The past few months have seen the biggest upsurge in student activism since the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s, with mass occupations of university buildings – from administrative rooms to 1,000-seater lecture halls – sweeping the country, from SOAS to Sussex, then to Glasgow and Cardiff.
More than 25 universities have seen occupations this year. Some lasted only a few hours, but the longest, at Manchester, saw students occupy for more than a month.
The issue is the same everywhere: Gaza. The occupations emerged after the outraged street protests in response to Israel’s bombing of Gaza, and occupiers’ lists of demands follow similar patterns: ending university involvement with arms companies; scholarships for Palestinian students; boycotts of Israeli goods; support for the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.
The occupations echo recent student uprisings in Ireland, France, Italy and Greece. Could student activism in Britain soon mirror those revolts? There is certainly a level of agitation not seen for many years on UK campuses. Mainstream press outlets, including the Guardian and Independent, have been quick to speculate over the ‘real’ reasons for the occupations. Old stereotypes hold sway: kids with nothing to lose, rallying against ‘the system’ (again).
A more complex picture emerges from speaking to students at the University of Manchester occupation. There is agreement that, as the specificity of the demands implies, Gaza is the immediate issue: the occupation will cease with an acceptable reply from the university. But in a broader sense, Gaza is ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ – the university management has defended its arms trade investments despite years of protest, but students are no longer willing to stand for that. Last year’s large yet brief anti-commercialisation occupation at Manchester, under the banner ‘Reclaim the Uni’, prompted concrete action from the vice-chancellor. The same is hoped for here.
The engineering building classroom is home to a roving body of between 10 and 30 occupiers, and we debate why we are here. Have the protests, in some subliminal way, been inspired by Obama? One of the students, Nick, disagrees, citing the public’s loss of faith in governmental action on the crises we face as forcing people to look beyond for answers. ‘Universities are our immediate environment – we know they’re connected to more than “education”. There’s a lot of money and power at stake here, but small movements can have a big impact on their own doorstep.’ Adil draws parallels: ‘I went to sit-ins in 2003 over the Iraq war, and I extend that feeling to the uni’s investments in arms.’ For Vicky, meanwhile, the recession has undermined faith in authority: ‘It has forced us to reassess our values. We’re thinking about what’s really important.’
So maybe it’s the recession. Or the co-option of universities by business. Perhaps it is Gaza, or by extension, war. Asking ‘why’ tells half the story. ‘How’ is equally important, and more eagerly discussed.
As the Manchester occupation blog is updated with photos, information and links to other occupations, messages of solidarity received are stuck up on the walls of the room: Sheila Rowbotham, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, and the students union at Melbourne University (who had their own run-ins with vice-chancellor Alan Gilbert until he left to take up the post at Manchester) all appear, as well as a message of support from the Islamic University of Gaza.
New communication channels have broadened involvement not just internationally, but also locally. Jenny received an email about the occupation: ‘I talked about it with my friends and realised that having an opinion isn’t action – it doesn’t get you anywhere. So I came here.’
For Joey, occupying is in itself inspiring: ‘There’s room for expressions of politics. It’s a creative and educational space, with real grass-roots decision-making going on.’ Public meetings are held in the space every day, and the diversity of the protesters’ backing has helped to maintain an open-minded atmosphere. Adil explains that ‘male and female Muslims here are willing to sleep in the same space; everyone is sharing food and ideas. Everyone is involved – there is real participation.’ Ibrahim takes it further: ‘This is a microcosm of how the world could be: intellectual, communal, sincere.’
The absence of students’ unions in recent occupations is distinct from the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s. I’m flatly told the NUS is in the pocket of government. NUS presidents have been in the Labour Party (one way or another) since 1982. NUS president Wes Streeting has not only refused to support the occupations, but condemned them for ‘disrupting teaching and learning’. More students remain outside the occupations than in, and a mass movement still has far to go. However, debates in the occupation reveal a consciousness denied by mainstream commentators, and optimism for future student movements.
Mariam describes ‘a fever catching on. Before I just went on marches for Stop the War. I’d do this [occupy] for other things now, for a free education, for human rights. This has charged me.’ No one mentions the wave of student unrest sweeping Europe last year, but perhaps that’s because we’re already swept up in it.