Against Education Cuts
Before the UK election in May 2010, Conservative think-tanks such as Policy Exchange were suggesting that universities should be forced to ‘sink or swim’ and that private takeover was a very real possibility for ‘failing’ (or even not-so-failing) universities. While the introduction of ‘top-up’ tuition fees in 1998 heralded a shift in the way institutions understood their relation to both the state and their students, the total market vision of universities held by the coalition government crosses a qualitative threshold in the long-standing drive to impose the ideology of ‘measurability’ on the education system, despite the absence of any economic or social benefit in doing so.
The tripling of tuition fees, the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for 16–18 year-olds and the removal of state funding for teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences have struck many not only as a searing indictment of the philistinism of a government whose members had themselves received a free university education, but also as an inadequate and unsustainable response to the economic crisis. How is reducing university places, making levels of debt so high that they become unattractive and impossible for those not from rich families, and cutting the funding of various subjects going to stimulate the economy? What else, exactly, are those sixteen-year-olds who will lose the EMA, and those potential university students put off by a lifetime of debt, going to do instead? The short-termist venality of government policy, the Liberal Democrat climbdown over fees, the misjudged rhetoric of ‘austerity Britain’, the new philanthropy, the ‘Big Society’ and newspeak claims that ‘we are all in this together’ have made it very clear to the British public that it is they who will have to pay, and pay hard, for a deficit they didn’t create, in the name of a ‘shock doctrine’ approach to the economy that they don’t want.
It is no surprise, in some ways, that education, with all its complex forms of constraint and emancipation, would be at the forefront of this ongoing struggle, though it is quite clear that the government (and the police) have so far massively miscalculated the public response to their policies, assuming, perhaps, that after decades of ideological warfare, many, even among the middle classes, would find little to be upset about in the destruction of the university, with its supposed distance from the ‘real world’ and uselessness in an era characterized overwhelmingly by an obsession with profit, measurement and financial gain.
In many ways, the attack on universities and the EMA has been interpreted, correctly, as an attack on the young, and in particular on marginalized youth. We have in recent months been treated to the absurd spectacle of millionaire politicians telling already impoverished A-level and university students that they should be fixing the economy by mortgaging their future for the promise of jobs that are likely never to exist. Coupled with the institutional racism of a police force who have for a long time felt at liberty to harass and intimidate black and Asian youth in particular, the sense of divide between the rich and poor has become starker than ever. The battle over education, for so long understood as one of the main drivers of social mobility, has taken on a politicized character that had lain dormant in previous years.
‘Rage of the Girl Rioters’? Yes, please!
The increasingly large – and, latterly, ferociously policed – demonstrations of November and December were accompanied by a series of university, college and school occupations involving, in total, around fifty institutions across the country. Although these events took place in direct response to the attacks on education, they should be understood in the context of occupations that took place a year earlier in response to Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and to the brief occupation of Deptford Town Hall by Goldsmiths students on 3 November when the government first announced their intentions to raise fees and cut funding. Earlier actions in support of academic staff should also be remembered: last spring, staff went on strike at Kings College London and students occupied Sussex in protest at planned lay-offs. The international outcry that greeted the announcement of the closure of Philosophy at Middlesex University in May last year, and the subsequent occupations of the main buildings and library at its Trent Park campus, coupled with management suspension of staff and students, similarly set the tone for the autumn occupations. Some have begun to call it Winter of Discontent 2.0, reflecting, on the one hand, the return of a more openly Thatcherite political climate (although it was of course Labour who commissioned the Browne Report) and, on the other, the role of new media in disseminating information and organizing the protests and occupations, the scale of which prompted many to compare current student activism to the events of 1968 (plus laptops). There may be some mileage in comparisons to the protests of 1968, so long as they can avoid becoming a nostalgia-fest for those who have long since abandoned political resistance. But any direct identification fails to recognize the changed nature and status of the student as a political and social being: the blurring of the line between student and worker is far more pronounced now, precisely because the expansion of higher education has created spaces for those whose families do not previously have experience of attending university. Most of my students at Roehampton (and I’m sure the pattern is similar in other post-92s) are just as much workers, parents and carers as they are students, which makes participation in the protests and occupations perhaps even more significant. As does the fact that none of the students who occupied and protested this winter will be directly affected by the fee increases, frustrating media attempts to push their usual stereotype of the lazy, self-interested student. Another set of characters had to be mobilized: the naive protester simply caught up in the heat of the events (reinforcing the reactionary division between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ protester), the image of a ‘children’s crusade’ coupled with a critique of lecturers who ‘should know better’, and so on. It should be noted that unlike ’68, where all the well-known student leaders were male, the role of women as organizers, protesters and commentators in the recent protests was central, much to the horror of the Daily Mail in particular, whose ‘Rage of the Girl Rioters’ article (25 November) is already notorious.
