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Neoliberal politics were the trigger for the student movements in the UK and Chile, but following Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish tuition fees, we ask: could the student movement be the trigger for the end of austerity politics?

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, Héctor Rios-Jara examines the 2010 student protests in the UK, alongside the 2011-2013 protests in Chile, and considers the political trajectories of these conflicts.


The political position of the student conflicts in the class struggle and the left politics have been a long topic of debate. From the paradigmatic protests of 1968s, student movements have been described as generational or cultural conflicts, characteristic of youth politics or privileged sectors. For example, Althusser (1969), in his reflections on the French student movement of May 68 said: ‘my hypothesis is that movement of young students and intellectuals, at the national and international level, should be considered as an ideological revolt, which attacks fundamentally the scholar apparatuses of capitalist countries’[i]. For him, the student movement is not a ‘movement’ by itself, it is more a coalition of different actors, sharing the field of education as a common object of contention. Distinctly from workers, the unity of students is not determined by the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, it is a peripheral and isolated conflict, disconnected from the structural production of social conflict.

Despite the years, this tradition is still dominant. For example, in analysing the British student protests of 2010, Alex Callinicos[ii] remarked ‘The rhythm of workers’ struggles is generally slower than that of student movements. This reflects the generally higher cost of collective action—lost wages, possibly the sack—for workers. But their collective power is generally much greater because of the economic damage they can inflict on capital by disrupting or paralysing production’. The spread of new student movements in Europe after 2008 and the conflicts led by Latin-American students from the 1990’s have challenged this traditional understanding, renewing the question about the strategic role of the student in the class struggle. In this article, I will explore the hypothesis of structural determination of the student conflicts and its strategic relevance in the current dynamic of capitalist opposition. To do so I will compare three common characteristics of the wave of student protests in the UK and Chile in 2010-2011 and their relationship with a neoliberal system of Higher Education (HE).

Neoliberalism and Higher Education.

In the UK and Chile, the process of marketisation of HE started from 1980s, as a part of the general neoliberal turn. In the UK, the marketisation started in 1987 with the Education Reform act and it was followed by three subsequent waves of neoliberal reforms which incorporated tuition-fees, a loan system and access to new for-profit providers, transforming the English HE education into a semi-opened marketised system. Similarly, marketisation in Chile started in 1980, under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The reform decentralised the HE public system, reduced the direct grants for public institutions and enforced the financial autonomy of public institutions, which now included tuition-fees for students. These reforms were followed by new policies of deregulation, transforming the Chilean HE education system into a fully marketised system.

The main characteristic of both cases is that the state transferred the costs and responsibility of education to citizen and market agents, reducing its role in the public space. Economically, that meant that students paid directly to private institutions, which are then responsible for education provision. Politically, the changes implied that the state and the civil society lost sovereignty over the administration and distribution of education, and over the use of public sources, creating multiple imbalances between state, market and citizen interests.

These transformations increased the costs of education, but also changed democratic mechanisms of public policies.[i] The introduction of public-private partnership networks in the design of public policies have placed the policy making process beyond the direct control of the state and far from the public domain. The first round of HE reforms of the Coalition government was based on the proposal of the Browne review, an example of the use of the public-private network in the design and implementation of public policies.


Neoliberalism and student conflict

The impact of these inequalities finds explicit opposition in the student protests of the UK and Chile 2010-2011. There were massive and radicalised waves of student protests, which mainly focused on the opposition to marketised HE system and the introduction of new reforms. In the UK, the wave emerged at the beginning of 2010 opposing the implementation of cuts in the HE bill and the announcements of a new HE reform. The wave was extended until January 2011, and it was composed of massive national demonstrations, a wave of university occupations and violent confrontations with the police. Similarly, in Chile from May 2011 students led a massive wave of protests. Their main claims were the precarious role of the state in the funding and control of the HE system, unequal access to HE institutions, the lack of democracy in HE and the high amount of student debt. The campaign was extended until November 2011 and it included national demonstrations, as well as university and school occupations.

