The student movement today

Issue: 130

Dan Swain

The month-long period between 10 November and 9 December saw the birth of the largest and most militant student movement Britain had experienced for decades.1 A wave of walkouts, demonstrations and occupations shook university managements and the government, bringing it to the brink of defeat. The demonstrations in London and Manchester on 29 January brought the movement back to the streets, and there have been occupations in Glasgow, Kent and Birmingham already this year. This movement marked a sharp break with student politics of recent years, but it didn’t drop miraculously from a clear blue sky. To understand the movement it is essential to understand the transformation of higher and further education in Britain, and the changing place of students in society.

The number of students in further and higher education has grown massively over the past 30 years, meaning that students now represent a large and distinct social force within society. Students find themselves at a transitional point in society, between childhood and full incorporation into the world of work. While, as I will discuss more below, more students than ever before work to support themselves, the majority still do not. At the same time, universities and colleges are increasingly geared towards preparation of students for the workforce. This gives students an ambiguous place in capitalist society, with no direct relationship to the means of production. Students are not directly exploited in the way that workers are. On the other hand, the mass expansion of education means the days are long gone when students could be said to be a privileged section of society. Exams, debt, poor housing and many other factors mean students can be profoundly alienated. This ambiguous position affects both the consciousness of students and the rhythm of their struggles.

Growing radicalisation

The period immediately preceding the rise of the current student movement was one of fairly high levels of political radicalisation. Students played a prominent role in the anti-war movement, with Stop the War societies set up on many campuses. As well as building opposition to war and occupation these groups often played an important role in campaigning alongside Islamic Societies against the Islamophobia and attacks on civil liberties unleashed by the “war on terror”. While not on the scale of recent ones, there were significant walkouts by school students on the day Iraq was invaded in March 2003. In 2005 Student Respect was launched, which at its best translated the radicalism of the anti-war movement into alliances capable of winning elections in student unions. Student Respect had some success within the NUS, as well as winning some positions in local student unions in Manchester and Essex.

The anti-capitalist movement at the beginning of the last decade also had a strong influence, seeing the growth of groups such as People and Planet, as well as more radical organisations like Globalise Resistance. People and Planet was set up as a student focused group to campaign against corporate power and environmental degradation. In 1999 People and Planet had groups at nearly 150 university campuses, and they played an important role in mobilising for campaigns against Third World debt and global poverty.2 However, People and Planet also argued that those in Western countries needed to cut their consumption in order to solve poverty and climate change. This led to a focus on changing behaviour rather than changing the system that was sometimes counter-productive. People and Planet was also organised as a loose network, with a certain hostility to involvement by political parties, especially in local groups. In this respect it was an important precursor to some of the more autonomist minded forces in the contemporary student movement, who share this suspicion of organisation. Globalise Resistance, in contrast, did not share this suspicion, but also did not grow on the same scale.

An important precursor to the current movement was the wave of occupations during and following the Israeli invasion of Gaza in early 2009. These were tiny when compared with the recent revolts, but nonetheless saw dozens of universities being occupied. University managements were undoubtedly rattled, and delivered a range of concessions, including sending old books and computers to Gaza. These played an important role in putting the tactic of occupations back onto the agenda, with even the Guardian suggesting that “students are awakening from the political apathy of which they are often accused”.3 The activists involved with the Gaza occupations often used the experiences learned in the far larger occupations over fees and cuts.

This reflects the way in which university campuses are far more politicised than wider society. Students come to university expecting to think critically about the big questions. Often these hopes are somewhat dashed by a stifling orthodoxy, especially in economics and social sciences, but there is still far more space for this at universities than in wider society. Even the caricature of Marxism taught to students is far more than they get from the mainstream media, and the gap between the expectations of new students and the reality can itself be a source of frustration and radicalisation. Furthermore, the increase in the number of international students in Britain means that international solidarity becomes far from abstract. Students are much less constrained by the weight of the past, far more likely to assert that another world is possible. Thus students can be far quicker to make connections between struggles and to generalise to big political questions. This has been on show throughout our movement, whether it is the prevalence of Palestinian flags on the anti-fees demonstrations, the activists bringing cardboard cut-outs of works of philosophy to shield themselves from the police, or the ease with which we won the argument for demonstrators to march to the Egyptian Embassy following the London demonstration in January, linking the struggle against austerity with the struggle against Mubarak.

