First appeared on The National Student on November 17 2010
‘A small minority ruined it for the rest’ seems to be one of the favourite phrases from those commentating on last week’s protests over rises to university fees and cuts to contact time in Higher Education and Educational Maintenance Allowance to college students. There was still another 50, 000 people on that march so I would say nobody ‘ruined’ it for anyone.
But the movement against education cuts is now in danger of being ruined, not by violence or criminal damage but by the reactions of people like NUS President Aaron Porter who described the thousands of people at the Millbank Conservative Party HQ as “distracting from the message”, although he has now back tracked after intense criticism and says he supports direct action but still talks of ‘undermining’ and ‘infiltration’.
I was there when Porter was challenged on lack of support from the NUS for student activism by Jess Worth from the New Internationalist at student campaigning conference Shared Planet. They were both on a panel discussing how to build a strong student movement and he said the mistakes of the past would not be made again. He also said that the NUS would support students taking direct action unlike the NUS in Ireland which had recently distanced itself from student protest and occupation which ended with violence at the hands of riot police. I spoke to him after the debate was over and he reiterated how he was committed to taking action and would communicate this to Students Union officers.
When I was in university lack of NUS and student union support for student activism was obvious on many occasions. Many students’ union officers are thrown into roles with little to no experience of campaigning on the issues student activists are fighting for, and even though they may support them in this many are career politicians wanting to toe the party line or scared of being too ‘out there’.
A lecture theatre at my former university was occupied over the university’s involvement in the arms trade and divestment, part of a wider UK student movement at the time which saw occupations in universities all over the country. We received support from many lecturers, some of whom came to do talks and show films, while our Ethical & Environmental officer described a peaceful sit in as ‘intimidating’ to other students. Being involved in protest or direct action is all too often portrayed as something for the fringes of society, not a justifiable way for people to act despite the fact that it often gets results.
That’s not to say that our student officers were completely unsupportive of campaigning. For example, towards the end of my time at university earlier this year our city got paid a visit from the ‘Welsh Defence League’, the Welsh version of far right group the English Defence League. A few sabbatical officers, including our President attended meetings about counter demos to the EDL and I even spotted a few of them on the day. Although they were reluctant to outwardly encourage others too loudly to join it, the fact they were there made a real difference to students that saw them and could feel that the people we had elected into our union, to be the voice of students actually took interest in important issues and not just party politics and sports teams. I visited my former university this weekend and was glad to see students still wearing their “no to cuts” t shirts with student’s union branding.
Largely thanks to NUS motivation and organisation 52, 000 people took to the streets on last Wednesday. For many of these students it was their first protest and they wouldn’t have been there without the active encouragement of their students union’s. There is now thousands of people who will have caught the bug, enjoying the thrill of making their physical presence felt, thanks to encouragement from the NUS they aren’t worried about being in trouble for protesting or being seen banner waving.
Every campaign will have different reactions and different methods but its important it stays united in its aims. People are angry and this is just the beginning, by attempting to distance themselves from direct action Porter, and others risk delegitimising and disempoweriong the whole movement.
The direct action taken at Millbank represented the anger of thousands of students. While only a few people caused any damage to the building many just took advantage of the opportunity to get inside the building and make the space theirs. Hundreds of genuine students and lecturers were outside cheering them on. A lot of people who had never taken direct action before were compelled to ignore stewards telling them to carry on to the march and instead joined the hundreds outside Tory HQ, whether from being swept up in the excitement, a need to make their anger known or just realising the importance of the moment.
Clegg warned of “Greek-style unrest” over cuts in an interview with the Observer before the general election and now this is beginning he is enemy number one. Many students voted for the Lib Dems on their tuition fee policies and much to the joy of the other two parties, especially Labour they have betrayed their promises and, it has now emerged, they planned to break this promise before the election even happened. There is also a Tory villain, reducing public services and looking after the rich is what they’re known for, something the Labour Party seems very keen to promote.
The issue of cuts in education can’t be dropped now with the excuse of a few smashed windows or a movement disunited at the hands of politician types. One passive protest won’t unfortunately change much, there needs to be a sustained campaign that goes down every avenue: Negotiation, protest, direct action and anything else.
Students are already organising: Manchester and Sussex Universities have had occupations over the issue and a mass student walkout has been planned for November 24. Some lecturers have also spoken out in favour of grassroots action: Last week 100 lecturers and staff from Goldsmith’s University in London signed a statement in support of the protests part of which said, “The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation.”
After a media onslaught of shock that ‘adults’ were sticking up for the ‘student trouble makers’ another statement was released saying that while the lecturers did not condone violence but wanted to “condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ.”
A fear of being too radical seems to be behind a lot of NUS rejection of the direct action. But it is the politicians who do not always tow the party line, who aren’t afraid to let their voices and more importantly the voices of the people whey are meant to be representing be heard who end up being most respected.