Dissent and the Global University: NCAFC NC Member’s Speech

On June 22, Josh Berlyne from the National Committee of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (to which WFFE is affiliated) spoke at the History Department’s South Asia Day on ‘Dissent and the Global University’. He was joined via Skype by Mohan Rao from JNU Teachers’ Association in India. A lively and extensive discussion was held on neo-liberalism and higher education, consumer identities in universities and the politics of resistance in India and the UK. Below is Josh’s speech at the event, covering the relation between the student movement and the NUS, the taming of British student unions, and the commodification of education.

In 2010, images of students smashing up police vans and kicking through the windows of Tory party headquarters were beamed to television sets around the world.  School, college and university students were furious at the news that tuition fees would be tripled.  We were furious that our futures were being stolen from us.

The wave of militancy rippled across the UK, with college walkouts, marches in tens of cities, and occupations of over forty campuses.  Many of the students at the forefront of the movement today were radicalised, as school and college students, six years ago.

Rage, however, was quickly followed by retreat, in universities at least.  It was a sign of things to come when, immediately after the smashing of Tory Party headquarters by thousands of angry students, the then President of the National Union of Students, Aaron Porter, went on national television to condemn the protestors.  To quote, Porter said that he was “disgusted that the actions of a minority of idiots are trying to undermine 50,000 who came to make a peaceful protest.”

And what did the NUS name this demonstration?  What was on all the posters, all the leaflets, all across social media?  Demolition.  They had called their demonstration “Demolition”, and then they sold us out when we chose to express our anger by actually demolishing something.  Since the 1990s, in fact—it goes much further back than 2010—we have repeatedly and consistently seen the NUS sell out protest, sell out its members, and worst of all, crumple in the face of any kind of assault on the public university.

The NUS leadership began its attempt to drop support for free education way back in 1995.  The organisation became increasingly aligned to Blair and New Labour—who were the ones to first introduce tuition fees.  In the student movement, NUS became infamous as a springboard for young men and women with aspirations for a career in the New Labour government.  Wes Streeting, current MP and former NUS President, is a prime example.  It’s quite surprising, actually, that no one has written a political economy of the NUS and New Labour by now.

If we fast forward to 2011, we can see the NUS retreat in full swing.  The summer of 2011 saw widespread rioting in response to the police murder of Mark Duggan, a working-class black man from Tottenham.  The press vilified Duggan and decried the rioters as wanton criminals.  The overwhelming majority of student union sabbatical officers did the same.  Only a very small handful—I could count the number on one hand—of student union officers refused to condemn the riots.  Only one, as far as I know, actively defended them as the clear and obvious product of a disenchanted, disenfranchised youth with no meaningful future to speak of.

On paper, the UK has the best-resourced student movement in the world.  To take just one example, my own student union at Sheffield University has an annual turnover in excess of £4 million.  It receives a block grant from the University of over £2 million.  And yet NUS has shown itself totally incapable, in recent years, of mobilising students on a large scale.

This wasn’t always the case.  In 1974, under the leadership of communist President Digby Jacks, NUS successfully fought off attempts by Education Minister Margaret Thatcher to remove the NUS closed-shop, trying to make membership opt-in instead.  NUS mobilised tens of thousands of students in response and defeated Thatcher.

I think there are two processes at work, which run side-by-side.  First, we have seen the incredible transformation of students’ unions, which have gone from being collective and democratic bodies of students, to commercial bodies.  I would avoid calling them corporations as such, but certainly we have seen the corporatisation of student unionism.  We might say that bolshevism has been replaced by business.

Student union officers today are more like business managers than student organisers.  As I said earlier, Sheffield Students’ Union has a turnover in the millions of pounds.  It tens of commercial outlets, and it employs a huge array of bureaucrats, bar tenders and shop assistants.  Although the organisation’s policy and constitution commit it to defending the public university and campaigning for free higher education, in reality its purpose is to produce value—for its members, and for the university which provides a huge proportion of its income.

Students’ unions are also charities, and as such they are restricted by charity law.  Students’ unions cannot campaign for any particular party, and they cannot criticise the government unless it is in their members’ interests to do so.  Of course, this is wide open to interpretation and the politically good students’ unions interpret these restrictions very loosely.  However, officers at many students’ unions come under a great deal of pressure from unelected union bureaucrats to depoliticise their activities.  The most dramatic example of this, that I know of, took place at Teesside University where the student union officers shut down a debate on free education on the pretext that it might be breaking charity law.  This has resulted in dissent on campuses being severely dampened, replaced instead with a culture of conformity.

This culture pervades the whole of NUS.  Soft lobbying is, on the whole, the preferred tactic of student union officers.  In 2010, shortly after the explosive student protests, the NUS leadership rejected the option of organising and sustaining this dissent and instead chose to organise a glowstick vigil outside of Parliament.  More recently, we have seen students’ union officers choose to lobby university management for small concessions rather than educate and organise their members for more extensive change.

