Category Archives: protest

George Osborne’s misplaced sense of ‘security’ in higher education

students flying a flagSussex students flying flags as they occupy Bramber House last Feburary. This post was first published on New Left Project.

Of all the lines in George Osborne’s autumn statement speech this week, the idea that UK higher education is on a ‘secure footing’ ranked high on a scale of taking the bloody piss.

This was days after the second strike from higher education workers this term. It also followed revelations last month about BIS budget mismanagement. Further, the strike was accompanied by wave of student activism which has roots in the 2010 occupations and protests but, students graduating as they do, is in many ways a very new wave of activism; one that has been building steadily across the country since the start of the calendar year, when students at University of Sussex occupied a central building in against privatisation.

These protests escalated further on the day of Osborne’s autumn statement itself. Heavy police presence which has increasingly become a norm on campuses further grew to accusations of police assaulting protestors. As has become a familiar pattern the last few years, police have been called in to control students and this has only escalated tensions.

Update: and now the University of London is trying to ban protests. Further update: Looks like the so-called Sussex Five have had their suspensions lifted (though disciplinary action continues) and Andy McGettigan’s found a hole in Osborne’s figures.

Perhaps the most haunting image was a picture of a pool of students’ blood outside Euston Square, shared on Twitter that evening (and confirmed to me by eyewitnesses later).

Is this really what secure looks like? Tip-toeing over pools of students’ blood to get the tube home? That’s ‘secure’ now?

Securities can take many hues though. What is secure, how, where, why and serving whom? The particular security Osborne seems to mean is economic, not whether students are rioting. But that security is still dubious. Even putting aside the BIS budget issue last month, as Chris Cook argues, be wary of promises to fund anything based on selling off the student loan book, as it is worth more to the government than private investors. And policies aiming for such ‘economic security’ are linked to the students protests, anyway. These protesters have quite a complex set of complaints, encompassing a range of contemporary economic and social issues, drawn from within and outside higher education. They are looking at the working conditions of a range staff on campus as well as they ways in which various economic interests are controlling their curricula, their careers advice and the research which is conducted on campus.

A trope of much of the backlash against government HE policy has been the idea that students are being treated as customer and this reflects an insidious marketisation of education. Although I have some sympathy with this critique, I think it’s a lot worse than that. They’re not customers. They’re financial assets.

That’s what first forming, and then selling off the student loan book does. It makes the students – and their postgraduate paycheques – something to invest in. It engrains both formally and informally an idea that education is about fuelling a very particular view of the economy, as opposed to the multiple other things a university could be about (including a chance to question how we choose to pattern our economy, and who gets to control it).

Repeating the complaint that the government is turning students into customers only plays into those who know the idea alludes to a promise of greater student agency (forgetting the rather curtailed extent of any customer agency, or if it’s applicable to education, it implies power nonetheless). And none of this is about student agency, it’s entirely about student use. As a friend said to me recently in the different context of the disproportionate amount of landlords’ power: It’s farming people. I’d almost settle for my students as customers at this stage, the idea of them as simple meat for the economy is so much more sinister.

I fear we’ll see many more pools of blood on the streets around universities before we reach any idea of ‘security’. I only hope there isn’t much blood, and any sense of security we conclude with is lead by and serves students, rather than seeks to exploit and control them.

Sussex Occupy Bloomsbury

Occupy Sussex at Uni of London

I took this photo outside the Institute of Education on Tuesday. Aside from the violent tone of the message, it was striking to this tag 55 miles away from the University of Sussex itself. There was more around Senate House and Birkbeck. I’d be interested to know if there are similar signs on other campuses around the country (or even abroad?). It surprised me a bit. It made me wonder if the national demo called for next week could be quite an event.

The other thing that’s interesting about this is that I haven’t seen a similar tone around Sussex itself. There are banners outside the occupation and sometimes elsewhere, but nothing much more incendiary that “Stop the Sussex sell off”. Their protests draw people and make noise, but usually with a smile on everyone’s face. There are bits of yellow paper stuck to office windows all over campus to symbolise solidarity. People also wear yellow fabric pinned to their coats, and have been tying yellow ribbons to a “solidarity tree”. It’s been interesting to watch them gradually multiply, like quiet little nods of support and recognition. But that’s all very different from “fuck shit up” scrawled on the wall of the IoE.

I’m not sure if Sussex’s little flashes of yellow are dignified, scared, sceptical, friendly, disinterested or something else. I also don’t know if graffiti in London is evidence of real support there. There were references to “escalation” last night but yet to see how that plays out. I guess we’ll learn more on the 25th.

