2010 was the year of student occupations, ‘kettling’ and Millbank. The election of the ConDem government and their punishing education ‘reforms’ galvanised a generation of young people to fight government cuts and for their future, but what remains of the movement today?
To coincide with the publication of Student Revolt, an oral history of the Millbank Generation, we’ll be publishing a series of blogs looking at the legacies and lessons learned from 2010 and other student movements. In this blog, Carlus Hudson, contributor to the UK Student Movement Research Project, considers the political trajectory of the 2010 protests. From the Browne review, to present day, Hudson makes manifest the importance of the movement and recording its’ history.
The 2010 student protests against tuition fees were the defining moment for a generation of student activists. They began as a demonstration on 10th November organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) and University and College Union (UCU), but events quickly escalated to a student occupation of Conservative Party offices at 30 Millbank and clashes with riot police. The NUS leadership condemned the escalation, precipitating a split in the student movement that would have huge consequences in the following years.
The Liberal Democrats, having promised to abolish tuition fees in that year’s general election, quickly dumped that pledge in negotiations with the Conservatives to form a coalition government. They were punished with electoral oblivion in 2015, and Nick Clegg lost his parliamentary seat in 2017. However, it was the Labour Party under Blair and Brown that introduced and then raised tuition fees to £3000, then swiftly putting forward a policy of a £6000 cap under Ed Miliband. While tuition fees were not pivotal to how well or badly Labour did electorally – the issue polarised its members and activists, especially those within the NUS and the wider student movement.
On one side, were the Labour Students and the Organised Independents bloc of sabbatical officers who tended to represent their student unions at NUS conferences, and who supported replacing fees with a graduate tax – this was the policy position of NUS from the late 2000s. On the other side, were the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts (NCAFC), Student Assembly Against Austerity and the Young Greens who supported free education. Labour Students and the Organised Independents had maintained almost uninterrupted control of the NUS presidency since 1982, and continued to in the aftermath of the 2010 protests. Polarisation was in its early stages, and the follow-up 2011 student demonstration in London was organised jointly by NUS, UCU and NCAFC against the government’s Higher Education Bill. However, it was in 2012 that NUS came under heavy[i] criticism for how it organised the demonstration that year.[ii] The demonstration ended with low turnout in the rain and mud at Kennington Park rather than outside parliament. The NUS were heckled, President Liam Burns was egged and the stage at the front of the rally was stormed[iii].
Disillusionment with the NUS was high and activists initially looked elsewhere to organise. There was an attempt to set up a separate anarchist student union at the end of 2012, and a student occupation at University of Sussex against privatisation in early 2013[iv]. The Sussex occupation organised its own national demonstration that drew student activists from across the country[v]. Heavy police repression at the University of London led to the formation of the Cops Off Campus campaign[vi], and resistance to border controls took place through organisations such as Universities Resist Border Controls[vii].
Campaigning and building networks on campuses gave impetus to the left wing of NUS. At the 2014 conference, delegates voted for free education making it one of the biggest victories yet for the NUS Left. Over the 2014, 2015 and 2016 conferences, the NUS Left continued to make advances culminating in the election of Malia Bouattia as President. While the NUS Left lost the presidency again in 2017, the short-lived left wing leadership coincided with Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party and NUS had kept its free education policy. Labour went into the 2017 election on a platform of free education. In the months following Theresa May’s loss of majority, media commentators fell over themselves to talk about the role of young people and students in Corbyn’s electoral success. Things looked hopeless for free education’s advocates four years ago, when the protests against tuition fees failed. That’s all changed now.
Many of the activists who were there in 2010 and led or participated in the fight for free education in the following years have gone on to different political projects – participation in Momentum and in their annual event ‘The World Transformed’ has increased. The impact of the 2010 activists has turned out to be much larger than anyone could have anticipated a few years ago, and the political shifts in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn make free education more tangible than ever.
My own role in all this was very peripheral. I missed Millbank and my first anti-fees demo was in a walkout from my school in Edinburgh in early 2011 to join the NUS Scotland demonstration happening that day. While I was an undergraduate at Exeter my participation was mostly made up of getting the student union to run a coach to get as many students as possible to that year’s demonstration (usually 10 or so members of Exeter Socialist Students), being a delegate to two NUS conferences (though not saying much and mostly just voting on motions) and turning up (though not much more than that) to Occupy Sussex.
There are thankfully more interesting stories than mine to tell about student activists and the causes they fought for – especially for the 2010 protests that kick-started the movement for free education. Matt Myers’ oral history of the 2010 protests, Student Revolt, does exactly that.
Research on the student movement is dominated by the student revolts of 1968. The principal issues that mobilised the student movement then were opposition to US imperialism in Vietnam, demands for greater control over their educational institutions including the curriculum and having due process for any course expulsions, and other rights we now take for granted as students today – they fought to end gender segregation on campuses, dress codes and in loco parentis regulations. These issues did not exist in isolation. Tying them together was a radically democratic and anti-authoritarian politics, which at least had the sympathy of a large number of students. However this shared politics was very loose in comparison to how that politics was articulated in divergent ways by the movement’s leadership. The student revolt in the UK was on a smaller scale and faced a less directly violent state backlash than it did in France, Mexico, the US and Japan to name a few examples.
There is a rich history of the student movement of the UK beyond 1968. Myers’ oral history of 2010 is an important step towards a better understanding of that history. Some recent contributions to the historiography of the student movement come from academic and non-academic sources, using a wide range of methodologies. They include another article by Myers for NUS Connect [x], Zoe Salanitro’s Radical History of Student Unions [xi], Connor Woodman’s work on protest at Warwick [xi], Sarah Webster’s sociological work on student protest at LSE and Manchester [xii], Mike Day’s history of NUS [v], and Jodi Burkett’s work on the student movement before and after 1968 [xiii].
Zoe Salanitro, Connor Woodman, Matt Myers and I have contributed to the UK Student Movement Research Project (UKSMRP) [xiv]. This project was set up in January 2017, and takes some of its inspiration from the Irish Student Movement Research Project [xv] set up by Steve Conlon. UKSMRP aims to connect researchers and activists interested in the student movement. Its first event was a workshop at NCAFC’s summer conference. [xvi]
The student movement is still very under-researched for the depth of its history and the impact it has on wider politics – UKSMRP hopes to address this.
This project is still in its infancy, it operates as a loose network and is open to contributions to its blog and Facebook group[xvii]. The website also hosts a bibliography of writings on the student movement[xviiii] and advice for researchers.[xix]
If you are interested in following ongoing research on the student movement, or are active or seeking to be active in it, the Facebook group and website for UKSMRP are excellent places to start. The project can be contacted by email at [email protected].
Carlus Hudson is a PhD Student at the University of Portsmouth, researching student anti-racist activism in the UK 1969-1982.
Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation is available to buy from Pluto Press.