2009 has seen the largest wave of student activism in the UK for a generation. This activism has taken the form of student occupations in 25 universities (and counting) across the country, including Oxford, Sussex, London School of Economics, Kings College London, Manchester, Cambridge, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow.
A series of marches in early January in London, and other cities, against the Israeli invasion of Gaza brought together and politicised many angry layers of society, including the youth, and this movement quickly spread to the occupation of university campuses by students, beginning with the School of Oriental and African Studies on the 13th January, and soon followed by the London School of Economics.
Within a week the movement had spread to a number of other universities, including Sussex, Essex, and Oxford, and not long after to many other universities, including Birmingham, Cambridge, Manchester, and Warwick.
Under the banner of “Gaza Solidarity Occupations”, these sit-ins and occupations by students across the country made a number of similar demands to their respective institutions, such as asking for a statement of condemnation of the Israeli government’s actions, providing academic aid to Gaza, scholarships to Palestinian students, and to end any investment in the arms trade.
At the time of writing, these demands have been met with varying success. Week long occupations in Sussex, London School of Economics, and King’s College London resulted in almost all demands being met. Meanwhile, new occupations are starting almost every day, and the Manchester University occupation is still ongoing after almost two weeks. Some occupations, however, such as that by students at Cambridge University, were unable to result in any concrete or tangible gains for the cause of Gaza, despite lasting for six days.
Officially these occupations are in solidarity with the crisis in Gaza, but, like other protests in London and across the UK in the last month, to see this movement of students as being solely about the Palestine-Israel situation is mistaken.
The students and youth are the barometer of society, and will often be the first layer to move, as has been shown by the recent protests in Greece, Spain, Italy, and now France. These movements are the result of decades of frustration building up in young people, due to contradictions within both the education system and capitalism in general. The eventual straw that breaks that camel’s back, turning a quantitative build up of anger into a qualitative expression of action, may be an individual incident, such as the killing of a teenager by police in Greece, or a more general discontent, such as the failing economy, as is being seen in France. In the case of the UK, it was the situation in Gaza that has caused the mass movement of thousands of students and young people.
Students and the youth have plenty of reasons to be angry and frustrated. Not only have they seen their Government wage extremely unpopular wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but now they see the same Government doing nothing to prevent the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians in Gaza.
At home, meanwhile, students are subjected to having to pay more and more for a university education through the introduction of top-up fees, which may soon have their cap removed, allowing universities to charge whatever they like. To add insult to injury, the degrees for which they pay so much money are no longer even worth anything, which thousands of graduates are currently finding out the hard way as they desperately search for jobs. Many young people, graduating with good degrees from prestigious universities are finding that there are no jobs available, and that to get anywhere they must first either pay another few thousand pounds for a Masters Degree or work for free for several months in an internship.
With a mountain of debt piling up, no prospect of any job at the end of their degree, and their educational institutions remaining silent on issues such as the conflict in Gaza, it is no wonder that students felt the need to express their anger and frustration through occupations in their universities.
These occupations also highlight the completely inadequate measures that are available to students to protest against their conditions and situation. The National Union of Students (NUS) is infamous for being overrun by conservatives and bureaucrats, and there has even been talk in recent years of a new union for students being created due to the impotence of the current union.
However, if students want to be able to create genuine change in the future, they must not just abandon these mass organisations, but rather attempt to remove the bureaucratic and bourgeois layer of leaders that holds the unions back, and try to reclaim these organisations.
The failure of the occupation in Cambridge University to make any tangible gains and have its demands met also helped to highlight another important fact: Universities are not institutions that encourage progressive thinking, political debate, and freedom of thought. In the final analysis, universities under capitalism are a part of the state; they are used as ways of producing the future lawyers, bankers, and bourgeoisie politicians who are needed for capitalism to carry on working.
For universities to truly benefit working class and young people, they must be part of a socialist system, so that education is free to all, and is for the purpose of furthering knowledge and understanding, and not just creating the next generation of capitalist managers.
In the occupation in Cambridge University, 100 students took the Law Faculty and felt empowered enough to tell the authorities that they would not be moving until their demands were met. There was little resistance from the authorities initially, but as the occupiers showed that they would not be intimated by shallow threats of punishment, more draconian measures were put in place. The first step was to ban any non-students from entering the building, thus separating the workers and trade unionists that had come in support of the occupation. The next measure was a ban on any food from entering the building. This was not only to try and starve the occupiers out, but also aided in alienating the students who were not involved in the occupation. Through appealing to the security guards on a class basis, however, the occupiers were able to smuggle food into the building.
Finally, after six days of occupation and with little gained through negotiations, and with a wave of support for the occupation from students and academics, the university authorities issued a threat of arrest to the occupiers on the grounds of “trespassing”. It was decided at this point that the occupation should end.
What is clear is that universities across the country, and all the other educational institutions, are scared that if they budge even an inch on the demands of the occupiers, that this will be seen as a victory by students across the country, which will open the floodgates for a new generation of student activists who will make demands on all sorts of other issues such as top-up fees and the lack of graduate employment.
This is the largest student movement for a generation, and the institutions are genuinely afraid. Even if we students do not get all our demands met, we are stirring up the political and class consciousness of thousands of students across the UK, and it is clear that a socialist system is the only way that these demands can be met.