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TIME FOR A PROTEST MOVEMENT IN THE UNIVERSITIES?

Harry Powell


 


This academic year sees the first intake of students into higher education who will not receive grants and who mostly will have to pay tuition fees. For many years now students have been struggling to study in the face of grants steadily declining in real terms. The consequence has been growing reliance on part-time jobs and parental support with most students ending up in considerable debt at the end of their courses. A less than vibrant graduate job market means that it will take the typical ex-student many years to pay off their debts. In addition the educational quality of the courses followed by many students is poor with very limited contact with tutors and restricted access to libraries, laboratories, workshops, etc.. The lot of a student these days is not very enviable and it no longer makes much sense to claim that they are relatively privileged given that now over a third of their age group enter higher education.
 
 

STUDENT APATHY

Perhaps what is surprising is that so far there has been virtually no organised or widespread student protest against their deteriorating situation. The National Union of Students accepted the state’s claim that it is not possible to fund students and higher educational institutions at past levels. On some campuses the student unions opposed this policy but no further action has followed. Of course, it could be that hard pressed students are too busy earning money on top of carrying out their studies to have time to take matters further! More generally today’s students have grown up in a period of reaction whereby any resistance or opposition to state policies serving the interests of the ruling class has, with hardly any exceptions, been either ineffective or crushed, as with the miners’ strike of the mid-nineteen eighties. Most students do not have a very positive assessment of the existing social order but neither do they believe in the possibility of any viable alternative. Their outlook is what has sometimes been called "pragmatic acceptance" - they don’t like the system but they see no possibility of change.
 
 

STUDENTS IN THE SIXTIES

The last time students in Britain erupted into action was in the mid-nineteen sixties. Conditions in society were very different from now but on the campuses there were some similarities with the present situation. It was an earlier period of rapid expansion of higher education and some of the problems were present which students have now - overcrowded lecture theatres, unimaginative courses, poor tuition. In addition students then were faced with accommodation problems and petty, authoritarian rules and regulations in universities and colleges. The protest and revolt against these adverse conditions began at the London School of Economics in the autumn of 1966 when American postgraduate students from the University of California, Berkeley, (where there had been a free speech movement), supplied the ignition. The student revolt quickly spread to other campuses in Britain and across Europe. As it did so the whole role of education under capitalism came to be questioned and wider issues were taken up - the oppression of women, gay rights, ageism, imperialism, etc.. New revolutionary movements emerged out of the student revolt in many countries including Britain. Bliss it was that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven!

The student movement of the Sixties faded almost as rapidly as it had flowered. By the early nineteen seventies it was on the decline and as the worldwide depression developed in the mid-nineteen seventies it faded away. However, it did have some positive achievements to its credit. The state did put more resources into higher education and within the universities and colleges more attention was paid to the needs of students. Petty rules and restrictions were swept away and legislation was passed to give students and staff some say in the governance of these institutions. More widely, as part of the general anti-authoritarian Sixties movement, the protesting students helped bring about a more relaxed and tolerant attitude towards personal and sexual relationships, something which still remains with us
 
 

STUDENTS, TUTORS AND PARENTS IN THE NINETIES

During the nineteen eighties and nineties it is not only the position of students within higher education which has been slowly but surely deteriorating. Their teachers, the academic staff, have also been faced with increasingly adverse conditions. Back in the sixties the situation of lecturers was generally improving with rising real incomes, job security and good promotion prospects. Thirty years later things are very different because the real earnings of academic staff have been falling for many years and jobs have become much more scarce and less secure. In addition tutors have much heavier teaching and administrative responsibilities while at the same time being required, under penalty of dismissal, to produce a steady output of research publications. All of this has to be done within the context of ever more limited resources with respect to the amount of teaching and research required.

The situation of teachers in higher education is very different from what it was thirty years ago. Then, many of them were actually the targets of student protests whereas now it is not the students that tutors are in conflict with but rather the state and university administrators who decide upon and implement parsimonious and restrictive budgetary quotas. Instead of being on opposite sides of the barricades the respective objective positions of staff and students mean that there is a real, material basis for them linking up and making common cause against the capitalist state which makes their lives ever more difficult. Not only this but the situation of students’ parents has changed as well. Back in the Sixties better off parents did have to contribute towards their children’s grants but it was something they could afford without much difficulty. Now all parents, including those who cannot possibly afford to do so, are expected to provide their student offspring with considerable financial assistance. Parents too find themselves in conflict with the state over the provision of higher education.
 
 

A NEW PROTEST MOVEMENT?

Unlike the situation in the Sixties, in the Nineties lecturers, students and their parents have interests in common with respect to higher education. All of them are under financial pressure and the circumstances of students and tutors make it very difficult for them to properly carry out their academic tasks. Given the production line methods used to run many courses, students receive little, if any, intellectual stimulation. In addition most of them do not have the time to really engage with their studies but are forced to take a purely instrumental attitude because of the long hours they have to spend on part-time jobs to try to make ends meet. The wide range of intellectual and cultural activities outside of their formal studies that students used to engage in have greatly reduced for the same reason. While tutors are starved of research funds at the same time they are under pressure, under the threat of the sack, to churn out papers for conferences and academic journals. Far from bringing about an increase in the quality and volume of genuine research carried out it tends to have the opposite effect as staff pander to the immediate needs and prejudices of the providers of research funds and contrive to artificially manufacture publications to meet their quotas. Also academic staff are increasingly expected to devote considerable time to marketing operations designed to recruit students in the face of fierce competition from rival institutions equally desperate not to slip down the scale in a funding system which provides less for more.