Yet despite this high level of politicisation, the level of struggle on specific student questions had been fairly low. One of the reasons the turnout for the National Union of Students (NUS) demonstration on 10 November was so spectacular and surprising was that the last time they had called a demonstration over fees, in 2006, the turnout was derisory. This came after a long period in which the NUS had failed adequately to challenge successive Labour governments. The NUS was dominated by Labour Students throughout the 1990s. When Tony Blair was elected in 1997 Labour Students agreed with the scrapping of grants, and offered only token resistance to the introduction of fees. Education secretary David Blunkett even gave a speech at the Labour Party conference thanking the NUS for their support for his policies.

Whilst the official leadership of the NUS dithered, it was left to other organisations like the Campaign for Free Education and the Stop the Fees Campaign, led by socialists and left wing independents, to build serious opposition.4 While the NUS did organise a campaign against top-up fees (the increase of fees to £3000 a year), bringing Tony Blair to within a few votes of defeat in the House of Commons, it failed to build on the movement, focusing merely on channelling students into lobbying campaigns rather than a mass movement. The NUS’s reluctance to challenge the Labour Party was a huge barrier to the movement, and it is no coincidence that its biggest mobilisation for decades came only once Labour was in opposition.

Whilst Labour Students’ hold on the NUS gradually decreased, this was not replaced by a left wing pole of attraction. Instead various “independents” (invariably Labour members) gained control and the NUS continued to tail the agenda of the Labour Party. The NUS went on first to abandon its commitment to campaigning for free education and then to advocate means tested loans. Having failed to lead a fight, the NUS decided it wouldn’t even fight at all. This was met with opposition from the left, but was in the end passed worryingly easily, with very little outcry from students. While the attacks on education were nothing like on the scale we see today, the picture was far from rosy. Universities were subjected to ever more neoliberal marketisation, well documented by Alex Callinicos in Universities in a Neoliberal World, but opposition was limited to the occasional isolated anti-privatisation campaign.5

An important sign that this was beginning to shift was the occupation at Middlesex University in May 2010, following the announcement of the closure of the award-winning philosophy department. The defence of Middlesex philosophy brought together an explosive cocktail of factors. The department was at the sharp end of the business driven logic of modern universities, threatened with closure not because it wasn’t profitable, but because it wasn’t profitable enough. Middlesex’s attempt to further orientate towards business-led research meant there was no space for a philosophy department, even an internationally renowned one. Furthermore, Middlesex’s philosophy department had a deserved reputation for teaching and research into radical and critical philosophies. It hosted the journal Radical Philosophy and was home to Marxist influenced academics like Peter Hallward and Peter Osborne. This gave an important ideological dimension to the campaign, which became as much about the defence of critical thinking in universities as about one department. The Middlesex occupation lasted for 12 days and brought support from across the world. The occupation held teach-ins and discussions that brought in hundreds of activists to discuss both the big ideas of philosophy and the fight against management. It played a significant role in putting militant opposition to education cuts on the agenda, and many of the activists involved at Middlesex have been at the forefront of the recent movement.6

Another straw in the wind was provided, also during the 2009-10 academic year, by the strong support given by students at Leeds and Sussex universities, and at King’s College London to campaigns by lecturers against redundancies. At Sussex this led to two occupations and a successful campaign against the attempted victimisation of student activists. The balance-sheet of these campaigns was mixed — the compulsory redundancies were withdrawn at Leeds and at King’s, though the threat to jobs remained; at Middlesex the prestigious Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, with its postgraduate programmes, was saved through a move to Kingston University, but the undergraduate degree left behind at Middlesex is being run down. Nevertheless, the struggles in 2009-10 helped to revive the tradition of student militancy and to create links between activists in the universities. The formation of the Education Activists Network (EAN) in early 2010, bringing together student and trade union activists, was a product of these developments, as was the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), which developed with the aim of coordinating local anti-cuts campaigns. Both coalitions went on to play an important role in the movement as the main organisers of demonstrations at a local and national level.

These struggles showed features that have been characteristic of student activism in the past, and of the movement that has arisen since. While workers are constrained by both routine and bureaucracy, students can operate far more freely. In particular, student struggles can be led by a militant minority of students, in a way that workers’ struggles rarely are. The most important forms of industrial action require the participation of the majority of the workforce, and so workers are constrained by the necessity of collective action in a way that students are not. This was clear on 10 November, when a large minority broke away from the main demonstration to lay siege to the Conservative Party headquarters on Millbank. This breakaway was led by activists from the EAN and other organisations which already had experience of occupations and direct action. Thousands of students surrounded the building, while hundreds occupied inside. This became the iconic image of the day, and the spark for the inspirational movement that followed. It showed how students’ struggles can suddenly explode and move very quickly.

