This article was first published in the Evening Standard on Thursday 16th December 2010.
Student protesters are breaking away from their official union into new, more militant groups. Fresh leaders are emerging and Joshua Neicho has been meeting them.
For a month, we seem to have been cast in a tide of student protest — but not one of the big marches since the invasion of Millbank on November 10 has been organised by the NUS. Into the fray have come a slew of homemade placards and new organisations including the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCFC), the Free Education Campaign, Schools and FE Students against the Cuts, and local equivalents.
“I don’t know how it happened,” says Joana Oliveira Pinto about the NCFC, which was founded in February. “It’s not hegenomic, more like a parliament.”
The London Student Assembly, formed this autumn, convened last Friday to set up a national organisation. Occupations at London universities were carried out by groups independently of their student union leadership.
There is a widespread sense that NUS president Aaron Porter has been weak and has sold out. Politics PhD student and Opendemocracy blogger Guy Aitchison blames him for “forfeiting moral and political leadership” because of his over-the-top condemnation of the Millbank protests and then for “going back on his promise to support the occupations in the most deeply irresponsible way” (he attempted to strike a deal over fees with ministers). A campaign for a vote of no confidence in him is afoot.
“Students organising things on campuses often have been previously active with their student union, or People & Planet, or one of the political parties,” suggests Green/Left campaigner Adam Ramsay. “But they are getting things going themselves in the absence of national leadership, inspired by things happening at other campuses, organising using a procedure of consensus decision-making invented by the anti-globalisation protest movement”.
Specifically, Climate Camp, the annual gathering of youthful green protesters, has supplied a pre-existing network and a non-violent direct action philosophy.
UK Uncut, an anti-tax avoidance protest group which has grabbed headlines for its occupations of Vodafone shops, is seen as an explicit model by campus activists like UCL’s Jon Moses. English undergrad Tom Dillon, stung by political betrayal, describes going from a common room occupation to a UK Uncut flash-mob. “There is an alternative to cuts but politicians are ignoring it”. Online journalist Ellie Mae has been running the group’s protests in Liverpool before handing over the reins as she relocates to London. The target of tax avoidance appeals to her British sense of fair play. “I don’t respond well to big group activities,” she says. “I don’t even see myself as an activist.” She is right behind tuition fees protests — “by any standards, £21,000 is a phenomenal amount” — though for her and many others the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for low-income sixth-formers is even more significant.
Shiv Malik, 29-year-old author of The Jilted Generation, views wryly the debate about whether the protesters are anarchists or socialists. “They are very much Thatcher’s children — they believe in freedom, individualism and have no solid ideology. They are out there for more than education cuts.”
In what Malik brands the “hashtag revolution”, Twitter has been crucial in organising and shaping protests, frustrating police by directing hundreds of people to make a move in a particular direction. New web initiatives have helped assemble petitions and allowed supporters to post footage of independent actions they have embarked on.
The hub of the university occupations were teams on computers co-ordinating a mass lobby of wavering Lib-Dem MPs. But the anti-fees and cuts movement has married the white heat of technology with traditional methods — the open meeting where people come and freely debate; tub-thumping open lectures held by SOAS academics and Goldsmiths students in locations ranging from a bank to the St Pancras concourse. The UCL occupation delighted visitors with the bohemianism of its handmade posters and communal kitchen. Bands and comics have played protest gigs. Josie Long, darling of the indie comedy scene, is an ardent backer of the movement and its “organised, sane, fun” supporters who she feels have been traduced by a hostile media.
Any accusation the movement is narrowly middle-class can be countered by the battle to save the EMA. One of the leading figures in this is James Mills, a young working-class Londoner and Lib-Dem parliamentary researcher who went from tough Gunnersbury School to St Andrews at the same time as Prince William. Meanwhile, many student and graduate activists vouch modestly that school-age protesters have been more positive and creative in their campaigning than they have, spontaneously occupying sixth forms at the risk of exclusion from school. They pay tribute by seeing their protests as part of a duty of care to younger generations which MPs have manifestly failed to show.
Given the electoral arithmetic, commentators tend to see a fees rise as a fait accompli. But the grassroots movement is not discouraged — and has rallied behind protester Jody McIntyre after his harsh treatment on TV. James Haywood of Goldsmiths looks enviously to Rome where protesters have occupied railway tracks, bringing the city to a halt.
Many protesters are clearly in it for the long haul. “I’m 100 per cent committed — I don’t think I could sleep at night if I wasn’t involved,” says Josie Long. Or as graduate student Benjamin Weiss, involved in occupations in London and Cambridge, vows: “We’ve made our presence felt with fees. When it comes to the NHS we will be there too”.
Six Angry Young Men and Women, By Ben Bryant
Pictured above, from top left
James Haywood, 23
Used to want to be an academic, but says that now he can’t afford it. Worked as a butcher for two years before attending Goldsmiths College to study history. He is Campaigns Officer of the Students’ Union there.
Kanja Sesay, 22
Born in Sierra Leone, living through 11 years of civil war and coups d’etat. Came to England in 1999 and studied law and history at Bradford University. He is NUS Black Students’ Officer and a vocal critic of NUS President Aaron Porter.
Sean Rillo Raczka, 28
Activism runs in his family – his grandfather were both trade unionists. He left school at 16 and worked in admin before going to university at 26. He is chair of Birkbeck Students’ Union and NUS NEC Mature Students’ Rep.
Fiona Edwards, 23
Father a builder. Went to Worcester comprehensive, studied politics at Sheffield and became Women’s Officer. Involved in campaigning groups including Free Education Campaign and Student Broad Left.
Marie Leconte, 18
French student from Nantes now at the University of Westminster who attended the UCL occupation.
Jon Moses, 21
Father a geophysicist. Went to private school in Monmouth. Graduated this year from UCL in history. Stalwart of the UCL occupation and member of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.