Greg Brown asks what is the way forward for students’ struggles after last year’s defeat on fees and EMA
With the 9th November national demonstration rapidly approaching, apprehensions over the state of the ‘student movement’ naturally arise. To be sure, the planned march against fees, cuts, abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, and the marketisation and privatisation of Higher Education will surely be the best measure of last year’s student mobilisations.
The merits of a movement can only be judged in secondary terms by parliamentary manoeuvres, i.e. whether a particular bill passes or falls, a minister resigns or is promoted, etc. As libertarians we should understand that the true strength of a social movement is in its breadth (composition) and its sustainability (spanning multiple episodes of struggle): these qualities both feed and are fed by its potential to affect consciousness at large.
This is to say that those who have been asking whether the student movement is dead ever since Parliament voted to raise the cap on fees on 10th December 2010, have really been asking the wrong question. Indeed, it may well turn out that asking whether the movement was dead was what killed it. There is more to politics than Westminster, and a movement is more than a flare-up around Prime Minister’s Question Time.
A useful appraisal of the situation we now face in the education struggle should to a great length ignore high politics. Critiques of the White Paper on HE can be found elsewhere. What should really interest us is whether so many students turn out this November as did last year – and to ascertain why things have changed where there is any difference.
The coming struggles
To give my own perspective, I am pessimistic that even a fraction of the number of students we saw last year will take action of any sort this autumn. If my fears are realised, to my mind this will be firstly dictated by the way last year’s episode of struggle was framed as a defensive battle: to prevent fees going up, to stop cuts, rather than for free education: a movement whose propositional politics were subordinated and broadly ill-defined.
This is not to deny that struggle against regressive government programmes are necessary, but a warning to the rest of the ‘anti-austerity’ movements. We cannot allow our pace to be set by Parliament, but rather remember that we have our own offensive to launch: for truly emancipating public services, and not a mere preservation of the often (in myriad ways) insufficient services we are currently provided. As long as our struggle is determined by parliamentary mood, our ‘victories’ or ‘losses’ will be fully contingent on and subordinated to their whim.
A second, and by no means less important, aspect of the student movement is also to be considered, namely the changing composition of student activist demography. At the most basic level, we know that the nature of education is that the turnover of activists is constant: as one year-group graduates, a new group enters the scene, etc.
But also the velocity with which the movement took off last year would seem to threaten that many student activists may have been given a false sense of security, in how easily or quickly people can be mobilised as much as in how secure support is to refocus energies elsewhere (on other political projects or on – heaven forbid – our studies). This is not an attempt to castigate fellow activists, but an appeal for patience and perseverance. Even at the height of struggle, the basics of activism will apply: there are always the shit jobs like flyering and e-mailing to be done, and organising must always be both open and fair.
The final determining factor on the state of the student movement as I see it is in how groups have related to one another. Attempts at cross-city student assemblies have been made, especially but not only in London. This has yielded both positive and negative results: organisation across FE and HE institutions on the one hand, and the disaffection that comes with the sectarian squabbling that has been displaced to these new power bases.
National groups, particularly the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), have also benefited from an injection of fresher-faced activists, who typically appear less inclined to sectarian politics (often they are not members of any party) – we wait to see how long this lasts.
The Autonomous Students’ Network (ASN) also appears to be moving towards some kind of organisational model at last after a successful meeting at this year’s Anarchist Bookfair. But alone this is not enough. By and large groups arising from last year’s occupations are less well networked than we might hope they could be. This is a sore collective failure, but not one which is not amendable.
What is sure is that as we move into uncertain times, we cannot afford to feel any sense of resignation. As education continues to be pilloried by consecutive governments, our anger ought to become stronger yet, and we must channel this energy into creative and propositional politics and organisations. Readers of this paper will already have a sense of what these politics should look like. Moreover, NCAFC and ASN look like promising organisations for articulating this. But no organisation so broad can overrule the need for the hard graft of activism at the most grass-roots level – the only way of bringing new activists into the movement.