While National Union of Students and University and College Union leadership were frequently ‘spineless’ – as NUS leader Aaron Porter described himself during a meeting at the UCL occupation – the students’ self-organization and rapid outwitting of police tactics on several occasions should be recognized as part of a new wave of acephalic mobilizations, which, as protests build into the new year, cannot get much further without the support of trade unions, parents and other workers. This is a point made by Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite. University lecturers, who are being increasingly told by management to inform on their politically active students, came in for some serious criticism from the media at various points, particularly those at Goldsmiths who signed a letter defending the student protests (‘Full Marks for the Riot Say Lecturers’ ran the Evening Standard headline on 12 November). The attack on Goldsmiths is not coincidental. It is seen as the symbolic home of everything that’s ‘wrong’ with the university according to current government policy: arts-based, in London (there are simply ‘too many’), renowned (but not in the right way) and far too accessible to students from non-traditional backgrounds. On a related note, the role of ‘art practice’ in recent protests is also interesting, particularly the re-détourning of already assimilated art forms – the way the flash mob turned in a matter of months from an empty social media happening to an advertising vehicle, to a form of popular protest in the shape of UK Uncut’s tax avoidance campaigns.
There is no doubt that 2011 will see a continued and increasingly militant anger spreading from students and the young to public-sector workers and beyond. Parents of children and young adults are increasingly and justly antagonized by the punishment meted out on their kids, and further-education and university students involved in the protests have received a rapid education in how not to trust the state, the police or the media. Some of the most articulate summaries and slogans of the current situation have come not from the old revolutionary vanguard, or from the commentariat, but from the protesters and occupiers themselves – and how could it be otherwise?
Occupations and their limits
Boundaries are permeable. We reach out beyond the police containment zone; our attempt to escape is our attempt to spread the movement into society at large. On the evening of 9 December, journalists are let out just before they hold us for two hours on Westminster Bridge. We are reminded of the futility of tweeting from our smartphones when all the professional reporters have gone home. But, instead of silence, we listen to our own chants.
In protest our biggest opposition is the boundary. We reject the boundaries of the lecture theatre, the separation of students from society, the institutions of privilege, the binding of subjects to disciplines, the lines on the timetables that tell us where to be and when. Boundaries are how we are controlled, and in occupying we aim to take control of and remove them. The metaphors abound, and our movement is attracted to them. It is not by mistake that we engage in modes of protest that leave themselves open to poetic interpretation.
Virtual boundaries manifest themselves in the physical world. Receiving the legal notice of a possession order against an occupation, we find ourselves presented with deeds and blueprints. The perimeters of the occupied rooms are outlined in coloured felt-tip. The documents tell us that the claimant is ‘The University’, which means its management. In legal terms, the management are the owners of the institution: in legal terms, they control it. Occupiers are depersonalized by definition, defined as ‘Persons Unknown (including students)’. We are expected to recognize ourselves in that dismissive parenthesis. The symbolism of the boundaries marked on these documents at that moment becomes a spectre of physical violence: the threat of removal by bailiffs.
This mutation from virtual to physical does not only go in one direction. The police line in front of Parliament or the Treasury becomes an integral part of a whole architecture worthy of destruction. The line becomes a boundary of the spectacle, and then itself becomes subsumed into the spectacle. We form our own line and so the process continues back and forth, between the spectacle of the boundary and the boundary of the spectacle.
The mass incarceration of protesters in Parliament Square is counterposed by the fences put up to stop people getting in. Boundaries become confused. Are they to pen us in or keep us out? In occupation, we rebel against a particular boundary, but in doing so we come to recognize the social functions of boundaries…
Smells like teen spirit
Before I learned about the planned rise in tuition fees in October 2010, my sole experience of political protest was as a nine-year-old accompanying my mother on a thoroughly peaceful anti-Iraq War march in 2003. I’m now sixteen, a student at a South-west London state secondary school. Following the election last spring, my friends and I had begun to talk about politics for the first time. There was a wide range of views. There was an equally wide range of opinions about the government’s imminent plans involving tuition fees, only this time feelings were heightened as the issue was something that we could directly relate to our futures.
As the students of the future, we are the ones who will be saddled with massive debts. They will be a huge deterrent for many of us, as we ponder how best to continue our education. I don’t accept that the Con–Dem alliance has any mandate to decide our futures, to reinstate an elitist education system, and to reinforce the class system that underlies it, particularly as the majority of them have benefited from an entirely free university education.
Inspired by news of planned demonstrations in London, a friend and I joined the 10 November protest march from Whitehall to Millbank, the Conservative Headquarters, in order to ‘unite and fight’ with thousands of other justifiably irate students from all over the UK. The enthusiasm and motivation of the crowd was phenomenal, with over 50,000 workers and students spanning all ages, united in their view that the contents of the Browne Report were unfair and unnecessary; the energy was particularly exhilarating and heartening outside Millbank, where the chants and banners found an immediate and compelling target.
Emboldened by our experience and motivated through the need to raise awareness among our peers and create an impact locally, we then decided to organize our own event in Kingston. We wanted to gain as much support as possible, particularly in secondary schools. Like so many similar groups all over the country, we set up a Facebook event page, giving information and explaining our motives. We planned to stage school walkouts, followed by a local march, to coincide with the National Day of Walkouts to defend Education (on 24 November), organized by the Education Activist Network…