Articles  •  Britain  •  Youth

Where next for the student movement?

15 November 2012

On November 21 the National Union of Students (NUS) will march in London under the slogan ‘Educate, Employ, Empower’.

The protest is supported by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), Education Activists Network (EAN) and the UCU.

Activists across the country are organising for the biggest possible turnout, but participation seems uneven and expectations are far lower than in 2010.

This is the price for the ultimate defeat of the magnificent movement of November-December that year and the fact that NUS leaders demobilised students for the better part of two years. And frankly the left alternative – NCAFC and EAN  – did not take up the challenge to lead the fightback.

But the Tory-Lib Dem wreckers carry on their work.

The assault on education this week took another significant step forward with the announcement that a further 400 schools will be turned into academies – the Tories favourite mechanism for introducing the market into education.

The highest tuition fees in Europe, the abolishment of EMA, scrapping GCSEs and the private control over the curriculum and hiring and firing has done serious damage to the principle of universal education.

The voices of those who stand for equal access to real education which leads to meaningful knowledge and employment seems weaker than ever.

Two years from Millbank, the student movement has reverted to type: annual protest marches with ever-dwindling numbers and the left groups and independent student celebrities trying to grab sab posts in union elections that bear little relation to building the resistance.

Determined to avoid any resurgence of student radicalism the NUS refused point-blank to mobilise for the TUCs October 20 demonstration. The route for November 21 avoids the symbolically charged Parliament and will march students on a stage-managed procession away from official buildings and the seat of government power.

It’s clear the NUS has put more effort into liaising with the police than actually building the demonstration. Many Student Unions will not be putting on coaches for their students, and some are openly opposed to the demonstration.

For years the NUS has been more comfortable negotiating discounts than defending education. But what of the grassroots student campaigns?

NCAFC, now little more than a source of reflected glory for ageing student activists has called a ‘Free Education’ feeder march, hoping to concentrate radical students around the AWL rather than challenge the timid NUS slogans on the march itself.

Student Broad Left, a secretive clique of full-time NUS bureaucrats has been building the march around ‘pure’ education slogans like ‘bring back EMA’ and ‘No to 9k fees’. Slogans which are so 2010 you’d think the student movement hadn’t been defeated and eclipsed by the more significant mass strikes and demonstrations of the organised labour movement.

EAN, the SWP’s education platform, is now working towards the ‘broadest possible unity’ with local and national education campaigns. A decision wrapped in rhetoric referencing Quebec’s campaigning student federation, CLASSE, but which stops short of calling for an open and democratic unity conference which could found such an organisation.

The cutting edge of the lessons we can learn from Quebec is to unite students in taking mass direct action, uniting with the working class movement in their struggles and defying the reactionary laws and the government.

The Quebec militants – like some of the militants of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions – said  it was the mass demonstrations and fights in Whitehall and Parliament Square, shown  on Youtube around the world, which inspired them. It is now time we retook our inspiration from their struggles.

Then we made enormous steps forward by holding the mass assemblies of students and education workers. But unfortunately – under the impact of the failure to prevent parliament passing the fees hike and the abolition of EMA – we fell into despondency and let  our movement fragment into competing fronts of the left groups or ambitious individuals running for posts in the student union hierarchy.

This  has left us with two problems. Firstly the very existence of multiple competing campaign groups delegitimises all of them and means they cannot attain a mass character. This makes the NUS the de facto leadership for the overwhelming majority of students. And if the NUS is not in a political struggle, then neither, frankly, are most students.

Secondly, the student movement was decisively beaten. Firstly the political defeat – the Tories won the vote in parliament because we were unable to turn the embryonic unity with workers into real pressure from below which could force the trade union and NUS leaders to follow up their words with actions. Secondly, the overwhelming police violence and intimidation, while radicalising thousands, discouraged tens of thousands more. Next time we need more self-discipline, more self-defence and more support from workers and their unions.

The defeat does not mean the fight to defend education is off the agenda – far from it. It means that we need to learn from our experiences and adjust to the new conditions created by the trade unions’ mass strikes and demonstrations.

In practice this means the student movement – the small but vocal and organised body of young people radicalised and looking for answers – needs to orient towards the working class as the one social force with the motivation and power to fight and win.

Specifically, we need to turn to the section of the workers who have taken up the call for a general strike – an action with the power to mobilise millions and stop the Tories’ austerity in its tracks.

The militant struggles of 2010 showed youth and students can play a role as a catalyst. As the first to defy the seemingly inevitable logic of cuts, we showed that resistance is possible. Huge numbers of people gained invaluable confidence from our actions.

Now we need to put our collective experiences into practice for a fresh struggle – the struggle to win the demand for a general strike.

In the short term students need to pile into their student unions, local anti-cuts groups, national conferences like Unite the Resistance, taking up the call and fighting to draw in as many students, workers and unemployed as possible.

This kind of local work is essential to sowing the deep roots of support, but it won’t be enough on its own.

We need to raise the argument – and win – at a national level if we want to succeed.

This means developing a strategic perspective for how students can make our struggle to defend education an integral part of the campaign for a general strike.

We need to be able to discuss, decide and then act as one voice. We can start on November 21 with an audience of thousands. The NUS leaders hope the demo will be small – which will demoralise the left and relieve the pressure on them to act.

Let’s turn it around. By making the call for a general strike loud and clear we can show that students are still willing to fight, and willing to fight for what’s needed to win. It will give thousands something to aim for, and expose the NUS leaders’ refusal to fight alongside us.

But to sustain the campaign amongst students leaflets, slogans and one-day protests won’t be enough.

We have to learn from the student struggles around the world – and especially the inspiring victory of Quebec students. This means overcoming the petty feuding of the anti-cuts campaigns and building an open, democratic unity conference to unite those who genuinely want to fight back.

#Demo2012 is the time to draw a line in the sand. We have our own experiences, and the experiences of hundreds of other struggles. We have the desire and the potential. It remains only to take the decisive next steps.

Join us in calling for a general strike on N21 and opening the road to a united student movement capable of acting a force for militant action in defence of education within the national anti-cuts movement.

Yes to a general strike!

For a united, democratic and fighting student federation!

No to cuts and privatisation – free education for all!


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