"shut it down" protest sign, Bloomsbury

March 26

Yesterday, along with many hundreds of thousands of others, I attended the anti-cuts march in London. I think it’s important to record individual experiences of these sorts of events, even if these experiences aren’t dramatic enough to make the national news. Indeed, it’s important to record them precisely because they aren’t dramatic. So here, largely for the sake of boredom, is mine.

Feet, marching

I was meeting my mother for coffee in Trafalgar Square in the morning. Walking up from South of the River, I found myself turned around my the police when I tried to cross Hungerford Bridge. There were already hundreds and hundreds of people congregating on the Embankment, and it was only a bit after 10am. We joined the demo on Whitehall around midday, and found ourselves near the front. We pottered along up Piccadilly onto Hyde Park.

IoE banner

It was all very British, with people apologising, drinking flasks of tea and talking about the weather. There were the traditional union banners and brass bands, but also steel pans and bagpipes, as well as homemade placards (a fair few referencing Father Ted…) and ones in Welsh and Arabic as well as English. The Bollywood Brass Band was especially good.

Bollywood Brass band

We ended up at the stage in Hyde Park really early, and nothing much was happening so went off to get some lunch. On the way back we walked along a bit of the West end of Oxford St. There were loads of police guarding individual shops, but all they seemed to have to deal with were crowds of tourists taking photos of them. According to twitter, the protesters where nearer Oxford Circus. We listened to some of the speeches, and Mum headed home.

I started walking back in the opposite direction of the march to get sense of its sheer size and diversity. I bumped into a friend, which was nice, and caught up with some others online. I laughed at some placards and giggled at chants. Mum texted to say her train was full of happy marchers saying maybe the government would listen (she sounded rather cynical of this, but seemed to be enjoying the feeling). Near Green Park, I spotted this bit of graffiti (the blue plague notes Lord Palmerston used to live here…). I was slightly surprised to see this, it stuck out amongst a very well behaved protest.

Tories OUT

I moved to back streets for a bit to get out of the way of the protesters, and now the tone really changed. There were lots of sirens. I heard people muttering about smashed windows and scurrying in and out of buildings. A crowd of young people ran by, all in black with their faces covered with scarves. They were chased by a group of what I guessed were journalists wearing bicycle helmets (indeed, I saw one on the BBC later that evening). A minute later, a crowd of hi-viz clad police followed. It was like something out of a movie.

I got back to Piccadilly and the main march, and the friendly feeling of peaceful protest returned. There were a few smashed windows, but they seemed like relics of a moment of madness now passed. It wasn’t like the fees demos last year. People were angry, that was why they were there, but they were also delighting in how many other people can come out to protest with them. There was a joyous sense of solidarity; a sense of shared anger, that we were all in this together.

This banner isn't big enough...

I walked back to Trafalgar Square and even though it was nearly 4pm, more and more people were still joining the march. Clearly from all parts of the UK, and many different fields. They were smiling and dancing. Despite the darker moments round the edges, this is how I’ll remember the march: a big, social smile and a giant, mass dance. At its most positive, it felt like a cultural event as much as a political one (and I think there lies much of its potential power).

Medical workers dancing

Electorial reform demo turns a grey day purple

Today I marched on the Liberal Democrats. Then they came out and said hello. It’s not the weirdest demo I’ve been on, but it was up there. It was also one of the most polite. The BBC said there were about a thousand people there. Apparently the police said two thousand. It’s always hard to tell these things, but I’d say somewhere between the two is probably accurate.

Writing Fair Votes 2

It was, I think, sometime on Wednesday evening that I saw a tweet linking to a facebook group for a demonstration on electoral reform sometime. I clicked the “maybe attending” box, mainly as a note to myself that the event was happening. I’ve been aware of electoral reform for years, I appreciate the ways in which I get to vote in the London Mayor elections, or how my cousins vote in Scotland, things like that. But it’s been this general election that has really made me really want it. By midnight on Thursday it was clear we were heading to hung parliament, and “Take it Back” had launched a website. There was a bit of media coverage on Friday and a fair bit of tweeting. I went to sleep on election night frustrated by the political process I’d been asked to take part in, and swapped my RSVP to a simple “attending”. Polls suggest, I’m not the only one to feel at least a little like this. Today, Saturday, we marched. It wasn’t just London, even though we got the press, there were demos all over the country.

Safe Seats Suck!

We started in Trafalgar Square. “Could everyone please move to huddle in the middle” one of the stewards asked. Huddle in the middle: people at a demo for propositional representation. Oh the irony. “I’m quite happy hanging back here on the left” my companion grumped (with a grin, I should add).

