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Interview with a British university occupier and former AWSM member

category ireland / britain | education | interview author Thursday December 23, 2010 20:23author by AWSM - Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movementauthor email info at awsm dot org dot nz Report this post to the editors

Recently, the UK has seen the rise of a mass student movement in opposition to huge increases in course fees across British universities, combined with cuts to research and other aspects of the tertiary education system. Below is an interview with Dan, a former member of the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement who is now living in the UK, and was involved in a 2 day long occupation at his own university in London.

Can you give us a little background on the attacks on students that have led to this upsurge in struggle?

Having spent billions of pounds bailing-out banks, Europe’s state finances are being abandoned by the markets they propped up. The politicians and economists (and unsurprisingly bankers and their chums) are united in the consensus that the only way forward is to take a hatchet to state budgets, the only arguments being over how fast and exactly where the hatchet shall fall. The new government in Britain has thrown itself at the task with seeming abandon. 25% of the public finances are to be cut over the next four years. Every public service is to be affected and amongst the most savage cuts are those to University funding. 80% of the university teaching budget from government is to be hacked away; funding for research is to be trimmed down so that only research projects deemed “commercially useful” will receive money i.e. only things that can be sold.

To plug the funding gap, the government proposes to triple tuition fees for students from ~£3500 to £9000 (from NZ$7230 to NZ$18,590) per year. Once loans for living allowances are added to this, students in Britain will be leaving university in 5 years time with upwards of £40,000 (NZ$82,620) worth of debt to their name. For many graduates, this will rule out mortgages and home owning for much of their adult life.

Young people can see the writing on the wall. For those without the safety net of a privileged background, the increase in tuition fees will end their dreams of a university education. In a hostile job-market where 1 in 5 graduates with degrees are already struggling to find a job, the undertaking of such massive debt is a huge risk. The first generation in this country with substantial student debt is currently graduating from university. We understand the pressures of such debt better than anyone else and certainly better than a government that consists of 18 millionaires in its cabinet. We understand it and we balk at increasing this pressure by 200%.

What happened nationally in the building to the recent occupations?

On the 10th November, the National Union of Students (NUS) organised a march in London against proposals to triple student tuition fees. For 20 years or more, British students have been regarded as a politically spent force. Student politics was considered a training ground for future career politicians, rather than having merit in of itself, and student radicalism was but a memory. When the previous government introduced tuition fees, a couple of demonstrations passed almost unnoticed. The NUS had since given up on fighting against student contributions and instead contented itself with lobbying (quite ineffectually) to keep those contributions relatively low and “progressively” implemented. The government, the country and even the NUS were therefore taken completely by surprise by the events of November 10th. That day 50,000 students marched through the streets of London and they were angry.

To understand that anger one has to look back 7 months to the general election campaign. During that campaign the Liberal Democrats, now junior partners in the coalition government, had pledged to scrap tuition fees if they won the general election and to vote against any increase if they didn’t win. Many students campaigned for the Lib Dems on this basis and spent hours queuing to vote for Lib Dem candidates. Now they saw Lib Dem ministers actually proposing to double, if not triple tuition fees as part of their coalition with the Conservative Party.

With police protection around Lib Dem HQ, it was Conservative Party HQ which felt the rage of demonstrators – hundreds, if not thousands of students invaded the building at Millbank, the resultant property damage driving the bourgeois media into frenzy and instantly catapulting the students’ grievances onto the front pages. Student activists learnt a valuable lesson at Millbank – where compliant protest fails to capture media attention, the targeted invasion of property demands it. By the end of November 35 British education institutions had seen occupations along with MPs offices and tax dodging big businesses.

You occupied your university for over two days – how was the tactic decided upon and then publicised? How many people took part, and did they tend to come from the radical left or were they more representative of the university population in general? What happened during the occupation?

The week after the events at Millbank, the Anti-Cuts Alliance at my uni (Royal Holloway, University of London) held a public meeting attended by about 50 students, lecturers and supporters. Over 3 hours we discussed, debated and voted upon direction we wanted the movement to take on our campus, the principles we’d adhere to and defend, and the tactics we’d use to achieve our goals. It was at this meeting that the decision to occupy was made. A few days later, all the logistics were arranged and about 40 of us occupied a part of the building used by college management. After a 40 minute debate with the Principal and Vice Principal, we settled in and e-mailed the entire university with our intentions. We set up a web-cam so that anybody interested could actually see what we were doing, we postered and flyered campus and we canvassed the campus bars for signatures of support. Over the course of the two days over 100 people took part in the occupation, most of which I would guess were relatively new to political activism, although a core of about 20 radical left-wingers were at the heart of the occupation. Royal Holloway is only a small uni with little history of radical politics, and so the occupation was free from outside interference (as there are no left-wing political organisations on campus).

The occupation was run completely democratically and autonomously, with regular group meetings to discuss the division of labour, responses to media and management requests and the news from the rest of the student movement. Over the two days we held a number of teach-ins, as well as hearing talks from trade-unionists and even the university chaplain (who was a dissident in the USSR). We also organised music gigs, poetry readings and dramatic performances for entertainment in the evenings, all themed around the cuts and anti-capitalism.

