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Campus campaigning: student activism goes local

The flames of the 2010/11 student movement haven’t been entirely extinguished. Hattie Craig and Roz Burgin examine the new look of campus-based resistance

October 1, 2013
7 min read

sussexuniThe University of Sussex occupation. Photo: Guy Smallman

By the start of this year, it seemed that the student movement that emerged with such vigour against the proposal to triple tuition fees in November 2010 had fizzled out. A recent rise in campus-specific campaigns, however, suggests this might not entirely be the case. While media attention focuses on student debt, academics and campaigners warn that this is merely symptomatic of a wider transformation of higher education: marketisation, the facilitation of privatisation and the entry of for-profit providers.

In January 2012, the government tried to prevent student unrest by delaying the higher education bill, potentially until 2015. Although a testament to the strength of resistance, this did not signal a delay to the reforms, which would instead be enacted through the back door without public debate, using existing legislation and appearing piecemeal at individual institutions.

Deprived of a national focus, students have turned their attention to their own campuses, fighting battles on the ground, institution by institution. The first campus struggle to garner national interest was over the plight of international students at London Met last year, where successfully linking the issues of overseas students and privatisation led to outsourcing plans being dropped as well as restoring the right of foreign students to enrol at the university. Other grassroots campaigns erupted into the public spotlight earlier this year. The nature and successes of these campaigns demonstrate the potential of the student movement and provide models for a continuing fight against privatisation.

Popping up at Sussex

The struggle at Sussex University, in Brighton, has been well documented. The planned privatisation of support staff threatens the jobs, conditions and pay of 235 workers. With some unions slow to respond and in the eyes of many becoming a hindrance to effective opposition, students and staff began to work together outside the traditional structures. This culminated in an impressively long occupation, eventually forcibly removed via a legal injunction after eight weeks, and a national demonstration drawing 2,000 students from as far afield as York and Manchester.

Perhaps the most exciting and significant development to come out of the struggle at Sussex, with potential to be replicated elsewhere, is the creation of a single-issue union. While dissatisfied with the actions of their campus unions, campaigners still recognised their importance in effective resistance to privatisation and the necessity of presenting a unified front against management. The Pop-Up Union was born.

‘This organisation is so important because it bypasses the often conservative – with a small c – approach of trade union officials, who often seek conciliation and compromise in the face of intensely market-orientated attacks on education, while putting pressure on existing unions to take a more active stance against privatisation,’ says Ian Llewellyn, who is part of the Sussex struggle. ‘As a rank-and-file initiative it has given workers the confidence to resist a university management who have constantly tried to intimidate employees who openly disagree with their profit-orientated plans.’ The tactic seems to be paying off with the proposed privatisation now being pushed back into the new year.

Victory in Birmingham

Meanwhile, a multi-faceted campaign at the University of Birmingham was launched to combat restructuring plans threatening 361 support staff with cuts to pay, redundancy, and casualised shifts as part of an onslaught in the name of ‘efficiency’. While the changes did not amount to privatisation, union reps feared that the university would eventually take this path, with the altered conditions and pay making the contracts more amenable to private providers.

The unions were up in arms, lobbying and negotiating for months. An ultimatum was sent by student campaigners to the vice chancellor, David Eastwood, asking him to rethink the proposals and enter into discussion with students. It was a polite request, but one that made clear that if he didn’t, national demonstrations would be called to take place on university open days. Although it was ignored at first, the threats were stepped up and management eventually buckled under the pressure, making huge concessions.

Students have turned their attention to their own campuses, fighting battles on the ground, institution by institution

There are many lessons to be learned from this. First, that the university community and fair treatment of staff is of declining importance to university managements, who are sacrificing such considerations in favour of financial efficiency, which is likely to lead to outsourcing. Second, that students can take action that staff cannot, highlighting the vital importance of collaboration. Finally, and perhaps most resonantly, the campaign at Birmingham demonstrates the increasing significance of ‘reputational damage’ for student-hungry universities and gives current students a means to exploit this weakness in the new system, with management terrified of losing new applicants and the funding they bring.

Closing ULU

The next big university struggle is set to centre on the University of London. In May a council of college principals decided to shut down the University of London Union (ULU). This move sets a dangerous precedent of university management stripping resources and power from an organisation that is meant to be run autonomously by and for students. It threatens the very possibility of student unions challenging the universities when their decisions are increasingly driven by the market rather than students’ best interests. The closure of ULU removes power from the hands of students and placed it in those of unaccountable, unelected management.

This is indicative of the dilemma that university managers are facing. University is increasingly being sold to potential applicants as ‘the student experience’. Student unions and the services they provide, from societies to nightclubs to sports teams, form a large part of this experience and are vital to attracting students. The University of London has achieved what many other institutions would like to by placing the services beneficial for applicant figures under management control, while sidelining the representative element of the union, removing its resources and hampering its potential to organise resistance.

But ULU is not going to go down without a fight. Union president Michael Chessum says that ‘it’s a classic management tactic to announce a closure – whether that be of a department or a union – in summer term. Yet the response has been heated – not just among politicos but in societies and a more general layer of students who see the blatant injustice of it. The good news is that they’ve given us a full academic year to disrupt and embarrass them. We’ll be developing a mass campaign – and you can expect to see a fair bit of direct action and mobilisation.’

‘One of the reasons why ULU has been targeted in quite such an aggressive manner is because of its role in anti-fees struggles and other anti-management campaigns,’ Chessum argues. ‘So management can expect the fight of its life.’

While the aforementioned struggles may seem like isolated cases relevant only to their individual institutions, they form part of a much wider picture in higher education, which is becoming ever more apparent. The Browne Review and higher education white paper heralded a new era in which the civic purposes of universities and the social good they provide are being supplanted by the potential for private providers to make money out of the system. Education is fast becoming a commodity, whereby students mean little more than the £9,000 a year they bring to an institution.

In the absence of legislation going through parliament, the battle against these changes may hinge on the struggles taking place on each campus. In this changing environment, new tactics must be used to get around the limitations of traditional union activity, such as with initiatives like the Pop-Up Union, and to hit management where it hurts, by targeting universities’ reputation and recruitment potential. As universities make themselves more ‘privatisation-friendly’, it is up to students and staff to prevent these measures from getting in through the back door.

Hattie Craig is vice president of education and Roz Burgin is community action officer at the Birmingham Guild of Students

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