At many universities, students’ union officers have repeatedly failed to support staff strikes, too.  I was recently speaking to a comrade in the University and Colleges Union—the trade union representing academic staff—at Bath University.  He told me that this year was the first in his memory that the students’ union had supported a staff strike.

The second process at work is perhaps less unique to the UK context.  We are currently seeing higher education commodified like never before in the UK.  The tripling of tuition fees transformed the way students see themselves in the UK.  In 2010, there was a sense of collective injustice, where young people felt that they could see their collective futures being stolen from beneath their noses, but now if you speak to students, that indignation has, on the whole, been individualised.  Students count up their contact hours to see how much they’re paying per lecture, with humanities students feeling hard done by when their crude calculations show they are paying double, maybe sometimes even triple, the amount per lecture than their friends on science and engineering courses.

David Willetts, the Tory minister who oversaw the 2011 higher education reforms, sought to assert the general conservative ideology that bottom-up consumerism drives up quality.  He claimed that an increased focus on consumer needs and consumer demands means an increased focus on the quality of “the teaching experience”.  Andrew McGettigan, one of the foremost critics of the recent higher education reforms, has pointed out at least two consequences of the ideological transformation of UK higher education.  First, it’s not at all clear that quality here means academic quality—evidence points towards universities spending increased amounts of money on non-academic facilities to attract new applicants.  My own university, for example, is spending many millions of pounds on a campus “masterplan”, the main focus being pleasant green spaces and a pedestrianised campus.  These things seem nice until you consider that staff wages are being driven down and libraries are stretched for space.

Second, McGettigan has pointed out that competition between universities will really mean competition on price rather than quality, with new, private providers competing for a market share by providing cheaper courses than public universities.  The government’s new emphasis, then, is on value for money, rather than standard quality.  This emphasis has become hegemonic, with the vast majority of students couching their grievances in terms of how much or how little they are getting for their 9 grand fees.

State repression of dissent has also become a significant problem in UK universities.  In 2014 and 2015 we saw the large-scale student occupation of Birmingham university evicted violently, with many protestors being held in police station cells for illegal lengths of time.  The repression of protest prompted widespread “Cops Off Campus” demonstrations which, somewhat ironically, saw protestors beaten and violently dragged around by police.  Here at the university of Warwick, police punched, pepper-sprayed and drew tasers on students whose only crime was to gather in a university building to discuss free education.  Nigel Thrift, the now-infamous former Vice-Chancellor here, called the students yobs and derided their protests.  He saw no duty of care, nor any democratic obligation, towards his students.

In the past year we have also seen the Prevent duty made mandatory in universities.  Prevent is the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, and it requires university workers to monitor students for so-called “signs of radicalisation.”  This means that lecturers, seminar tutors, librarians, doctors at the university health service and counsellors in the university counselling service are required to spy on students and report them if they think they are in danger of becoming “extremists.”  We have seen living wage campaigners monitored for their activities, and Muslim students picked out and harassed by universities and the police.  At one university, a Mohammad Umar Farooq found himself being interrogated by the police about Al-Qaida and his views on gay marriage after a librarian spotted him, bearded and brown, reading a book entitled “Terrorism Studies”.  He was an international relations student, and that was the compulsory text for his module.  He has since dropped out of his course.

There has also been a great deal of chatter about “freedom of speech”, but this has been couched in terms of over-zealous, over-sensitive students refusing to give a platform to figures with unsavoury views.  It has not at all been couched in terms of police on campuses, the repression of dissent, and the surveillance of muslim students.  Thus the discourse of freedom of speech on campuses in the UK has very much been dominated by the right-wing of the political spectrum.

I have painted quite a gloomy picture.  In the spirit of Ernst Bloch, however, I think there is reason for hope.  Over the past two years, we have seen a leftwards shift in the student movement.  NUS now officially supports free education, and the leadership now has a much more militantly socialist orientation than before.

Furthermore, I think we are seeing an organisational upswing in the student movement.  Just a few days ago, we received the fantastic news that the 1,000 students on rent strike at University College London won significant concessions from management, and plan to forge ahead to win their demands outright.

The movement is also innovating in tactics.  My own organisation, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, has been agitating within NUS for a nationally coordinated sabotage of the National Student Survey.  At NUS National Conference, we successfully mandated the organisation to promote this effort.  The National Student Survey is filled out by final year undergraduates and is used in a variety of market mechanisms, such as league tables, and it will also play a central role in the government’s latest flagship higher education reform, the Teaching Excellence Framework.  As such, it is a site at which students create value, both for their individual university, and for the market system of higher education as a whole.  By sabotaging it, we aim to gain leverage against the government to use in negotiations around the latest round of higher education reforms.  This will require widespread support, amongst both students and staff.  I’m excited to say that a number of students’ unions have already pledged support, along with the University and Colleges Union national congress.  This not only presents an exciting opportunity for resisting the attacks on public education, but also a clear opportunity to educate students on the power of collective action, and also generate student-staff solidarity.

I honestly believe we have reason to be hopeful, then, and I honestly believe we can win.


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