Yet the counterpoint to this explosive pace is how quickly such movements can dissipate. Most student activists have the experience of returning following the Easter break to find most of their contacts refuse to leave their rooms because of exams. While the nature of workplace struggles encourages solidarity and workers have to stick together to defend themselves, no such automatic tendency exists amongst students. In fact, the competitive system of exams can tend towards division. This tendency has been exacerbated by the cuts in grants and introduction of fees. Students are encouraged to see themselves as isolated consumers determined to “get their money’s worth” from university, which only heightens the division and alienation between students. All of this can lead to rapid division and demoralisation. Only time will tell whether the movement of November-December 2010 can sustain itself and overcome these tendencies, but the creation of permanent campaigns and networks of solidarity like the EAN and NCAFC will play an important part.

Expansion of education

The last quarter of the 20th century saw an enormous expansion of education in the UK. In 1971 there were 1.7 million students in further education and 621,000 in higher education. In 2009 this had grown to 3.5 million and 2.5 million respectively.7 This reflects the restructuring of the economy in this period, which required an increasingly educated workforce. Successive governments have seen the need to expand education as crucial to reproducing the labour power required by advanced capitalism. When Gordon Brown was chancellor of the exchequer, a Treasury document asserted that “for the UK economy to succeed in generating growth through productivity and employment in the coming decade, it must invest more strongly than in the past in its knowledge base, and translate this knowledge more effectively into business and public service innovation”.8 This constant rhetoric of “expanding our knowledge base” and “investing in skills” reflects the fact that the expansion of higher education has been very clearly driven by the needs of business and the state. Universities and colleges are as much about preparing students for the workforce as they are about education and learning, and few make any secret of it.

The massive expansion of higher education meant a move away from it being a preserve of the elite in society. In 1969 Alexander Cockburn could argue that higher education institutions “largely exclude the sons and daughters of the working class, so that where class discrimination and sex discrimination combine a working class girl in Britain has a six hundred to one chance against receiving higher education”.9 Today, while it is still harder for them, hundreds of thousands of working class children go to university. Over 30 percent of students in higher education come from the lowest socio-economic classes and nearly 90 percent were educated at state schools.10 While in 1971 there were twice as many men in university as women, in 2006 there were more women than men in both further and higher education.11 A similar expansion has taken place in further education, where in 2005 even among manual working class families over 60 percent of children stay in education after the age of 16.12

Just as universities are no longer the playgrounds of the children of the rich, they are no longer solely the training grounds of the future ruling class. Writing in this journal in 1975 Alex Callinicos and Simon Turner noted:

Higher education is no longer a preparation for, or an entry ticket into, the ruling class. Most students will become some form of worker. If a student takes his or her degree in science or engineering he or she can expect to become a highly skilled worker employed in industry and playing an integral part in the capitalist productive process… A student taking an arts subject is more likely to become a white collar worker of some sort, employed in the middle echelons of the state machinery or industry.13

The 35 years since have only accelerated this process. While you only need to look at the famous Bullingdon Club photographs of leading Tories to see that certain universities still do educate the future ruling class, most students cannot expect to step into management positions when they graduate. Having a degree may mean access to better-paid jobs, but it no longer opens doors to positions of authority in the way it used to.

Most graduates will step straight onto a treadmill of low-paid administration or call centre work. For example, a recent study of call centres in Scotland found that over a quarter of workers had degree level or higher qualifications.14 These people were working in largely low-paid, inflexible and stressful jobs. The economic crisis and the subsequent austerity agenda will only deepen the tendency for students to move into low-paid jobs or no jobs at all. The anarchy of the system is such that universities are still churning out graduates to fill roles in the public sector that are being destroyed at a rapid rate. Whilst graduates could once hope for a job in some aspect of civil service or local government, it is precisely these jobs that are disappearing. It should be no surprise that graduate unemployment is at its highest for a decade, and has risen even more sharply than unemployment as a whole.15