Other universities were also in occupation at the same time as you in other parts of the country. What was communication like between the occupations? Also, was there much communication with high school students who held walkouts in support?

There were little to no official lines of communication between the various occupations, but most occupations were in close contact with up to 5 or 6 others as friends exchanged information via the internet. The universities in London have been particularly close, due to their physical proximity and the London Student Assembly which has been meeting every Sunday over the past few weeks. For Royal Holloway though, our closest allies from off campus come from the Sixth Form College down the road from us. We received over 250 signatures of support from them and about 10 students actually came up to the occupation to take part in the evening’s activities. Even one of the school teachers came along to run a teach-in on Anarchism. In return we sent down a delegation to give a talk on the occupation to the college students and it looks likely now that they will be forming their own anti-cuts organisation at school.

Obviously it isn’t just students who are under attack – have there been efforts to build links between students struggles and struggles in the workplace or beneficiaries struggles?

On the first night of the occupation we received representatives from Surrey Save Our Services, a coalition of local trade union branches and community groups that are fighting the public sector cuts in the county of Surrey. It is of vital importance that these sorts of groups grow across the country as many of Britain’s public services are organised and funded at county level. It will therefore be at the local level that the axe falls heaviest in terms of funding and job cuts, and must be fought against hardest. It was with this in mind that the Anti-Cuts Alliance officially affiliated with Surrey Save Our Services that evening. We have been working closely with the group since the occupation, attending local trade union rallies in Solidarity and we hope to set up a Surrey Youth Assembly jointly with them in the New Year.

We have also seen practical support from the trade union movement. When our student union (shamefully) failed to put on transport for demonstrators attending the 9th December demo outside parliament, it was the Royal Holloway branch of the UCU (lecturers union) who stepped up to the mark and hired coaches for the day. Across the country, students are beginning to look outside of the student movement towards mutual aid with others affected by the government’s attacks on the working classes. On the student demos over the last few weeks the chant has been “Students and workers, Unite and fight!”, whilst at the Assemblies and on the blogs students are beginning to talk about how we will show our support “when the General Strike happens”. And it is not just students who are awakening and trying to forge links. As I write, the grinding wheels of the national trade union bureaucracy are starting to turn with calls from the TUC (Trade Union Congress) for “support for the students” and “waves of strikes” across the public sector in the New Year.

Where do you think/hope things will go from here? Are there any particular pitfalls you think are important to watch out for?

At the moment the country is in a surreal state of calm as both the students and politicians return home for the Christmas break. With the vote in parliament going against students on 9th December, the student movement has got a long fight to save their Universities from Capitalism. The strength of anger I’ve witnessed within the student movement does not simply dissipate over a few weeks at home and I have no doubt that students will return to their universities in fighting spirit. And that spirit will be needed, for the fight now that legislation has been passed is no longer about persuading the government to change it’s mind, but to topple it before it’s policies can be implemented. This cannot be achieved by students alone. Only a united working class, willing to fight as communities and in the workplace, has the power to realise these goals.

The “anti-cuts movement”, as it is becoming, must not let itself be divided by the media and politicians – whether it is the issue of property destruction by students or striking firemen and nurses, the movement must commit to and understand the meaning of Solidarity, not just play lip service to it. My biggest concern however, is that the Labour Party will use the movement to get back into power without reversing the regressive policies. We must remember that much of what is being done by the current government is only possible because of the groundwork done by Labour over the last 13 years – the introduction of tuition fees for example. So far the Labour Party has not provided any alternative to public sector cuts and shows no sign of doing so in the future. My hope is that as the movement builds it will develop its own political alternatives that can be taken forward regardless of the party in power.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The recent student protests have really shaken the establishment. After decades of quiescence and compliance from British youth, a new generation is finally showing that they are willing to fight for social justice again. I would argue that the political establishment in Britain is more out of touch with the people (especially young people) than at any point since the years immediately following first world war. The politicians and the media simply do not understand at all the strength of feeling in the country or the deep sense of disaffection within the working classes.

The reaction by the bourgeoisie and their allies has been panic. The media has been whipped into frenzy, blaming a “violent minority” of anarchists and “troublemakers” for “orchestrating violence” whilst desperately trying to justify the increasing brutality of the police against unarmed teenagers. It is difficult propaganda to spin given the huge number of images showing mounted charges, indiscriminate use of batons and officers pulling protesters out of their wheelchairs! On the streets the police are cracking skulls, making mass arrests and effectively imprisoning thousands of demonstrators for hours in the name of “facilitating peaceful protest”. 180 people have been arrested so far in connection with supposed offences at the four big demos in London and one person was beaten into brain surgery at the last protest. Ministers and police commissioners are now openly talking about bringing in water cannon from Northern Ireland and even banning student demonstrations!

The actions of the state belie the reality of the situation. This is not a “small minority”. This is the beginnings of a real social movement acting outside of the channels permitted by the bourgeois elite. It is something the establishment does not understand and cannot control. Most importantly it is something that they are obviously scared of, and nothing erodes the institution of power more than seeing your rulers shitting themselves.

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