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Solidarity Song!

November 26, 2010

Over the past week, students up and down the country have demonstrated that they are articulate, aware of the issues, and pro-active. The national media have seized on isolated incidents in London, which were exacerbated by controversial police tactics, as a way to ‘show that all the students protesting are hooligans’.

These attempts to foster division have been repeated by universities, especially Oxford, in response to occupations. The symbolic occupation of the Radcliffe Camera library demonstrates that Oxford is not the ivory tower unconcerned with the lives of less fortunate students it is often presented as. The protesters themselves made every effort to ensure that the library remains open (including gaining the support of the library staff), and the decision to close it represents an attempt to foster division, and essentially shut down a legitimate means of protest when the democratic system has so manifestly failed to make voices heard.

To a large extent this has worked, and has done so by playing on the divisions which exist within an institution historically connected with the ‘upper class’, but which has succeeded in widening access over the course of recent years. It is regrettable that the university decided to also close the Old Bodleian , but again this isn’t due to a decision made by the protesters, and is a means of dividing opinion by hitting students where it hurts.

With all this in mind, can we say that protest is an effective of legitimate political tool? And if it is, is it appropriate to apply it in the current situation?

Firstly, it bears repeating that in other parts of the country, occupations have succeeded in fostering community cohesion and solidarity. In Edinburgh, an occupied lecture theatre has provoked a growing petition from researchers and lecturers in support of the action. .

This has a great deal to do with the attitude of the university, of course, but also a great deal to do with the negotiating powers of those in occupation, since a potentially tense situation on the first night of the occupation was defused, and informatics students were allowed access to the areas of the building required for their coursework. Since then, members of the university have been allowed free access to the building and to the occupiers.

So, we can see that peaceful direct action, not merely peaceful marches, can have a positive effect, and as such it is far more productive to show solidarity with protests and occupations (if you agree with their aims, on which more below), than to snipe at individual decisions made by individual groups. The responses to many protests (‘well, I agree with their aims, but…’) is an example of the ‘not in my back yard’ argument. Could the Oxford protesters have chosen a better location? Possibly. Does it then follow that one must lose all sympathy with the cause, and decide that protests are merely acts of ‘hooliganism’? Not at all.

If you wish to respond to the actions of a particular occupying group, and have alternative suggestions for them, join them. Most occupations operate a system of consensus decision making ( ), and so your views WILL be heard, and your input will be far more valuable and productive of solidarity than if you sit on facebook or in the pub bitching about how inconvenient it all is.

BUT – should you agree with these protests? Aren’t they just examples of kids wanting to smash shit and feel all rebellious? Why don’t they write to their MPs, or why didn’t they vote for the outcome the wanted?

It seems to me that the young age of many of the protesters over the past week speaks against the idea that people ‘just want to smash shit’. Of course some people may have gone there with that object, but they can hardly have been in the majority, or we would have seen scenes of violence and vandalism far in excess of the isolated incidents which have nonetheless dominated the news. The demands issued by those groups in occupation have shown a high level of articulacy, and the open letter from Camden Girls’ School again shows that many of those school-aged students involved are very aware of the issues.

These issues are NOT limited to the raising of the cap on tuition fees. Of course, some people are angry about this, perhaps because they voted for the Liberal Democrats on the basis of the assurance they gave over the tuition fees element of their manifesto, by signing separate pledges. These pledges, since they give no indication of a specific relation to power, are not undermined by the LibDems’ junior partner status in the coalition.

Many of those protesting are those who used their first vote for the Liberal Democrats, since they intentionally played to their interests – while simultaneously planning to perform a u-turn should they enter a coalition (link). Many more are those who have had no opportunity to vote on policy decisions which will personally affect them, and very few of those who were able to vote in the election, those who will be going to university over the next few years.

However, even if you agree with the need to increase tuition fees or university funding, there is little evidence that the proposals will have the desired effect – as government funding is withdrawn from Higher Education, the proposed fees increases will not allow universities to continue providing the high standards they have recently. This, combined with the proposed immigration caps, will reduce the attractiveness of British universities to international students, reducing the breadth of the university experience, as well as further damaging university revenues.

If you agree with the proposals for increased tuition fees, and also the withdrawal of government funding, it is still difficult to see what good the ‘marketisation’ proposed by the Browne Report will do for universities as educational institutions rather than corporate training facilities. Stefan Collini has produced a more comprehensive indictment of the proposals than I have space for here in this article.

The issue is that the Browne Report is a flawed document, which claims to use ‘pure competition theory’ to choose courses, but which then undermines itself by offering protection for ‘key subjects’, which just happen to be those of a greater value to City-model businesses.

‘Choice’ is not the be all and end all, as demonstrated by the Browne Report which claims to operate under the auspices of ‘greater choice’ while simultaneously circumscribing what choices can be made, and by whom.

There are many reasons to oppose the coalition’s higher education policies, and many reasons for all concerned to unite. The way the policies have been announced are intended to be divisive (protection for STEM subjects, 90% cuts to the Arts and Humanities), and responses to the protests have been designed to divide.

In the face of this, it is more important than ever to seek common ground, and realise that everyone in the country, not just students, lecturers and future students, stand to be affected by what constitutes an attack on the very idea of education as an end in itself.

I leave the final words to Bertolt Brecht:

Forward, and not forgetting
What our strength ever was and will be –
In famine or in plenty,
Forward, and not forgetting
It’s solidarity!

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