A feature of the steady erosion of sources of funding for students has been a sharp increase in the number who work to support themselves. The abolition of grants, followed by the introduction of fees, followed by an increase in those fees, placed ever greater financial pressures on students. During the ten years from 1996 to 2006, which saw all of the major changes to funding take effect, the number of students in work increased by 50 percent.16 These students are overwhelmingly concentrated in the retail, hotel and restaurant industries.17 These are highly precarious, low-paid and exploitative jobs. A joint TUC and NUS study in 2006 found, unsurprisingly, that “there is a signi´Čücant likelihood that the poorer a student’s background, the more likely they are to need to work”.18 This undoubtedly contributes to a sense of stress and alienation, with 40 percent of full-time students and more than half of part-time students with jobs reporting that their employment had impacted upon their studies. The pressures of work can also be a factor which dampens down student activism, restricting its freedom and spontaneity. It is striking that it is those universities where the fewest students work that have seen some of the largest occupations and demonstrations. Oxford saw a large demonstration against the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills Vince Cable in October 2010, while Cambridge had one of the largest and longest occupations. On the other hand those universities where the most students work tend to lack traditions of militancy.

The picture in further education is even clearer. For many the true highlight of last year was the sudden appearance of a mass movement of school and college students of the sort this country has never seen before. These were overwhelmingly the children of working class parents, hit by the double whammy of the scrapping of their Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and the closing off of their future educational opportunities by the fees increase. The EMA was a means-tested grant providing up to £30 a week to 16 to 18 year olds who stay in further education, and many of these students spoke eloquently of how this was the only thing keeping them from having to work to support themselves and their families. The students demonstrating outside parliament came from the poorest parts of London and took to the streets in unprecedented numbers. Drawing a direct comparison with the youth movements in France, BBC’s Paul Mason called them “banlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington”.19 These students gave the most visible lie to the tedious Conservative rhetoric about the student movement being a revolt of the privileged middle classes.

The expansion of education gives structural reasons to think that solidarity between workers and students, while not inevitable, should be easier than ever before. While the increased numbers of students in work can act as a brake on their militancy, it also means students are more likely be sympathetic to workers’ struggle. Arguments for solidarity with workers have gained a lot of traction in the movement. Conversely, most working class families will have a child in either further or higher education. This goes some way to explaining why the attempts to witch-hunt activists following the London demonstrations fell so flat, and why there was such widespread support for the students in the labour movement. Working class people saw their own children being beaten by the police and fighting back. Almost everyone knew someone affected by the EMA cuts or the fee increases. When Susan Matthews, whose son Alfie Meadows was seriously injured by a police truncheon on 9 December, made the call in the Guardian for parents to march with their children, it echoed a widely felt sentiment.20

The official student movement

The role of the NUS and the local student unions that affiliate to it has been the source of a great deal of controversy in the movement. The NUS threw its resources into 10 November, delivering a turnout more than double what they expected. While activists on the ground played a key role, the NUS’s political, financial and organisational backing was essential in delivering the largest student demonstration for decades. Yet the NUS went on to denounce the occupation of Millbank that inspired so many on that day, and then dizzyingly vacillate in the weeks that followed. One minute Aaron Porter was full of self-criticism, apologising to the University College London occupation for his “spineless dithering” and pledging NUS support for occupations.21 The next he was engaging in another round of denunciations, refusing to support those demonstrating outside parliament. What explains this behaviour? In part the NUS bureaucracy are placed under the same pressures as the trade union bureaucracy to compromise and hold back. They find themselves stuck between the government and the student movement, and are scared of losing their place at the negotiating table. Indeed, Porter’s behaviour is neatly mirrored by that of Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, in the same period. However, there are also a number of factors particular to student unions that shouldn’t be overlooked.

A modern day student union at a large higher education institution will look more like a medium sized business than a representative body. The “services” side of most unions—bars, shops, night clubs—tend massively to outweigh the representative side, both in the agenda of the union and in its public perception. It is now common for unions to encourage standing in sabbatical elections on the basis of the experience of being in charge of a multi-million pound budget, rather than any political engagement. While they are run as non-profit organisations, the logic of maximising revenue from services tends to dominate. The original raison d’etre of union venues as a shared, independent space for student interaction can easily be eroded. For example, (a trivial one perhaps) my student union bar now does not allow students to bring in their own food, forcing you to buy from the bar instead. The corporate aspect gives rise to a permanent apparatus of full-time unelected union employees, whose interest lies in not rocking the boat. Even if a radical student is elected to a sabbatical position they can expect to be faced with a chief executive or general manager who has been at the union longer than they have even been a student. A sabbatical officer will be in the position for a maximum of two years and will find it hard to transform an institution in that time.

