Tag Archives: University and College Union

Are the “official” leaderships closing ranks?

by Edd Mustill

Times Higher Education this week reports on divisions in the lecturers’ union, the UCU, between the current general secretary Sally Hunt and the UCU Left.

Phil at AVPS has written a good piece about this here. It seems one point of conflict is the UCU NEC’s decision to back a call from the Left supporting the protest in London on 29th January.

Meanwhile, NUS President Aaron “Glowstick” Porter is bringing a motion to an emergency NEC meeting on Monday condemning the plans for a London demonstration on 29th January. In the name of unity with the trade union movement, Porter wants students to attend the TUC’s Manchester rally on that day. This would perhaps make sense, if Unite, the GMB, and UCU weren’t backing both protests.

We shouldn’t be surprised. In his quest for unity in the movement, Porter has variously dismissed, condemned, and tried to take credit for actions called by groups and individuals to his left.

It seems that the official leaderships of the UCU and NUS are closing ranks as the authority to direct the movement slips away from them. They are wary of having to work with less “official” bodies, because of the political effects this will have on radicalising some of their members. The telling sentence in the THE report is this:

“Critics of the UCU Left note that many of its key figures are members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), arguing that this subjects the union to external influence.”

As if members of the union who are also members of a political party are somehow less legitimate as members! What then should we say about the NUS leaders who are also in the Labour Party, for example? Is this subjecting the NUS to a perfidious external influence? As if every political body isn’t “subject to external influence” all the time. Otherwise what would be the point in us ever doing anything?

This is nothing more than an example of the sort of sectionalism that has long-plagued the trade union movement in Britain. The let-us-get-on-with-it attitude of union leaderships is constant, and it was precisely this that was rejected by the students in the Autumn, which allowed the movement to develop.

The NUS is one of the worst unions for sectionalism, having not so long ago criticising the UCU for considering industrial action. Porter’s focus on Manchester has nothing to do with genuine unity and everything to do with his attempt to reign in the movement. The strategy he is now pursuing, if his open letter to Simon Hughes is anything to go by, accepts that as far as he is concerned the battle against tuition fees is over.

As for the 29th, more demonstrations are obviously a good thing at the moment. Not everyone can get to Manchester. Just as when there is a national demo in London, people who can’t make it protest in their own towns, the same is true of Manchester. There are local protests organised in Sheffield and Glasgow, but no-one is accusing the local anti-cuts groups there of “splitting the movement.” In a situation where we are building national resistance to a national government, it’s ridiculous to suggest that there should be no London demonstration. We can and should build the 29th into a national day of action against cuts, as much as we can.

Demonstrate in London. Demonstrate in Manchester. Demonstrate in your own town. Let’s do it.

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Shamebridge University and its occupiers

by Edd Mustill

There is a scene in the BBC’s dramatisation of the life of the Cambridge Spies where Guy Burgess, played by Tom Hollander, has just learned that he won’t be punished for helping to organise a waiters’ strike, but that the waiters’ themselves will be. He is told by the authorities that Cambridge is a club that looks after “its own.”

Angry, he shouts at the world in general that Cambridge University is a “smug, complacent bloody place.”

When I was there, this is how I felt pretty much all the time.

For over a week now, The university authorities have refused to even negotiate with their own students. This is not only shameful, but revealing. You can almost hear them spluttering into their sherry: “Students?! In a University?!”

Cambridge University prides itself on being a centre for debate and intellectual discussion in a corporate world. Within its walls, according to this myth, nothing is too controversial to be talked about. But when the real world comes knocking on the outside of the bubble, what has its response been? To refuse to talk at all, to use the law to call its students trespassers in their own university, to call the police onto its property, to threaten physical eviction.

Like the political class, university authorities will do what they want, or what they deem “necessary,” ignoring dissenting opinions.

The extent and display of academic support for the direct action has been unprecedented and welcomed by the occupiers. This shows a division between staff and management that exposes another myth, that of the cosy “academic community.” Cambridge University doesn’t even properly recognise the UCU!

The Senior Common Room which is occupied is, apparently, normally open to all members of the university during the day on weekdays. Find me an undergraduate who knew this before the occupation. In typical Cambridge fashion it was open but not advertised, open to the people in the know.

