From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Students are back on the streets. After years when they seemed less concerned with politics than with their courses, there are signs of a higher level of politicisation than at any time since the 1970s.
The Tories’ budget announcement last November that student grants would be cut by 30 percent was met with a massive wave of anger. Even before this cut, students shared with single parents the honour of being at the bottom level of living standards in Tory Britain.
Immediately after the cut was announced there were demonstrations of 2,500 in Leeds, 800 in Norwich, 1,000 in Glasgow and 3,500 in Aberdeen – where pensioners and health workers joined the protest. There was a four day occupation by hundreds of students at the University of East Anglia and other occupations at Glasgow University, Strathclyde University, the London School of Economics and Bradford University. At SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies in central London, students occupied to defeat increased library fines and won. On 23 February student unions from across Britain joined together in a 30,000 strong national demonstration in central London.
The Tories have succeeded in turning education into as much of a political hot potato as the health service. Many students were quick to point to events in Paris where a demonstration of a million recently overturned the French Tories’ attempts to privatise state education.
The unpopularity of Tory measures and the weakness of the government have already forced retreats. Plans to enforce ‘voluntary membership’ of college students’ unions – effectively ending all political and campaigning activities – have been dropped.
That reflected divisions within Tory ranks. NUS will claim this success was achieved by its lobbying of the House of Lords. In reality, at the merest hint of confrontation, Major and Patten retreated.
Students may have little economic power in society but widespread student protests can help to create a political movement of opposition to government policies on a range of issues.
The upsurge of anger and activity has occurred despite the refusal of the Labour run National Union of Students to take even token protest action against the grants cut. NUS president, Lorna Fitzsimons, began by claiming protests would only fuel the Tories’ attempts to introduce voluntary membership of NUS. She no longer has this excuse. She then argued that demonstrations did not work. Eventually the NUS executive decided to call a national demonstration – but during the Easter holidays!
A minority of Labour Party members on the executive grouped in Left Unity took part in initiating the national demonstration on 23 February, but they too were more concerned with manoeuvring within the NUS leadership rather than building occupations. They tended to concentrate their venom on attacking the SWSS call for a march on parliament.
The 23 February march and the other protests have been built from the bottom among the rank and file in the colleges – free from the internecine warfare in the NUS leadership. They demonstrated just how volatile student struggles can be. They tend to spring up from nowhere and lead to rapid radicalisation. Students are less likely than workers to carry with them a collective memory of the defeats which dominated so much of the 1980s. While students might not have the collective strength of workers they can act as a catalyst to wider protest. Events in France in 1968 are the most famous example of when student unrest can break through to workers. Then they led to the biggest general strike in history.
Yet in 1968 the concerns of students seemed remote from most workers. Today many working class families have someone either going to college or hoping to go to college. Few students, apart from the most privileged, can look forward to a well paid and secure future. After having to work in McDonalds or Safeway to eke out their grants they will leave college to find employment mainly in low paid white collar jobs.
The change in students’ expectations has not registered with many people. The Guardian was content simply to trot out a recent article claiming students were no longer interested in marching and occupying as they were in 1968! The Students Fighting for Socialism weekend event organised by the SWP last month attracted over 1,000 students for an intense weekend of discussion and planning for action. Today’s students, unlike those in 1968, are protesting against a background of war, recession and resurgent fascism. When journalists talk of apathy in the colleges they are mistaken. There exists a rejection of the grey politicians in Westminster coupled with anger and bitterness over what is happening all around them.
It is an explosive mix.
Last updated: 8 March 2017