In further education the situation is even harder. While further education institutions are legally required to have some form of student representation, this is extremely patchy. They often consist of little more than student representative committees, with members of staff overseeing them. They are chronically under-resourced and often entirely co-opted by college authorities. This makes genuine democratic structures difficult or impossible to establish, so officers, however well meaning, can be unaccountable and easily ignored by college management. Less than 50 of over 400 colleges across the country have a full time elected officer. As the current NUS vice-president for further education puts it: “Many colleges have something they call a student union that bears no resemblance to the model of what a student union should look like”.22

In this context a deeply conservative trend has developed, where student unions see themselves as mere service providers for students. This inevitably narrows the horizons of what is seen as legitimate campaigning. Many student unions tend to regard themselves as a wing of the university that provides student support, rather than as representing students against the university authorities. I write this after coming from a student union election hustings in which candidates argued that stopping cuts was less important than “ensuring the student experience is not adversely affected by them”. The elephant in the room, of course, is that it is impossible to prevent 80 percent cuts to funding adversely affecting students. Yet these candidates saw their role as smoothing over management’s attacks, rather than stopping them. An even worse consequence of this culture is the way in which a narrow construal of student interests can pit students against staff. In 2006, when lecturers undertook an examination boycott, a number of unions played a disgraceful role in attacking lecturers. For these unions “defending students” meant pitting them against staff.

This culture in student unions filters up to the NUS itself through its federal structure. Unlike national trade unions, the NUS does not have branches, and is based rather on local student unions affiliating to it. This makes it financially dependent on the affiliation of individual student unions. The disaffiliation of a large union such as Manchester could have catastrophic consequences for the NUS. This means the threat of disaffiliation can be used as blackmail to pull the leadership to the right. This was essentially the position Aaron Porter found himself in December last year, pulled from the right by those who thought the NUS had been too radical, and from the left by the growing movement, with his base in the middle ground evaporating.

Another important factor in understanding student unions today is their changing legal status. From the mid-1970s onwards a series of legal changes began to restrict the campaigning remit of student unions, and by proxy the NUS. Student unions are now registered charities, and thus restricted in what they are able to do by the Charity Commission. The exact restrictions are a source of great dispute, but broadly charities law restricts the capacity of student unions to campaign on issues which do not directly affect students. This gives a ready-made excuse to sabbatical officers or general managers, which is familiar to anyone who has tried to get their union to campaign over the war, or in solidarity with Palestine, or against fascism: it’s illegal. However, the charitable status of student unions has to be understood as part of a long process of restricting their power and influence. The law does not come from nowhere.

The landmark cases that established that student unions are charities are striking. Two of the three cases that are generally cited involve student unions engaging in wider political campaigning. In 1972 the University of Sussex Student Union was legally blocked from making a £500 donation to War on Want, and spending £800 on a campaign against the then secretary of state Margaret Thatcher’s proposal to end free school milk. In 1985 the Polytechnic of North London Student Union made donations of £5,000 to support the miners’ strike and £5,000 for the relief of Ethiopian famine, which were ruled illegal.23 In both of these cases it was ruled that since the universities they were attached to had charitable status, the unions themselves also had this status. The charitable status of student unions, though largely taken for granted now, is intimately linked to a political agenda to erode solidarity between students and workers in struggle.

Nonetheless, in this period student unions remained less regulated by the state than they are now. They still had a fairly ambiguous legal status, without uniform structures and organisation. All of this changed in 1994. Following a wave of occupations and demonstrations against cuts in student grants, John Major’s Tory government moved to restrict the power of student unions further. The 1994 Education Act established in law a set of rules for student unions that remain today. Whilst these appear fairly innocuous—allowing opt outs for membership, setting rules about elections, etc—they represented another step in transforming the culture of student unions from campaigning bodies to service providers.