There is a very real objective basis for students, their parents and staff in higher education to unite on a platform of demanding adequate funding for higher education in Britain. Compared with thirty years ago these people are now a much larger proportion of the population. They constitute a significant chunk of so-called "middle England", that section of society whose political allegiances have become very uncertain but whom the main political parties (especially New Labour) are anxious to placate. In a significant number of parliamentary constituencies the votes of those connected with the universities can easily decide the outcome of an election. The types of skills and self-confidence these people come to acquire as a result of their education means that if they do decide to take action then they are well placed to effectively handle the media and politicians. The point is, will they do it?
 
 

ONE SPARK CAN LIGHT A PRAIRIE FIRE

Already the glimmerings of a new protest movement on the campuses are beginning to appear. A few months ago at the University of North East London the Principal announced a large number of redundancies, especially among the academic staff. The tutors started to go through the motions, by means of their virtually moribund NATFHE branch, of trying to negotiate some reductions in the number of posts to be eliminated. Then the students got to hear about what was happening. They were incensed at the prospect of the already thin teaching and tuition received becoming even more sparse. The response of the students was to occupy the main university site and demand that there be no redundancies. The next, surprisingly welcome development, was for academic staff to join with the students in their occupation and set up an alternative university. This incident shows that students and staff can unite in defence of their common interests. If it can happen on one campus then it can happen on others. All that is needed is the will to do it.

STUDENTS MUST TAKE THE LEAD

A movement to defend higher education and the interests of those in it will only come into being if students take the initiative in getting it going. Their tutors resent the way things are going but are reluctant to do anything about it other than making rather muted verbal protests. In addition to a general pessimism bred from years of having lived through a slow but sure deterioration in their situation, they fear retaliation from university authorities and the government if they rock the boat too much. The younger ones, often on fixed term contracts, fear blacklisting and unemployment if they become known as troublemakers while the older staff are all too aware that they could easily be dispensed with and cheaply replaced from the large pool of younger, well-qualified personnel eager for any academic work they can grab. The older element want to keep their heads down and ride out the storm until they reach the safety of retirement age. As for students’ parents, it is very difficult for them, as a rather diffuse group of people, to do anything effective in and by themselves about these problems.
 
 

As already demonstrated at North East London, there are a number of reasons as to why the initiative is likely to come from the students. For a start, it is they who are experiencing the attack on higher education most sharply, both in educational and financial terms. Also they cannot afford to wait for change. They are only going to be in higher education for a few years and need change now if they are to benefit personally. While they have grown up in a climate of pessimism it is nonetheless the case that being young they are more potentially open to new ideas than older people who are more set in their ways. Once the students come to realise that it is not inevitable that things have to stay the way they are now, they will more inclined to take action to bring about change than will older generations who have suffered defeats in trying to defend their position. What is more, unlike the staff, they do not have much to lose if they do engage in protest actions. The universities need students in order to hold on to their funding and thus are unlikely to expel them.

The campuses today are seething with discontent and it would only take one or two similar actions to the one at the University of North East London to set off a chain reaction across the country. Given this year’s intake of students are the first with no grants and having to pay fees they could easily be the catalyst for the formation of a protest movement.
 
 

WIDER IMPLICATIONS

If a movement protesting about the state of higher education does get going then inevitably, just as happened thirty years ago, it will broaden out to make more general criticisms about the existing social order. This could stimulate wider protests and actions against injustices in contemporary society. Historically it has often been the case that student demonstrations have sparked off oppositional actions among other sections of society. The mass occupation of workplaces in France in 1968 comes immediately to mind but there are many other examples. The May the Fourth Movement in China in 1919 against the imperialist carve-up of China at the Versailles Conference was started by students but quickly spread nation-wide. In 1973 a student demonstration in Athens led to the downfall of the Greek military dictatorship. More recently it was often student protesters who initiated the mass demonstrations which led to the fall of the Soviet satellite regimes in Eastern Europe.

Although necessary, a protest movement about conditions in higher education is very limited in political terms; it is essentially reformist. However it has the potentially to go beyond its initial narrow bounds and stimulate the development of more general oppositional and even revolutionary demands. Britain has some of the most oppressive anti-trade union laws in the world which make it very difficult for employees to defend their wages and working conditions. Already there have been some large scale industrial actions, particularly by postman, which have blatantly broken these laws. While the potential political role of students and academics should not be exaggerated, it is nonetheless the case that their actions could encourage others, such as trade unionists, to revolt against oppression and exploitation.
 
 

DARE TO STRUGGLE, DARE TO WIN!

The locus in which people are usually best able to conduct class struggle is from the position where they are actually situated in society. It is the duty of all revolutionary minded students and lecturers to take the initiative to form a movement to defend higher education.