What are the lessons of the 2010 student movement?
Claire Laker-Mansfield, Socialist Students national organiser
Five years ago, Britain’s streets erupted in mass student protests. This short but furiously energetic wave of resistance represented the first rounds fired in the battle against Tory austerity.
Now, as thousands are again preparing to march in defence of education, the shadow of 2010 looms large. The student protest on 4 November is part of the continuation of that struggle, one which must now be re-embarked on with fresh determination.
But as we participate in and organise the fightback today, it is worth re-examining the history of the 2010 student movement – a history which can provide valuable lessons for those of us engaged in the battle for free, decent education now.
His report argued that the cap on tuition fees (at the time just over £3,000) should be lifted entirely, allowing for universities to charge as much as they wished, while removing almost all state funding for higher education.
This report came just one week before the Con-Dem government revealed its first comprehensive spending review and austerity unleashed. Among the many vicious cuts announced, was a particularly vindictive attack on college students.
The Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which had been a grant of up to £30 a week available to 16-18 year olds to support their studies, was to be scrapped.
While stopping short of implementing the entirety of Browne’s report, the government decided to triple the cap on what universities could charge to £9,000 a year.
The Lib-Dems, whose defining election pledge had been their promise to abolish tuition fees, were now wedded to the Tories in the unholy matrimony of coalition government. Their abject betrayal on this issue and others came at the cost of the electoral wipe-out witnessed this year.
The leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS) was, at the time, almost entirely dominated by arch-Blairites and right-wing careerists. The organisation had recently abandoned a principled opposition to tuition fees and its support for free education.
But, under the weight of the impending onslaught and mounting pressure from below, even this right-wing and bureaucratic organisation felt compelled to act.
A national student demonstration was called by NUS for 10 November. And it was on this day that the boiling anger of a generation bubbled over onto the streets.
Over 50,000 young people massed in central London. Many thousands came on coaches from universities organised by student unions. But thousands more, particularly those from schools and colleges, had organised themselves to attend the march independently.
This layer of college students formed one of the most dynamic and audacious groups involved in the movement. As the demonstration assembled it quickly became clear that what had been unleashed was way beyond anything NUS’s stale leadership had expected.
On the march, the air was heavy with the feverish excitement of a generation of young people feeling, for the first time, their own collective strength. ‘Tory scum, here we come’, was among the most popular chants.
At a number of points the demonstration stopped completely and everyone began ‘just making noise’ – simply enjoying the feeling of being part of huge crowd of people all fighting back.
The official leadership of the movement, particularly Aaron Porter, the NUS president, were utterly unprepared for the enormous anger and determination of those who attended the protest. They had no plan for what would come next, save for a campaign of letter writing to MPs – politely asking that they leave education alone.
There wasn’t even a rally to end the march, which ended on Millbank, right outside Tory party HQ. It was therefore hardly surprising that many students, clearly wanting more than what they were offered by their official leaders, saw the opportunity to target the Tories’ offices. Hundreds took part in an occupation of the building.
This action was bold, but it was also disorganised and spontaneous. To be fully effective occupations must be mass actions based on democratic decisions and control of tactics, organised and stewarded with a clear set of demands.
This could have prevented actions like that of the one person who mistakenly, and potentially dangerously, dropped a fire extinguisher from the Millbank roof.
Disgracefully, when Aaron Porter was interviewed that evening he condemned the students who occupied Tory HQ, arguing that the “smashed windows” meant the protest was wrong.
But, while breaking windows is not an effective strategy for defeating Tory austerity, it represents very minor damage when you compare it to the smashed lives that have resulted from their brutal cuts.
While NUS’s substantial resources and authority clearly contributed to the mass character of the demonstration on 10 November, after Millbank, this organisation played no role in any of the protests,strikes and walkouts that followed.
Unlike the official leadership of the movement,Socialist Students was clear on the necessary next steps to take.
We handed out over 10,000 leaflets on the march calling for students to walk out of their schools, colleges and universities in two weeks’ time, on 24 November – an action supported by a number of student campaigns and organisations.
This call was taken up enthusiastically by the thousands who attended the protests. Nationally, it is estimated that over 100,000 students took part in the strikes and protests which took place on this date.
