The student left: 6 highlights for 2014
What have been the highlights of the past year for the student left? So much has happened over the past year, but I think the biggest thing to take away is clear signs of a newly revitalised student movement, which is surely yet to grow even further in the coming year. Here I identify 6 particular highlights for the student left in 2014, from demos to occupations to campaign victories at all levels, and what they mean for the future of the student movement.
1. Student debt privatisation campaign achieves victory
One of the major issues that came to define the 2013-14 academic year, at least when it came to the university students engaged in left-wing activism, was the threat of student debt privatisation. In November of last year, the government sold the student debt from 1990 to 1998 at a discount price, and made moves towards selling off the loans that had been taken out since. In reaction to this, and particularly the threat that it would lead to retroactive hikes in interest rates (a secret report commissioned by the government found that this was the only way for the debt to remain profitable after privatisation) students across the country coordinated an ongoing campaign against this sell-off of the student loan book.
This campaign reached its peak at the national week of action against the student loan sell-off at the beginning of February. Students from over 50 universities and colleges took part, with students staging occupations (such as one in Exeter), protests, rallies, creative stunts and mass petitioning throughout the country, including in many universities not traditionally seen as centres of student activism. The week of action culminated in a mass debt in outside of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in London—Vince Cable’s department—in which hundreds of students were metaphorically ‘crushed by debt’.
Despite many expecting the announcement of details for the auctioning off of the student debt to come on 19 March—Budget Day—George Osborne was silent on that topic. However, the government showed no indication it had changed its position on the issue of student loan privatisation—that is, until 20 July, when Vince Cable announced plans to scrap this proposed sale of student loans.
A number of factors surely impacted on Vince Cable’s decision, but it is certain that the student movement played a part. And this campaign has shown us how students can achieve victory through national, coordinated and visible campaigns. Fighting for free education is now the next step. It won’t be easy, it won’t be quick, but this victory can give us hope that it is achievable.
2. NUS Conference backs free education
NUS has long been a regressive force within the student movement, dominated by Labour Students, and hardly anywhere is this clearer than their policy around tuition fees. In 1996, on the threshold of the election of Tony Blair’s first government, the NUS (under then-president Jim Murphy, now elected leader of Scottish Labour) voted to abandon their commitment to free education, allowing the New Labour government to pass through fees with minimal opposition. Despite a brief period 2003-2005 in which NUS supported free education, that has been the policy since. As tuition fees were introduced, trebled under Labour and trebled again under the coalition, NUS has done very little to fight back.
It is in this context, then, that the decision on 9th April by this years’ NUS conference to commit to free education should be seen. Despite the opposition of much of the NUS leadership, and both the NUS President and Vice President Higher Education speaking against it in the conference floor debate, conference voted 280 to 231 in favour of a motion resolving to “Oppose and campaign against all methods of charging students for education – including tuition fees and a ‘graduate tax’ which is nothing more than a euphemism for ‘student debt’.”
This is nothing less than a historic moment for NUS‚ but it is important for the student movement to hold NUS to account. Already the NUS leadership have shown they will try everything to squeeze out of a clear campaign for free education (see the section on the free education demo, below). It is the role of the student movement to ensure there is a mass movement for free education and to elect delegates and officers to NUS who are committed to free education. Only in this way, can meaningful change be achieved.
3. NUS National Executive Council votes for solidarity with Palestine
On 4 August, the National Executive Council of NUS voted to pass a motion in solidarity with Palestine, and for an arms embargo against Israel. This came following after months of conflict in which the people of Gaza found themselves under assault by the Israeli armed forces, with thousands of Palestinians dead (up to 80% of which were civilians) and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Over the summer months, thousands of British students and young people took part in demonstrations, vigils, and public meetings throughout the country to express their solidarity with the people of Gaza. In a open statement, over 100 student leaders condemned Israel’s assault and called for an end to the siege on Gaza; student support for the boycott of illegal settlements, settlement goods and corporations benefiting from the illegal occupation of the West Bank; and for students to join them in taking part in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s peaceful protests across Britain.
The vote by the NUS NEC on 4 August to condemn the Israeli attack on Gaza was unanimous. The vote for the NUS adopting a boycott, divestment and sanction policy, and supporting the broader BDS movement, saw 23 members vote in favour to 18 against. Both represent a breakthrough in the student solidarity for the people of Palestine, and a huge step forward for NUS in support of Palestine.
