union-organised demonstration for twenty years.

Strike action is the next logical step, and as the pain of the government’s fiscal contraction deepens, and elite concerns about the wisdom of its economic policy grow, the space to organise will widen. Students have already played a major role in undermining support for the Liberal Democrats, whose mendacity over university tuition fees was relentlessly pressed by the student movement. Many of the arguments the government used to justify the tripling of tuition fees are already proving false – there is evidence that higher fees are deterring students from applying to university and, contrary to the government’s public predictions, most universities are planning to charge the maximum fee level. And as the contrast between the suffering of those who played no role in causing the financial meltdown and the obscene profiteering by those who precipitated it becomes increasingly intolerable, the students’ argument – that higher education and other public services should be funded from progressive general taxation – will become increasingly persuasive.

Students have increasingly sought to place their struggle within a broader social movement, as when LSE students joined with striking fire-fighters, or when King’s College London students protested against ticket office closures alongside tube workers.2 This is the direction student activism should continue to take. Further occupations and marches may be useful, but unless they are integrated into a wider social opposition they will likely yield diminishing returns. The government will try to position students and workers against each other, arguing that we face a choice between a fair education system and a decent health service. It will be crucial that both students and workers reject this false opposition, and thankfully, the evidence so far suggests that they will.

Students succeeded in punching the first cracks in a contrived economic consensus whose collapse now looks increasingly like being a matter of time. In the process a new generation has begun to equip itself, intellectually and practically, with the tools for creating a fairer and more humane alternative. The struggle for a decent education system has been, in many ways, an education in itself. Ironically, the coalition government’s drive to further instrumentalise education in the service of business requirements has produced a generation of protest-literate students far more alive to the radical inequalities that characterise our political system than they might otherwise have been. Even as the coalition government undermined the right to an education, it inadvertently provoked a generation to think for itself.

Jamie Stern-Weiner is a politics student at King’s College, Cambridge. He co-edits New Left Project and writes for Le Monde Diplomatique.


[1] cf. Meadway, J. ‘The Rebellion in Context’ in C. Solomon and T. Palmieri, eds. Springtime: The New Student Rebellions; Collini, S. ‘Browne’s Gamble’. London Review of Books. (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n21/stefan-collini/brownes-gamble)

[2] A major 2006 inquiry into general public engagement in politics rejected the “myth of apathy”, and found that while alienation towards formal political institutions “is extremely high and widespread”, the public is interested in political issues and “very large numbers of citizens” are engaged in community work and political activism. (http://www.powerinquiry.org/report/documents/ii.pdf)

[3] Often very conscious assault – cf. Noam Chomsky’s discussion of the elite reaction to what was deemed an “excess of democracy” in the 1960s. (http://www.chomsky.info/articles/20080508.htm)

[4] Guardian, 10 June 1968, p. 8. Cited in Thomas, N. ‘Challenging Myths of the 1960s: The Case of Student Protest in Britain’. Twentieth Century British History (2002) 13 (3): p. 280. (http://tcbh.oxfordjournals.org/content/13/3/277.full.pdf+html)

[5] Boren, M.E. Student Resistance – A History of the Unruly Subject: p. 5.

[6] See Yafai, H. ‘Rebirth of Student Activism’ in Springtime: The New Student Rebellions: p. 34.

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