The 1994 act established that student unions were “unincorporated associations”, while the Charity Commission considered them to be “exempt charities”. This legal ambiguity gave a certain scope to argue about exactly what kind of campaigning was permitted. This changed with the Charities Act of 2006, which transformed all student unions into fully registered charities, imposing very stringent guidelines on their political campaigning. According to the Charities Commission,

union funds cannot be used to promote or support campaigns on matters which may be of general interest or concern but which do not affect members of the union as students. Examples would be industrial disputes, general campaigning on environmental matters, eg environmental policies and road building, or the treatment of political prisoners in a foreign country. A students’ union cannot, for instance, pay for coaches to transport students to demonstrations on such issues.24

These legal restrictions have led to a climate of terror about the legal repercussions of militant action. This goes some way to explaining just how extreme Porter’s “dithering” has been; he undoubtedly has the NUS’s senior management filling him with panic about the law. It is important to note that there has so far been no legal action taken against unions on the basis of these changes, and it is clear that many unions have quietly continued to campaign on such matters. Nonetheless, this represents a breathtaking restriction on the political independence of student unions.

The most striking thing about the 2006 act was the response of the leadership of the NUS and of most student unions. Instead of rejecting this further restriction on their independence, they embraced it with open arms as an opportunity to go further along the corporate road. Unions became infected with a corporate language of “good governance” and suddenly unions that had been functioning perfectly well undertook “governance reviews” to “improve their structure”. Despite being cloaked in the language of accessibility and participation, these tended to be the exact opposite. Most prominent was the NUS’s own governance review, which paralysed the union for two years. After initially being narrowly defeated by the left of the union, the reforms were driven through two successive emergency conferences. This involved shrinking the size and representativeness of conference, and the creation of an unaccountable “trustee board” with the power of veto over the executive on certain decisions. Most controversial was the presence of “external trustees” included for their “experience”. These were invariably successful business people, with interests far removed from those of students. The trustee board model has
been replicated at student unions up and down the country.

Reclaiming the NUS?

The erosion of democracy in the NUS and the increasing legal restrictions on what student unions can do has led to many activists abandoning the NUS as a site of struggle altogether. This was pithily expressed by an activist a few years ago who argued that wanting a democratic and campaigning NUS was like asking for a democratic and campaigning Commission for Racial Equality. Certainly the NUS conference is hardly a hospitable place for the left. It is dominated more than ever before by cliques of sabbatical officers. Delegate cuts mean it is ever harder for grassroots activists to get to conference. However, to abandon the NUS would be a mistake. The NUS can still be forced by pressure from below into taking action. This was evident in the call for a demonstration on 10 November, something the leadership has at times been less than enthusiastic about. Similarly, despite his dramatic about face following it, his address to UCL occupation was an indication of the pressure that a serious mass movement placed on Aaron Porter. The leadership of the NUS traditionally aspire to positions either in the Labour Party or the trade union bureaucracy, and, just like those bodies, they can be pushed into action by militancy from its grass roots.

Furthermore, history shows that when militant student movements are on the rise they can quickly shake up the official structures. In 1969 David Widgery wrote about the NUS as the student movement’s “muffler”. The NUS he describes then, while far smaller, is strangely reminiscent of the NUS today. Widgery describes an NUS that had “bored a generation of students to political death” in which “debate appears so infantile, organisation appears so manipulative and elections appear so deeply conditioned by hucksterism that the value of enlarging the radical enclave within the NUS is very questionable”.25 One thing this indicates is that there has never been a golden age of NUS democracy. However, the 1970s did see a genuine opening up of democratic space within the NUS, of victories for Broad Lefts and the growth of a serious revolutionary current within it.26 This democratic space has never been perfect, and has always been contested, but when student militancy is on the rise it can break the ossified structures open.

This does not mean, however, that winning positions is enough, that we can “reclaim” our union through winning a majority on the executive. The only candidate to successfully break the stranglehold of Labour Students and right wing independents over the NUS presidency in the past decade was the Campaign for Free Education candidate Kat Fletcher. Fletcher was elected in 2004, on a high tide of disillusionment with New Labour over war and top-up fees, when Labour Students were at their lowest ebb.27 However, Fletcher quickly distanced herself from the left, and went on to impose anti-democratic reforms.28 She is often mentioned as a “sell-out”, but this alone misses the point. She could, of course, have done more to resist the pull of the bureaucracy and the right, but these pulls were enormous. In the absence of a mass movement on the ground it was far easier for her to move to the right.