Again, it was college students who took a lead in these actions – self-organising huge walkouts and, in many cases, losing a week’s EMA as a result.
Victimisation of individual protesters and sometimes very brutal police repression were a feature of the movement.
On 24 November thousands of protesters in London were ‘kettled’ and held for over 10 hours. This underlined the need for greater organisation on the demonstrations, both to enhance their effectiveness and to protect protestors against police violence.
Out of these actions, and the clear need for co-ordination and democratic discussion, new organisational forms began to emerge.
The ‘London Student Assembly’, which brought together student campaigns and left groups from around the city, took on a semi-national role in deciding the actions and slogans of the movement.
Socialist Students participated in this and other co-ordinating bodies around the country.
In order to try and see off this mounting rebellion as quickly as possible, the Con-Dem government decided to rush the legislation through parliament.
Once the date was set for the vote to take place in the House of Commons, it immediately became the focus for the movement with a mass protest and student walkout organised for this day.
Despite mass protests, the government was able to force the fee rise through parliament, paving the way for the £9,000 a year which students are now faced with.
While this by no means represented a full-stop, the lack of a national organisation with the authority to put forward a clear strategy for continuing and developing the fight, meant that the movement’s energy and enthusiasm gradually began to dissipate.
But one thing that could have made a crucial difference to the outcome of this struggle was the role of the trade union leaders. Indeed, if the unions, whose members were supportive of the student protests, had acted to organise their members to fight austerity as well as supporting the students’ campaign against fees, things could have been very different.
The huge potential for this was made crystal clear in the enormous 750,000 strong, trade union demonstration that took place in London on 26 March 2011.
Had this march taken place a few months earlier, especially as part of a campaign building up to mass, co-ordinated strike action, then the might of the working class could have been brought to bear on the situation. This could have transformed the outcome of the student movement and, indeed, the whole course of the last five years.
The need for students to unite and fight alongside workers and trade unions is a lesson that remains extremely relevant in today’s struggles. Unlike students, workers have huge potential economic power – demonstrated most clearly during strike action.
Organising around a clear political alternative to austerity is also paramount.
The 4 November student demonstration benefits in confidence from the endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn, whose leadership election was won on the basis of offering a clear break with pro-austerity New Labour.
Indeed, Corbyn’s pledge to support the abolition of tuition fees and the return of student grants was undoubtedly a major factor in him garnering the support of tens of thousands of enthusiastic young people.
As the right-wing parliamentary Labour Party move to try and undermine this key policy and others, it’s clear that his supporters need to be organised. Student struggle can play a part in this.
This underlines the importance of building and escalating the fight against the Tories’ latest wave of attacks, including their removal of the remaining student maintenance grants. We need to build a mass student movement, organised on every campus and college and linked with workers and trade unions in struggle.
Socialist Students fully supports the call made by the new NUS NEC for a student strike in 2016. We urge our members and supporters to pass motions asking that NUS initiate this ballot for strike action through their student unions as soon as possible.
But, in order to mobilise such a strike, a mass movement must begin to be built now. Socialist Students is taking initiatives on campuses country-wide to build anti-austerity and free education campaigns.
A good example of this is Yorkshire, where Leeds for Free Education built an excellent regional demonstration which took place on 24 October.
The International Students Campaign has called for a day of walkouts and protests on 17 November, in solidarity with refugees and against the government’s racist immigration policies. Socialist Students will support and mobilise for this.
Clearly, this latest national demo will need to be built upon and followed up with meetings, protests, occupations and walkouts on every campus building momentum towards a potential student strike in February 2016.
In particular, Socialist Students is calling for a day of action on 25 November, the day of the government’s next spending review and likely announcement of a new round of austerity. Socialist Students is willing to work with all those who wish to help build such a movement.
Join us and get involved. We say:
- Abolish fees – tax the rich to fund free education
- Stop all cuts and privatisation – kick big business out
- Living grants for college and university students
- Make our campuses zero-hour contract free zones – all workers deserve secure jobs paid at least a minimum wage of £10 an hour
- Cap and slash rents, university accommodation must be affordable for all
- For an education system that’s fully funded, publically owned, democratically run and universally free at all levels – a socialist education system
- For a socialist society for the 99% free from all exploitation, war and oppression