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Issue 32, November 1998

The return of student militancy?

    An ideological offensive
    Save Free Education

The developing global economic and political crisis will shatter the current ascendency of pro-capitalist ideology in Britain's universities - at the same time as the reality of the end of free education sinks in. KIERAN ROBERTS writes.

MANY TIMES IN history students have played an important role in world changing events. Students were at the fore of the revolutionary movement in Indonesia earlier this year, which toppled the 33-year long Suharto dictatorship. In South Korea, too, they have played an important part in the movement for democratic rights. Thirty years ago in 1968 a movement of students provided the spark for the revolutionary events that occurred then in France.

Students position in society means that they are particularly sensitive to changes in moods or conditions in society. University life allows students a certain freedom to discuss ideas as well as the chance to get involved in political activity without, in the majority of cases, the responsibilities of family or mortgage. Students are often the first section of society to move, ahead of major class conflicts. In Britain today, however, students are often accused of having abandoned the political conscience held by the 'generation of '68', of being apathetic and self-interested. The fact that people, even students, say this, is symptomatic of the recent political period, even if it is a distortion of reality.

Undoubtedly, the student movement hit a low during the 1990s. Compared to past decades, student protest and radicalism in Britain has been barely visible, allowing commentators to write off today's student generation. Many of the things once associated with university life, such as a plethora of political societies, radical student unions leading occupations and so on, have not featured on most campuses recently. There are two reasons for this. One is to do with leadership, the other ideological.

Firstly students 'official' organisation, the National Union of Students (NUS), has consistently undermined all attempts by students to fight back. The leadership, mainly members of New Labour, have sought to ensure that the NUS dances to Blair's right-wing tune. With only token NUS action, students have lost much of their confidence in their ability to fight back.

  This raises serious questions about future developments in the NUS. The Labour Students organisation, who control the NUS leadership, have for a long time acted as a major block. Local student union bureaucrats have played a similar role in their own areas. As student radicalism grows it is inevitable that these careerists will come into conflict with ordinary students who want to fight back. This could be seen at the University of East London (UEL) occupation last June, where the student union opposed the occupation, despite the overwhelming support and participation of students. Where such a conflict develops, it is likely that there will be moves to replace the present student union officers with a more radical leadership at a local level. Similarly, at a national level, a feeling may develop for a leadership willing to fight the government's attacks, and more specifically, leaders who are not linked to New Labour. At a national level, the battle for the leadership is likely to be carried out between the right-wing and the already existing left-wing groups, though individual left candidates will also undoubtedly emerge.

This battle will ultimately be over the character of the NUS, whether it will be a fighting students' union or a compliant tool in the hands of the government. The outcome will depend on the conclusions that the mass of students draw. On one hand, it is possible that the development of a mass left amongst students could spill over into a battle to transform the NUS, with the likelihood of a split from the right or left at a certain stage. Alternatively, a mood may develop to set up a new, radical, fighting union, without reliance on the state for funding.

  top     An ideological offensive

THE OTHER MAJOR factor in the decline of student radicalism is linked to broader political questions. Just as the working class internationally was disorientated by the collapse of Stalinism and the rightward shift in social democracy, so too were students affected. In a certain sense, university students have been at the sharp end of the ideological onslaught unleashed by the bourgeoisie after 1989, the universities being one of the main centres of ideological counter-revolution.

Ideas that gained popular currency included claims that history had proved capitalism as the best and the only way of running society. The historical conjuncture allowed ideas like post-modernism to flourish, asserting that society had radically altered, that the class struggle was finished and, in fact, that the working class no longer exists. 'Blueprints' for society like socialism and Marxism were consigned to the dustbin of history, while globalisation (it is claimed) has made capital all-powerful.

Even during this period, though, the appearance of apathy masked an underlying discontent among students. Their plight has been getting steadily worse since the early 1980s. The 1990s have seen the student grant slashed to an almost insignificant level and the funding levels of universities deteriorate. The number of students relying on loans and temporary work has increased dramatically. The hope that Labour would alleviate things made many students amongst the keenest supporters of Labour before the last general election. But the Socialist Party accurately predicted that this support would quickly turn to disillusionment with Blair.

The abolition of free education has marked a turning point in terms of student consciousness and of the student movement. The end of free education - originally introduced by a Labour government - is seen as a fundamental change. What is more, the attack came at the beginning of the world economy's descent into recession or slump. It is this that will have the most profound effect on the consciousness of students.

