Reflecting on the Student Movement

By Aitchison, Guy; Gilbert, Jeremy | Soundings, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Reflecting on the Student Movement


Aitchison, Guy, Gilbert, Jeremy, Soundings


Jeremy: At the risk of sounding like a grumpy middle-aged activist who's seen it all before, I want to list a number of problems with the recent anti-tuition fees campaign - but with the aim not of dismissing it but of engaging and thinking constructively about the best ways of campaigning.

Firstly, many of the claims made for the significance and originality of the campaign were exaggerated, and often predicated on a lack of understanding of the place of the protests within recent political history. For example, one quite often heard the claim that these were the only or the most significant protests since the Poll Tax revolt - a very peculiar claim given that the intervening period included a wave of student occupations in 1991-2, the road protests of the early 1990s, the campaigns against the 1994 Criminal Justice Act and in support of the sacked Liverpool dockers, the anti-capitalist protests of the late 1990s and early 2000s (which was where kettling was first used as a police tactic), up to and including the radical wing of 'Make Poverty History', the European Social Forum held in London in 2004, the campaign against the Iraq invasion, etc, etc. And to claim that things like consensus decision-making and networked organisation are novel ideas is to ignore the generations of activists going back to the early 1960s who were the real pioneers of all those techniques.

The movement's discourse was couched in terms of a kind of ahistorical, unreflective boosterism - thereby exhibiting many of the key characteristics of contemporary neoliberal postmodern culture. So while the content of its discourse involved a strong critique of neoliberalism, its form failed to make the first, basic, most fundamental gesture of ideology-critique: namely, the accurate historicisation of its own conditions of possibility.

What's more, I would argue that the Anti Poll-Tax campaign had no effect whatsoever on Tory government policy - which was reversed not because of the campaign but because middle-income swing voters in marginal constituencies with low property values and consequently low council rates were suddenly seeing their tax bill go up and were very unhappy about it.

Secondly, the claim that the campaign was truly socially inclusive, and not largely middle-class in character, was also dubious. Of course the participation of the 'EMA kids' was interesting and welcome (although arguably less significant than the participation of schoolchildren in the campaign against the invasion of Iraq), but the university populations that were overwhelmingly represented within the campaign were mostly very middle-class in nature, and most activity was confined to tiny rumps of middle-class students who were entirely hegemonised by the SWP, and had no grassroots support amongst the wider student population. What was problematic about all this for me was not that it was basically a middle-class campaign defending a historically middle-class privilege, but that it seemed to become impossible to acknowledge this fact, and so to start thinking about what might be done to widen and deepen the campaign's base.

Guy: Before I tackle these issues let me address some of the achievements of the movement. Though it undeniably failed in its overarching aims to stop the government lifting the cap on tuition fees and abolishing EMA, the movement did come within a whisker of defeating the Coalition government - its majority was slashed from 83 to 21, and there were three resignations. In the process, the campaign destroyed the reputation of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, exposing the hypocrisy behind their platitudes about 'fairness'. The party now regularly polls below 10 per cent, and it even lost its deposit in a by-election in 2011. And at the 2011 Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband's pledge to cut tuition fees by a third managed to grab the headlines. Woefully timid, for sure, but it shows what a potent issue higher education funding has become - and all without the backing of the NUS. …

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