Right now there is a Cambridge “general assembly” against cuts taking place in Old Schools. Trade unions, community groups, and individuals from the town have been invited. If nothing else, this helps break down the town/gown divide and shows that students identify more with people fighting cuts in the town than they do with the bosses of their university.

What does this teach us? That we are not, and should not be, engaged in a movement which aims to defend the ivory tower. That are universities are economic and political bodies; they hire and fire people, they invest in the arms trade and profit from suffering, they are hierarchical and authoritarian when they deem it necessary.

This is not a movement just about fees, or even fees and cuts. It is also about what we think education should look like, and what its purpose is. It is about freeing the university by destroying the ivory tower.

Well done to the Cambridge Occupiers, and everyone else who is exposing the true nature of the modern university.

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Anger at Millbank

by Edd Mustill

Today saw the biggest education protest in Britain for at least a decade. Tens of thousands of university students, school students, and workers marched through London in opposition to the government’s plans to triple tuition fees.

Almost everyone seemed surprised by the size of the march. It was so big that, by the time I got to the end, the rally had finished. People were still walking down Millbank for over half an hour after I got there. All the big universities were represented by multiple coachfuls. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama Students’ Union brought out 180 students, a substantial proportion of its total membership.

UCL before the main march

Some of the loudest, most colourful and most militant sections of the march were students from schools and colleges. They are, after all, those who will have to pay the higher rate of fees.

A London feeder march from UCL began with Sean Wallis of the UCU branch there linking the higher education issue to other struggles. “Let’s take this government on and let’s bring it down,” was his message.

As with any demo that is much bigger than the “usual suspects,” there were many home-made placards and slogans visible. While this displayed a lot of imagination, it also resulted, predictably, in many signs reading “Down with this sort of thing,” “I would have made a better sign if I could have afforded to go to university,” or “Higher fees make kitty sad.”

UCU members turned out as well as students

It would be easy to dismiss such language as the apolitical mumblings of the Lolcat generation without remembering that the majority of people there were probably on their first real national demonstration.

The big contradiction of the demo was that its mood was lively, vibrant, even militant, but its politics were incredibly ill-defined. Much of the blame for this has to be shouldered by the NUS leadership for calling the protest under the vague heading of “Fund Our Future.”

The demonstration’s political content is important. There was a small official Labour presence but no calls for a graduate tax. Some student union offices wore shirts pleading for “Fair Fees” or similar slogans. The demand for free education was taken up loudly by the organised Left and contingents like Sussex and some of the London universities. Broadly, though, the demonstration gave the impression that there is a political battle to be fought and won among the student population, and that not many of those opposing fees have settled completely on a particular alternative.

Millbank

Around Millbank, which houses the headquarters of the Conservative Party, the police appear to have been unprepared for the size of the demo. Students were able to break in through the front entrance of the building.

Some held the roof for a while. They have been condemned by the National Union of Students’ leadership, but thousands of students surrounded the Millbank centre for two hours or more after the official rally had ended cheered them on, except for a brief period around 3.15pm when a fire extinguisher was dropped from the roof targeting the police below, after which the chant “Stop throwing shit” was taken up by the crowd.

Protesters on the roof

That such a large contingent remained to support an ill-defined militant action indicates the main characteristic of the protest as a whole: ill-defined militancy. Millbank bore the brunt of a vast and nameless anger. We do not yet know what other forms this anger will take.

Without the Millbank action, the demonstration would likely have been reduced to a footnote in the daily news cycle. With the Millbank action, the press coverage was dominated with pictures of windows breaking. Protesters appear to be trapped in a catch-22 situation with the media, but actions like this, whether you agree with them or not, open up, in front of a national audience, questions about what sort of tactics are necessary to defeat this government.

Police guarding the entrance

“You Lied”

Although it was the Conservatives’ HQ that was attacked, most anger on the rally was reserved for the Liberal Democrats who have broken their promise to oppose higher fees. Quickly, almost hauntingly, along the route of the march the words “You lied” appeared on walls and post boxes. Fake Liberal Democrat leaflets headed “Hollow Promise” were distributed among the crowd.