If the size and radicalisation of the protests were different, both waves shared a similar structure of conflict. The common object and agent of contention was the new processes of marketization introduced by new right-wing governments. In the case of the British movement, it was the HE reform led by the ConDem coalition government. In the case of Chile, it was the adjustment of HE bill proposed by the first centre-right wing government after 21 years of Concertacion, a coalition of centre-left parties.

In both cases, the narrative highlighted the defence of rights in HE and criticised the changes in a system of HE provisions and the rise of the costs for students. The protests systematically criticised the dynamic of privatization of HE. In England, this critique was directed at cuts in the HE bill and cuts in teaching grants. In Chile, it was directed at the role of private for-profit providers and the lack of investment in the public HE. Both movements coincided in a critique of the systemic rise of fees and the high amount of debt that students incurred. Moreover, the students also had similar demands; calling for equal access, elimination of student debt, to increase public investment and better conditions for workers in HE. They incorporated propositions for public policy at large, such as increasing taxes for financial companies and a reduction in military spending. All in order to guarantee free education for everyone.

The structure of both conflicts reveals that the main scenario of contention was the transformation of the mechanisms of provision of welfare structures and the role of the state as a guarantor of social rights. It suggests that the fundamental scenario of conflict of the wave of student protests was directly determined by the changes in the role of the state and the accumulation of economic and political inequalities over the population. In other words, the multiplication of political and economic imbalances prefigured the reaction and organisation of students.

Neoliberalism, student conflicts and class dynamic

It is reasonable to argue that the production of economic and political inequalities, generated by the long process of marketisation in HE, and the student oppositions, are a direct consequence of the expansion of neoliberalism in HE. This hypothesis helps to explain the political expansion of the conflicts and their late trajectories. Both movements established early alliances with educational workers and academics, particularly on campuses in England, but also on a national level as the case of Chile shows. Additionally, both movements had processes of convergence with other conflicts. In the UK, the student movement became part of the general anti-austerity movement, which initially was the first national demonstration against cuts called by the TUC and other unions on the 24th March 2011. Equally, in Chile, this coalition of students, academics, teachers and workers from higher, secondary and primary education, also received the support of the workers of the public sector and other unions, when the Central Union of Workers called for a strike at the end of August 2011.

Today, years after the protests, the trajectory of the student movement is directly related to the re-organisation of left parties. In the case of the UK, it is clear that the student movement is a fundamental component of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the first anti-austerity party in the UK. In the case of Chile, the movement provides for fertile ground for the articulation of a new left pole called ‘Frente Amplio’ (Broad Front), composed of emergent left organisations, which now, for the first time, are participating in presidential elections. All these trends suggest that the extension and convergence produced around the student conflict are genuine processes of re-composition and re-articulation of the class organisation and the left. Moreover, it’s reasonable to think that those processes are operating in similar patterns of action, converging as oppositions to the structural inequalities produced by neoliberal expansion. Returning to Althusser’s reflections we can ask, can this determination be the structural component absent in May 68′? Can this new component provide fertile ground to realise the worker-student alliance? The questions are still open, and the historical practice will resolve them, but for some reason the students keep claiming ‘Education for the masses, not just for the ruling classes’.


Héctor Rios-Jara is a Social Scientist, currently undertaking MSc Social Research, Bristol University.


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


[i] Macciocchi, M. A., & Althusser, L. (1973). Letters from inside the italian Communist Party to Louis Althusser. New Left Books. p. 308-319

[ii] Callinicos, A. (2011). The student revolt and the crisis. International Socialism. Issue 129. Available at:

[ii] In the case of England, the average fee for an HE programme is around 9,110-9,090, 300% more than in 2010. The average debt per student in 2017 is around £50,000 after graduation, double the amount students were burdened with in 2011[i]. In the case of Chile, the introduction of student loans increased the number of students that participated in the HE system, but also accelerated the proportion of rising fees and the debt of students. The overall tuition-fee of HE in Chile was around 3,789 for 2016. In 2015,700,000 students were in debt – Kremerman, M. & Páez, A. (2016). Endeudar para gobernar y mercantilizar. El caso del CAE. Fundación SOL. Available at: