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Walls of bullets, siege mentalities and subterranean warfare… Remind you of your university days?

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, Connor Woodman looks at the anti-war and civil rights protests of the 1960s, all the way to the 2010 student protests against tuition fees, examining the tactics have universities used to repress, delimit and co-opt the energy of student movements.


Since the emergence of the great student movements of the 1960s, power centres have used a range of tactics to repress, delimit and co-opt their energy. Across the world, the shadow of the state hangs over campuses, ready to tighten its grip if student radicalism oversteps acceptable boundaries. As scholar Gerard De Groot puts it, ‘while students talking of revolution might be tolerated, threatening real revolution always provokes a massive response by established authority’.[1]

The most visceral example of a state-led crack-down took place in Mexico in 1968, where an increasingly powerful student movement was brutally put down in a barrage of bullets and beatings. In Mexico City on October 2, ten days before the opening of the Olympic Games, a mass demonstration of students and workers was surrounded by the Mexican army, which mercilessly mowed down the congregation, killing unknown hundreds. As would be the case in South Korea, Iran and China, the movement was successfully crushed. As DeGroot dryly puts it, ‘Around the world, leaders have discovered that the best way to kill a protest is to kill protesters’.[2]

Although such bloody battles have occurred in the West – four white and two black students were shot dead in the U.S. in May 1970, and tanks were deployed against student insurrectionists in Italy in 1977 – instances of violent repression often allow students to tap into a mainstream discourse of civil liberties, discrediting the repressive power centre and bolstering their cause. Management and the state have had to come up with more subtle ways of dealing with student unrest, relying on a mixture of co-option, concession, isolation, infiltration and victimisation.

Student Revolt 2010 Student Protests

The Kent State shootings of 1970.

UK management tactics of repression

In the UK, the first trench for the defence of the status quo is soldiered by university management. In the early 1970s, they took their lead from senior managers’ coordinating body, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP). In June 1968, the CVCP archives detail a conference intended to discuss the growing ‘student menace’[4] and to formulate collective strategies of repression. A number of key strategic and tactical recommendations emerged from the conference summary:

  • Asserting the need to deal with the ‘crucial influence of a small number of staff’ who support student radicals. Fear of student-staff solidarity recurs throughout management planning documents, usual with a disparaging comment about the prevalence of sociology academics in the radical ranks;
  • Committing to engage only with ‘the properly elected representatives of the students’ – recognising that official student union structures offer them a way to co-opt and contain student movements, managements have often tried to delegitimise groups external to SUs;
  • Noting the ‘advantage in having the police around frequently on the University site … so that undergraduates become accustomed to their presence’. This was based on a recognition that sometimes the ‘only remedy’ for intractable conflicts was the use of external state apparatuses: police enforcement of injunctions against occupations, for example.

In 1973, a range of vice chancellors and registrars sent in reports and recommendations for dealing with student unrest, based on several years of experience – as the Committee of Directors of the Polytechnic of North London stated in 1975, ‘we can now plot the course of [revolt] and we are beginning to know how to control it’. Bristol’s Vice Chancellor issued the following advice for handling occupations:

Harass the occupants by discontinuing Mains Service, cutting of telephones and by any other possible means try to keep the initiative. Try to breach their security while keeping strict security on the University side.

The documents lay bare a British university management class with a war-like mentality: throughout, senior managers use terms such as ‘final victory’, ‘enemy strengths’, ‘potential battlefield’, ‘subterranean warfare’, and ‘superior intelligence system’. The Polytechnic of North London had a particularly detailed analysis, dividing the student body into four categories: militants or ‘wreckers’; moderate activists who distrust the modern state; the passive majority; and the right-wing ‘back-lash’ element. The Polytechnic recommended ‘institutionalising the conflict’ and argued that ‘with the utmost discretion, moderate student leaders must be identified, encouraged, and actively helped in everything that may lead to increasing their influence’. For the Polytechnic, ‘The establishment must remain completely hidden in the process, for any suggestion of an establishment-moderate link fatally compromises those who are working the moderate line.’

The final summation of the CVCP’s consultation exercise stated: ‘I doubt whether in the absence of direct action’ that ‘quite important changes in organisation’ of the universities ‘would have come so fast’ – a recognition of the power of student action by one of the highest university authorities in the land. Such recognition was, of course, never made publicly.

University managements did, however, fear that their resources were inadequate to dampen the fire of student revolt. The CVCP report ends by stating that, ‘If there is now a serious risk of widespread troubles… the Vice-Chancellors’ Committee will need to consider whether further discussions are desirable not only with local education authorities but with Government departments and the police.’


The second line of fortifications: the state

The state is similarly interested in combatting student activism. A Foreign Office report from 1968 described British student militants as ‘frighteningly radical’, and considered ‘the threat to the west presented by student protest’ as ‘potentially dangerous’. An entire Cabinet committee was set up to manage spying operations on international students, who were considered a potential source of dangerous radicalism.[4] Intelligence agencies acted as important tools to subvert the subversives. The Special Demonstrations Squad, for example, the covert Metropolitan Police unit used for long-term infiltration of activists groups, was deployed against the national Radical Socialist Student Federation in the late 1960s.

