The Logic of a Student Strike

[This is a personal blog, and doesn’t represent the opinion of WFFE.]

Today marks the beginning of a student strike, organised by Defend Education Cambridge, to demand a reading week. In order to show some solidarity with Cambridge students on strike, the aim of this short blog is to explain some of the logic behind the strike tactic – and also suggest that is one way in which the UK student movement should be looking to develop its collective power.

A student strike is a tactic not familiar to many of those in UK student circles, but it has been used extensively across the world to shut down education systems – and often leads to generalised periods of social struggle.

The most pertinent recent examples are Quebec in 2012 and Hong Kong in 2014. Here we’ll focus primarily on Quebec as a signal example of how student can fight for Free Education and contest the neoliberal domination of the university system.

The story of the Quebec student strike can be better told by those who were involved (and this extensive discussion consists of them doing exactly that). But to give a brief overview: in March 2011 the Quebec government announced their intention to raise tuition fees by approximately $1500 over five years, beginning in September 2012. Students had pre-empted this, and had been mobilising since 2010 in anticipation of such a move. By August 2011 they already had an active base, and had built a position from which students’ unions to issue a strike warning. SU’s then undertook huge information campaigns and planned a one day strike to warn the government. This one day strike rallied 200,000 students to go on strike, and began a momentum swing. Students continued escalating pressure until Feb 2012, when strike votes began to take place in the general assemblies of the student unions. An unlimited general strike began. At its peak the strike involved 250,000 students, and resulted in toppling a government and stopping the tuition hike.

But what is the logic behind this kind of movement?

During a strike students miss out on their education (or their formal assessed education, it seems impossible to argue that the experience of the strike itself would not be educational). You wouldn’t buy a TV and then leave it in the box, so why would students pay for their education and then go on strike?

The analogy that needs to be made is that of workers missing out on a pay check. To go on strike is to make a sacrifice in order to contest the relationships which you live within. There is no strike in history that has not cost those going on strike something.

The next question, more likely to come from the left than the right, is then about the efficacy of such a strike. If workers walk out production stops and that in the way in which pressure is applied – how does that have an analogy in a university situation? The answer to this could well be drawn from one of the classic ’68 slogans: the university is a factory, shut it down. For a capitalists system, education is the production of labour commodity. The university is a site of production which aims to produce graduates ready for the workplace, and this is becoming more and more obvious within a neoliberal framework. In shutting down a university a strike halts that production. However it also gives thousands and thousands of politically motivated, enthusiastic and skilled young people a sudden windfall of free time in which to organise. The effect of a student strike, therefore, is not only to stop the production of the labour commodity but also to free students from the disciplinary regime of assessment so that they can devote all their time to a struggle.

Quebec has a history of such tactics and a residual memory of how to organise them (students went on unlimited general strike in 1974, 1978, 1986, 1990 and 2005) something we don’t have. They could refer to a history of struggle where students had taken on the government – and won. We need to build a similar collective understanding. Quebec should stand as an example of what is possible, but it is not immediately replicable. There is hard work to be done and a collective understanding of new tactics to be developed before we can approach that scale of struggle – but if we engage, as a movement, in that task, then we will amplify our collective power hugely. Student support of staff strike action in the 2012 and 2013 cycle of UCU action indicates a possible basis for industrial-style organisation. We need to move beyond the active basis that social movement, consensus based organising has provided us, and begin to look at forming lasting infrastructures to fight for student causes.

Practical Suggestions:

  • We need to move from activist groups to syndicalist unions. This means organising within our SU’s in order to build bases of power. It also means contesting the use of charity law to constrain unions into apolitical positions and investing effort in changing their function from consumer watchdogs to political structures which can support and engage in struggle. Horizontal movements with a distain for unions have no infrastructure and cannot last, they end up as cliques of friends with no resources. The alternative is to build a complimentary base of power within SU’s which can collaborate with external activists.
  • We need to approach student struggles with an understanding of the importance of general student opinion. That means not holding an average student in contempt, but recognising that we need to convince them and engage with them. We should be putting in the effort on the ground to engage with university audiences of 20,000 students (that means lots and lots of leaflets).
  • We need a change in our tactical horizon. Looking forward, we will have to go beyond a national wave of occupations and occasional demonstrations to disruption on a much larger scale. The national co-ordination of a student strike needs to be within our understanding of what is possible – and how we might win.


Discussion, Spreading the Maple Spring

Article, Quebec’s students provide a lesson in protest politics

Documentary (30 mins), Street Politics 101

Zine, Occupy Blockade Strike Back

Article, History of the Quebec Student Movement

Article, Quebec’s student protesters give UK activists a lesson

quebec student strike


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