This means that radical students must understand the need to build both within and outside of the NUS. Simply squirrelling ourselves away in its arcane structures may help us win the odd election, but it will not deliver the kind of movement we need. At the same time, ignoring it cuts radical students off from a body that, despite all its faults, thousands of students look to. It is important to remember that had the left in the NUS heeded the calls of some to abandon it, 10 November simply would not have happened in the same way. The same thing goes for student unions at a local level. Whether successful or not, intervening in an election on a political basis, or proposing a motion of support for a strike or demonstration can puncture through the depoliticised culture of student unions. Such interventions can also bring radical ideas to a larger audience, polarise debate round certain issues and provide a campaigning focus which unites a radical minority on campus. If a candidate wins, or a motion passes, then so much the better, but even if they do not these interventions are not a waste of time.


While students remain a distinct social force in a transitional place within capitalist society, I have argued above that there are factors that tend towards solidarity between students and the working class. On the other hand, a combination of legal restrictions and a service-driven culture in student unions can pull away from such solidarity. There are reasons to be optimistic, however, that the former tendency can overcome the latter. These two tendencies came into direct conflict early in 2010 as part of the industrial dispute at Leeds University. Leeds UCU were preparing for industrial action in defence of jobs (action which never had to take place due to a climbdown by management). The leadership of Leeds Student Union proposed a referendum motion condemning the action. However, despite the efforts of the leadership, a majority of those who voted (891 to 717) rejected the motion, and therefore supported the UCU in their dispute.29 This may only be one example, but it is an important one that suggests building solidarity between students and workers is easier than in the past.

A striking feature of the recent movement has been the ease with which arguments for solidarity have been won, and the acknowledgement that students cannot go it alone. While there have been debates over the organisational forms, if any, that solidarity should take, there has been widespread agreement about the need to make links with the organised working class. This is a welcome difference from the movements of 1968, when people like Cockburn argued that students could act as an “independent revolutionary force”, establishing red bases at universities that directly challenged capitalist rule. In place of this there is an acceptance that, while militant student action can achieve a great deal, the organised power of workers in their workplaces can achieve far more. Precisely because students do not have a direct relationship to the means of production, a student strike is not as effective as a workers’ strike. As Mark Bergfeld, a socialist on the NUS executive, is fond of pointing out, a thousand students can stop a train, but a thousand train drivers can stop a country

This doesn’t mean students should be reduced to cheerleaders for workers’ struggles, or that we should all abandon challenging our own university management in favour of delivering solidarity to workers. A student occupation poses questions about what education is really for, and about how universities should be run. But it is only through linking up with workers that students can begin to provide an answer to those questions. In that respect, at least, the key questions are the same as they have been since the development of capitalism. In 1970 an editorial in this journal argued the following:

There is a good deal of life left in the present student upsurge. It can annoy the authorities a deal more, as well as bring many more of its participants to a true comprehension of the class realities of our society. The revolutionary left must participate in it attempting to give guidance and leadership, seeing its victories as our victories. But we must also be aware of its limitations, continually pointing out that the only force for carrying through a real transformation of society lies elsewhere and that students who seriously want to solve their own problems can only do so by becoming part of a revolutionary organisation that relates to the aspirations and struggles of that class.30

A lot has changed in the past 40 years, but this is as true today as it was then.


1: This article benefited greatly from discussions with Mark Bergfeld and Hannah Dee, as well as comments from Jonny Jones, Alex Callinicos and Joseph Choonara.

2: Ashman, 1999.

3: Lipsett and Benjamin, 2009. See also Ruddick, 2009.

4: Swain, 1997, and Thompson ,1997.

5: Callinicos, 2006.

6: For more on Middlesex see and Bhattacharyya, 2010.

7: ONS, 2009, pp31-32.

8: Quoted in Callinicos, 2006, p2.

9: Cockburn, 1969, p17.

10: HESA, 2010.

11: ONS, 2009, Table 3.9.

12: ONS, 2009, Table 3.8.

13: Callinicos and Turner, 1975.

14: Hyman and Marks, 2008, p201.


16: NUS/TUC, 2006, p4.

17: NUS/TUC, 2006, p6.

18: NUS/TUC, 2006, p14.

19: Mason, 2010. “Banlieu” is the French word for suburb.

20: Matthews, 2011.

21: See Kingsley, 2010.

22: Murray, 2010.

23: AMSU, 2003.

24: Charity Commission, 2010.

25: Widgery, pp119, 139.

26: Callinicos and Turner, 1975, describe the growth of these forces.

27: See Caldwell, 2004.

28: See Whittaker, 2004.

29: See report at

30: “Editorial”, 1970, p1.


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