In other parts of the West, the state has taken an even more intimate interest in student protest. The Australian domestic intelligence agency, ASIO, for example, infiltrated student groups during the 1970s:[5] one target was Monash Labor Club in Melbourne, which set up ‘The Bakery’, a centre in a working-class area of the city designed to help students reach out to off-campus communities.[6] As the Berkeley Free Speech Movement raged in 1964-5, Governor Ronald Reagan worked with the FBI to surveil, rob, harass and intimidate key activists involved in the movement, extensively documented by Seth Rosenfeld in Subversives. The National Student Association, a US-equivalent to our NUS, was so heavily infiltrated by the CIA in the 1950s and 60s that it was essentially a front organisation for the American deep-state.

Since Thatcher’s reign, there has been a shift to more overt repression in Great Britain. Militarised police tactics imported from colonial Hong Kong and honed against striking miners and poll tax protesters were finally turned against students during the 2010 demonstrations, dealt with in Matt Myers’ new book, Student Revolt. The post-Milbank movement of 2010-14 was hit with a plethora of repressive tactics, including high court injunctions, violence, arrests, suspensions and police surveillance. Students in the UK, who found themselves at the forefront of resisting the unjust political economy of neo-liberal austerity imposed following the 2008 crash, ended up under the heavy heel of the state’s boot, which aimed to force burgeoning societal contradictions back into place. At some universities, like Birmingham, the repression successfully decimated the vibrant free education group which had sprung up. The depth of collusion and strategising between managements, the government and the police through this period has yet to be revealed: in the UK, such documents of vital public interest are usually kept secret for 30 years or more.


Lessons for contemporary student struggle

These operations tell us a number of things for present-day strategy. Firstly, the documents quoted in this article reveal a management and state which treats the battle with student radicals as a power struggle, not a rational debate. This should put to rest the sections of the student movement which see university management and the state as sparring partners in the war of ideas, open to soft lobbying and persuasion. In reality, the struggle has always been just that: a struggle, where the currency of power and disruption speaks louder than verbose proclamations.

Relatedly, management strategies should make us wary of the threat of institutionalisation. In the Global South, movements are more at risk of being violently repressed. In the Global North, power centres often rely on more subtle forms of coercion and manipulation, working to co-opt movements through mainstream student unions and representative structures. Today, the NUS and SUs are often staffed and run by bureaucrats and centrists keen to engage in ‘constructive dialogue’ with management and centring unions’ consumer-service functions: exactly how management and the state want them. In Quebec, a long struggle took place within the student movement between the ‘lobbyist faction’ and the confrontational, syndicalist wing. The latter won out over the course of a decade, leading to the stunning 2012 student strike. We need to carry this internal struggle out within the UK student movement, as groups like NCAFC are attempting to do.

Finally, it is clear that power centres consider students a major threat, particularly when they multiply their strength by linking up with the wider working-class. After all, the French government was very nearly brought down in May 1968 during a mass student upsurge supported by millions of striking workers. In 2012, an eight-month student strike in Quebec, which had a high degree of support from the wider community, successfully brought down a regional government. The student and worker movements of 1968 were ‘above all else a ceaseless effort to construct a different and more egalitarian social order, a world where company and university paternalism were to make way for workers’ control, student power, and generalized self-management in all walks of life’, as Gerd-Rainer Horn has put it.[7] Such ways of life threaten the social relations upon which our current socio-political system is based, and must thus be combatted by those invested in the status quo. If we want the kernel of a new way of life which germinated in the spirit of ’68 to blossom into a sustained alternative to capitalist monotony, we must offer a clear-headed analysis of the tactics of repression we face: winning the world will take an almighty fight against the forces of the status quo.


Connor Woodman recently finished five years of study at the University of Warwick, and wrote his MA dissertation on the history of student struggle at the University.


Student Revolt: Voices from the Austerity Generation by Matt Myers is available from Pluto Press.


[1] DeGroot, G. (1998), ‘Introduction’, in Student Protest: The Sixties and After. London: Longman, p.7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thompson, E. P. (2013[1970]), Warwick University Ltd., Spokesman Press: Nottingham

[4] Lee, J. M. (1998). Overseas students in Britain: How their presence was politicised in 1966-1967. Minerva, 36(4), p.313.

[5] Deery, P. (2007), ‘A double agent down under: Australian security and the infiltration of the left’, Intelligence and National Security, 22(3), p.349.

[6] Mansell, K. (2013), Disobedience: The University as a Site of Political Potential, Monash University Museum of Art: Melbourne.

[7] Gerd-Rainer Horn (2007), The Spirit of ’68: Rebellion in Western Europe and North America, 1956-1976, OUP: Oxford, p.2.