Billy Bragg spoke. I think he sung, though we couldn’t hear much as the PA was a bit rubbish. I ranted about the election to my friend, and heard many similar rants around me. I think the best over-heard was this: (to small child) “no we’re not queuing dear, we’re here to ask for democracy”. This was said with a slightly clipped tone, she was clearly well aware of the role of queuing in this election. There was someone dressed as a dragon with a sign saying “News Corpse” hanging round their neck. The Dragon got up on stage and another protester (I assume as St George, I couldn’t really see) slayed it.

News Corpse Dragon 2

Because of the hung parliament, the Lib Dems have some power (perversely, partly because they have so few seats). This allows them to force the point of improving our democracy. Annoyingly, all this is being decided in hidden rooms. The news is full of talking heads outside of closed doors. The protest’s organisers quite sensible decided to take our call for democracy out of Trafalgar Square and right up to one of those closed doors: Transport House in Smith Square, where it was reported the Lib Dems were discussing whether to take the Tory deal.

We walked calmly down Whitehall, chanting “fair votes” as we went. Some people started adding please after each chant: “fair votes [beat] please”. As I said, a polite demo. A protest organised at very short notice, no one was closing roads for us, so we simply clogged up the pavement. Some policemen helped stop the traffic briefly so a load of us could cross the road at the same time. We all said thank you.

Marching on Parliament

We had been asked to wear purple, the colour of suffrage (about time that colour got reclaimed from the UKIP). There were lots of purple flags, tshirts and marker-pens. I had a purple raincoat. There were also a fair number of purple umbrellas, it was a slightly rainy day. I keep thinking what a contrast this is from all the sunshine that followed the 1997 election. Purple umbrellas seemed very apt. Plus, brollies are always so very British, so I was pleased to get a shot of one as we passed Downing Street. I also caught it a little further down, as we marched alongside Parliament Square, this time next to a red hoodie and a “controlled zone” sign (photo here).

Downing St

We arrived at Smith Square, huddled in front of Transport House and started to shouted for fair votes (“please”). We people tried to come up with clever chants on electoral reform (try as you might though, “proportional representation” just isn’t a phrase with rhythm). We soon started shouting directly at Nick Clegg. First “don’t do it Nick” and “does Nick agree with us?”, then “come out at see us” (“please”). We chanted that he should come out from behind that door (and the thick layer of press in front of it), that we had a right to be told what is going on. We must have made quite a racket, because it disrupted Sky News (leading to twitter calling to “sack Kay Burley”, good writeups of this here and here).

We were asked to move back a bit. Several shouted “just move Sky”. There was lots of shhh-ing from the crowd to quieten each other down so the organisers could be heard through the slightly dodgy PA. This was very polite shhh-ing. It reminded me of being at school. There was a lot of joking, and photos taken. I spotted a couple of people I know, and a few more I sort of know or at least recognised. I wasn’t online, but I got the impression there was a lot of tweeting going on. Overheard: “This revolution won’t so much be televised as tweeted”, “It’s kind of strange chanting without a hashtag” and “When they called this election, I never thought I’d end up marching on the Lib Dems”. I also saw other people over-hear these points, then tap them into their phone’s twitter client.

Then, in a move that genuinely surprised me, Clegg came out. We couldn’t see or hear much because of the press in the way (and a helicopter, which I assumed was press, made a lot of noise) but he seemed to make some nice points about how proportional representation used to be something academics talked about, so it was wonderful hundreds of us had turned up to demand it. He refused to talk about the discussions going on inside, but assured us that reforming politics was one of the reasons he had gone into politics in the first place. I caught up with the full speech on BBC when I got back. Watch it yourself. Say what you like about Clegg, the guy is a good speaker. Plus you can hear the shhhh-ing from the crowd, which is funny.

Smith Square

Before Clegg came out there was a bit of “this is what democracy looks/ feels/ sounds/ is like” chanting. I wasn’t so sure. To me, a load of largely middle-class, largely London-based people giggling about twitter isn’t democracy. It’s part of democracy, but only part. It wasn’t, to me, what democracy feels like. But then neither was last Thursday, which is why I went on this demo.

As I type this, I am reading reports of secret memos and late-night phone calls. On the most part, the news is still reporting on closed doors. I’m also reading, hearing and watching a load of reports of the demonstration too, so at least our call for reform is part of the public debate (not always good). Arguably, we provided a bit of good publicity for Clegg, the picture of him addressing us has cropped up all over the media this evening. Maybe he can use it to help a call for electoral reform. Still, as Adam Blenkov says in his writeup of the event, “for all the cheers he received, he [Clegg] made no new commitment”. We’ll just have to wait and see.

At the very least, I left the demo feeling a bit happier about the political community I’m part of. It’s not the sunny hope I felt as a teenager in 1997, but it’s not nearly as grey as it felt on Friday morning.

Smith Square