Alone and forlorn in the crowd, one student even allowed their placard to make the admission, “I agreed with Nick.” Chants of “There’ll be no LibDems in Parliament next year” were not uncommon. The Liberal Democrats appear to have killed their student electoral base stone dead. Of course, it suits the NUS leadership and the Labour Party to direct students’ ire at the LibDems without much public discussion of their own alternatives to fees. That is one reason why the argument for free education is yet to be won, as this demo showed.

LibDem betrayal mocked

These were some personal and incomplete thoughts concerning today’s events. I have not here attempted to map out any strategy for the student “movement.” One thing that resurfaced today, after many years of drab Stop the War marches, was the idea that protests can themselves be sites for political debate. There was, at times, not much chanting (someone needs to invest in some more megaphones) but there was discussion. Contrary to the familiar narrative being built up in the mainstream media, the broken windows and wall graffiti can be seen as part of this discussion, not as opposed to it.

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Cambridge protests higher fees

by Edd Mustill

Hundreds of students and workers marched through Cambridge yesterday to protest against the government’s decision to raise the cap on tuition fees.

Protesters marched from Queens’ Backs to Great St. Mary’s church, where a rally was addressed by several speakers.

Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, reaffirmed his commitment to vote against a rise in fees. Nevertheless he was heckled by some sections of the march angry at his party’s position in the coalition government.

Another speaker, Steve Sweeney from Unison, said: “When is he going to take this fight into his party? The LibDems traded principles for power and became bag carriers for David Cameron.”

The speakers from trade unions emphasised their desire to see unity between students and workers, and placed the government’s proposals for higher education in the context of the cuts to public spending announced in the comprehensive spending review.

Cambridge UCU president David Goode said: “I believe that these cuts are part of a wider agenda to turn students into consumers.”

Students were urged to attend the national “Fund Our Future” demonstration called by the NUS and UCU which will take place in London on Wednesday.

Matthew East, president of Anglia Ruskin Students’ Union, said: “This is not the end, this is just the beginning. If we stand united, the government must hear our voice.”

A petition calling for Cambridge University to publicly oppose the fee rise, with almost 1,000 signatures, was presented to university authorities by CUSU and UCU representatives.

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Against all fees, against all cuts

by Edd Mustill

Universities will be able to charge fees of £9,000 per year, the government announced today in its response to Lord Browne’s proposals.

The Million+ group of universities has already indicated that cuts to government funding will lead to its members charging the full amount.

Those of us who, for many years as student activists, warned that the £3,000 per year limit was an inevitable stepping stone towards higher fees have sadly been proved right. For a long time we criticised the approach of the NUS which abandoned fighting for the principle of free education in favour of a “keep the cap” approach, as if Browne was ever going to come up with anything different.

The government has likely decided to cap fees at a higher level because it fears the political consequences of abolishing the cap altogether. But it is difficult to see this as another move towards the inevitable destination of unlimited fees.

Next Wednesday’s march called by the NUS and the UCU looks like it will be the biggest student protest in Britain for many years. Although called under a vague slogan – “Fund our Future” – it is likely that the demand for the abolition of all fees will be on the placards, and in the slogans, of most students attending.

Hopefully the Browne episode will knock on the head the sort of limp “keep the cap” approach. The NUS gave actively campaigning against fees as such and ended up just haggling over the price of a degree. They therefore lost the battle before it was even fought. Even defensive campaigns saying “No to this” or “No to that” need to pose some sort of positive alternative.

The fees issues is inextricably linked to the wider anti-cuts movement because within the cuts consensus, fees make some sort of sense. Universities will face a huge shortfall because of the government’s slash-and-burn approach to higher education funding. Only by rejecting the false “need” for cuts generally can we make the case for free education decisively. Otherwise it becomes a sectional fight, implicitly asking for education to be funded by cuts to something else.

So our alternative to fees cannot be a graduate-tax or any other half-solution, but a call for a redistribution, and ultimately a restructuring, of the wealth of society to fund all education, training, and other services.

See you in London on the 10th.

Meanwhile Dublin today saw a protest at least 25,000-strong against an increase in the “registration fee” that students in Ireland have to pay to take their courses.

The Irish media is reporting clashes between students and the gardaí, and that mounted police and even armoured vehicles have been deployed.

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