  In terms of the direct economic effects, the recession will put more pressure on students to survive. Students will see members of their families becoming unemployed. Many who gave little thought to how they would pay their fees when they started their course, will find that their parents are not in a position to help them. The already high rate of drop-outs will be even greater due to the economic down-turn.

The effects of the crisis in South East Asia have already been felt in British universities, with a sharp decline in the numbers of students from that region. As the recession develops in Britain it is highly likely that some British universities will go under as applications drop and funding dries up. The new universities will be particularly vulnerable.

The worsening of conditions is bound to increase student radicalism. Already we have seen the occupation at the University of East London last June, in which 1,000 students occupied their administration block for over two weeks, in protest against cuts and staff redundancies. Throughout the occupation, meetings of up to 2,000 students were held twice daily, and the students organised their own lectures and services, like creche facilities.

UEL was just a foretaste of things to come. The conditions that created the UEL occupation exist in universities across the country. None of the pro-capitalist parties can solve the crisis in education or fulfil the aspirations of Britain's young people. Students will be increasingly compelled to take up struggle. This will mean the rebirth and re-politicisation of the student movement in Britain.

The growing world capitalist crisis will shatter the ideological illusions in capitalism, with this transformation in outlook felt particularly strongly in the universities. The universities are places where the bourgeoisie formulate their ideology but in times of radicalisation they can become places where ideas that challenge the status quo can proliferate among students, and even academics. The universities will become battlegrounds of ideas. Students will search for an alternative to the reactionary theories that they have been fed over the last decade and which will lie discredited by events. It will be socialism above all that they will look towards as an alternative. And many will look to Marxism, which students are often familiar with, although in a distorted form, through their courses.

In all likelihood, the re-politisisation of the student movement will rekindle many of the traditions that were formerly associated with student life: political publications, debates, etc. In such a ferment it will be vital for the ideas of genuine Marxism to be raised.

  top     Save Free Education

THE CURRENT CAMPAIGN against the abolition of free education represents the first steps forward in the resuscitation of a mass political student movement. It has the potential to become the biggest movement of young people for years. There is tremendous anger over the abolition of free education, which can only increase when this year's entrants start at university and are asked to pay fees which they cannot afford, and are threatened with disciplinary action, denied access to the library and so on.

The movement to date has highlighted the NUS leadership's impotence, and also tested the groups on the left. Since its formation in September last year, the Save Free Education campaign (SFE) has taken a lead in putting forward a strategy to defeat tuition fees and reverse the abolition of the grant. SFE and the Socialist Party argued from the beginning that only organised mass action can force the government to back down. Since tuition fees were announced over a year ago, we have organised a programme of unofficial action. Now, with the legislation in place, to defeat fees and reverse the abolition of grants, we need to develop a strategy of mass non-payment of fees, allied with mass action. The strategy must also include maximum involvement of the education trade unions.

The lesson of the victorious campaign of non-payment of the poll-tax from 1989-91 shows that mass non-payment can make the implementation of a regressive, unpopular law, in this case fees, impossible. There are, however, important differences from the poll-tax. Not all students pay the same amount in fees, and some will not pay at all. Nevertheless, there will be the same necessity of mass mobilisations of non-payers and others to defend anyone who is penalised by the authorities for refusing to pay.

Demands and tactics will vary as different institutions are proposing different penalties against non-payers. In all cases, however, the university should be countered with our own political campaign, and mass action, such as demonstrations, occupations and walk-outs.

  Mass mobilisation in support of non-payment could be very effective. Universities will stand to lose far more revenue by kicking students off their courses (thereby losing government grants) than by tolerating non-payers - about 4,000 per student. If only one university were forced to accept the principle of non-payment, that could set a powerful precedent. Even universities which take less severe action, such as withdrawing library services, will risk inflaming students' anger. We have to be prepared, however, for concerted opposition to non-payment from the NUS and local student union leaders, though in many places student unions could be won to back the campaign.

It is a mistake to argue however, as some groups do, that it is absolutely necessary to have the backing of the student union in a university as a pre-condition to building a non-payment campaign. The reality is that most students will not be paying fees because they cannot afford to - regardless of the stance of their local student union. Having the support of the students union is undoubtedly preferable, but its support is not something that can be relied upon. The University of East London occupation shows what students can achieve, even against the opposition of their student union.

The real task is to turn the anger of students into confidence in the potential of a mass, united non-payment campaign. Putting false limitations on the movement at the start can only serve to undermine confidence. Nor should mass action be counterpoised to the tactic of non-payment. If non-payment is to work, it must be backed by mass action. But non-payment itself has the potential to take the campaign to a higher level, unite thousands of students behind it, and to make the implementation of tuition fees impossible.

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