4. Glasgow University divests from fossil fuels
On 8 October, the University of Glasgow became the first university in the UK to commit to divesting from the fossil fuel industry, committing to relocate around £18 million of current investments from fossil fuels over a 10 year period. This decision following a vibrant and continuous student campaign organised by Glasgow University Climate Action, part of the People & Planet network. This campaign involved a petition signed by over 1000 people, as well as various actions and stunts taking place on campus.
Following the victory, Glasgow University Climate Action released a statement saying:
The decision was made exactly a year after the Glasgow Uni Climate Action Society (GUCA) launched our campaign for the university to divest. Through our creative, public and pro-active campaigning, we have successfully persuaded the highest decision-making body in our university that it’s wrong to wreck the climate, and it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.
This victory demonstrates the strength of a highly visible and public student campaign. It also highlights the importance of divesting away from fossil fuels. Our universities are investing increasingly large amounts of money in unethical industries such as fossil fuels – destroying the planet, while profiting from this destruction.A report by Platform and People & Planet last year estimated UK universities invest as much as £5.2 billion in oil, gas and coal companies. Glasgow University’s decision to divest from fossil fuels has shown us that it is possible to work to reverse this tide. We must learn from this victory, and fight to ensure that Glasgow University is only the first of many universities to divest from fossil fuels.
You can find Ric Lander’s original coverage for Bright Green here.
5. Free Education demo
Wednesday, 19 November marked the national demonstration for free education in London, jointly organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), the Student Assembly Against Austerity and Young Greens. It also marked the first time in years that NUS national executive voted to support a free education demonstration – a decision that was unfortunately undermined by members of the NUS leadership.
Two weeks before the demo took place, NUS president Toni Pearce – who had spoken out against free education at NUS Conference – issued a statement saying that NUS would no longer support the demo, citing safety reasons for this decision. This decision was made without consulting with the executive, and while their decision still held and various sections of NUS still supported the demo – NUS Scotland, NUS . Student Unions across the country who had planned to send coaches to the demo withdrew these plans, causing a massive headache for student activists – both those trying to organise the demo at a national level and those trying to book coaches from their universities.
Despite this attempted sabotage by the NUS leadership, the demo was a success. Up to 10,000 people took part – making it the largest student demo since 2010. But the fact that so many students are now calling for free education is significant in and of itself. Ten thousand students have spoken loud and clear to say that they will accept nothing less than free education – surely that is something worth listening to?
Here is an excellent video of the demo from NovaraMedia:
6. Warwick and the right to protest
On 3 December, students at Warwick University staged a sit-in on campus as part of a national demonstration against austerity and for free education. However, the university responded to this peaceful protest by calling the police. There followed scenes of police repression, including the violent assault of students and the use of CS gas.
The following day, following a “Cops off Campus” protest, hundreds of Warwick students occupied a university space to discuss police forces on campus and the state of the higher education system, deciding upon a list of demands from the university management and West Midlands police. A number of students occupied a room in their university, seeking to ensure their demands were met.
These events at Warwick sparked protests and occupations by students across the country in solidarity with the students at Warwick and against the use of police violence on campus. Though the Warwick occupation was broken up by the university after 10 days, with an injunction banning “occupation style protest indefinitely” across the “entirety of Warwick campus and for an indefinite amount of time”, Warwick for Free Education has stated that the failure of the university to meet student demands will lead to further demonstrations.
This series of events highlights a critical issue faced in many universities—the use of violent repression on student protest. This is reflected by the increasing police presence on campus, and is something all students should oppose. Universities should respond to peaceful student protest, not by calling the police, but by realising that students may have legitimate demands and to engage with these demands. What made the events at Warwick truly one of the highlights was the massive show of solidarity by students across the country. The significance of these events is not that Warwick is exceptional—it is that it reflects trends in universities nationwide, trends that it is crucial that the student movement continue to fight against.
Over the past year, the student left has witnessed a great many events of significance: the victory in the battle against student loan privatisation, the landmark vote for NUS to support free education, student solidarity with the people of Gaza as they faced a military assault from Israel, the first university to pledge to divest from fossil fuels, the biggest student demonstration since 2010 for free education, and the ongoing battle over the right to peaceful student protest. But if one strand links all these disparate threads together, it is the inarguable return of the student movement as something to be reckoned with, something capable of achieving great victories and mobilising thousands of students nationwide. There are still challenges to be met—police violence against student protest and the still reactionary impact of the NUS in many issues—but the student left looks well placed to fight against both, and continue the struggle for free education and against austerity into the coming year. Bring on 2015!