One has to be capable of noticing when the state fucks up. And the overbearing police assault
on students at Senate House this week looks like a fuck up to me. Not that we should confuse violence with weakness, and not that such a fuck up is not intelligible within a generally effective series of strategies. But this intervention by police, invited by the university administration, comes amid a mini-wave of occupations, many linked to the higher education strikes involving my union, the UCU. And the specific confrontation that they chose to escalate by means of such ham-fisted tactics (pun obviously intended) is a particularly overdetermined one.
The occupation at Senate House
was linked to, as John Harris puts it
, "a tangle of issues that runs from the privatisation of university jobs and facilities, through the low-end pay and conditions of workers on campus, to what many students see as the toxic effects of higher education being pushed towards the logic of the free market." It's also worth bringing up the general pattern of radicalisation against sexism on campuses, the remarkable growth of the Feminist Societies, and the impact this has had on occupation practices - women's caucuses, safe space and zero tolerance policies, etc.
The two most pressing issues in the University of London (UoL) are the closure of the University of London Union
, and the 3 Cosas
campaign, one of the few genuine rank and file workers' campaigns in the country. Both speak, in their way, of the increasingly autocratic pattern of university management. The closure of ULU, for example, is taking place without the smallest shred of democratic legitimacy or consultation. University managers simply decided that they wanted a management-run services centre in place of the student-run union. This is a simple act of uncompensated expropriation and enclosure.
The 3 Cosas campaign is if anything more significant. This campaign is based on a series of demands of outsourced cleaning staff for equality with UoL staff. They want equal sick pay, equal holiday pay and equal pensions
. It was initiated by cleaning staff at Senate House - largely migrant workers from Latin America - when they were still in Unison. Having found the union leadership resistant to supporting their campaign, they left and formed a pop-up union. They have waged their own militant campaign, and have not hesitated to take strike action - the last two-day strike gained 92% support from cleaners. Given that these workers have been subject to terrifying immigration raids and selective deportations, with the connivance of university authorities, this degree of self-organisation and confidence signifies a real breakthrough. To its credit, the ULU leadership (with whom one has differences), has backed this campaign, and indeed integrated its demands into its own campaign against the closure of ULU.
Now, however, as a result of this brutal police intervention, the focus of most politicised students is on the police themselves. As the trending topic had it: #copsoffcampus. I'll come back to the police in a moment, but the authoritarian way in which university bosses are proceeding in the coalition era is not coincidental. There is a clear incentive now to restructure labour relations, relations with students, departments, university facilities, and so on, all along commercial lines. Costs must be streamlined, less profitable departments shed. Since students are now clients rather than citizens or stakeholders, they are to be offered 'services', not democracy. The universities belonging to the UoL are part of the Russell Group, which is essentially an 'ivy league' in the UK: what they want is to sell the finest commodity, 'excellence in education', to the future elites of the country. No good having messy occupations, student democracy, or excessive labour costs if that is your agenda.
At any rate, all these antagonisms are now being channelled through the issue of police repression, because that seems to be set up as the immediate obstacle to the achievement of other objectives. The police crackdown produced a backlash and an outcry sufficient to grab international news attention
. We have seen some frenzied police violence against teenagers during previous student protests. We have seen a student hospitalised with a serious head injury, then victimised for months and months by Metropolitan Police. However, the occupations were generally left alone, and it was down to university management to handle them. For an occupation to be busted up in this manner is new and clearly an attempt to set a new precedent. So it's important that this is answered.
A national day of action
is planned for next Wednesday. The usual exhortations apply - join in, bring people, spread the word. But there's a hard question we need to start asking ourselves now. Suppose there is a large student protest next Wednesday - large by British standards, I mean. In this country, that could be anything from 10,000 up. And given that this is being supported by small protest groups via social media, rather than a major institution such as the NUS or UCU, such a turnout would not be insignificant. What then? The immediate objective of 'sending a message' (i.e. demonstrating that the police cannot repress and crush student protest into non-existence) having been achieved (or not), will it be satisfactory if the momentum once again drains and people filter back onto their campuses and return to whatever micro-campaigns they were engaged in before?
It seems obvious to me: that as presently organised these campaigns are less than the sum of their parts and therefore there is a need to draw them together at a national level; that they should be linked through the development of a real grassroots democratic infrastructure which outlasts each particular moment of protest (obviously, I'm thinking of Quebec here); that the NUS, even if it can't be abandoned as a terrain of action, is not the forum in which such a democratic infrastructure can be developed; and that the existing 'campaigns' and 'networks' are either fronts for far left groups or ineffectually narrow in other ways. We surely need a national, democratic body in which the most politicised students, whatever their specific background, can operate and organise. A militant student forum, if you like. Of course, just because all this seems obvious to me is no reason why anyone should pay the slightest attention. I could be talking through my hole: it's been known to happen. However, if I was the sort to attend meetings, and rabble rouse and run around with protesters, I would strongly argue that existing groups of student activists coalesce around the idea of calling a national meeting for students to launch such an initiative.