Since the wrecking of Millbank in 2010 the free education movement has seen few instances of struggle, resistance and action. Protests such as Cops off Campus and the occupations of universities like Birmingham and the London School of Economics have been encouraging but ultimately these events either capitalised on a wave of general outrage from the wider student movement (for example the response the the violent eviction of Senate House) or relied on the gruelling and unsustainable work of a small group of activists (such as the various actions and occupations on individual campuses across the country).
There is a structural problem in the free education movement in that it is made up of of those who are already getting an education. This is unlike any other single issue radical movement. The radical housing and squatting movements are made up, necessarily, of those living in precarious housing situations and it would be laughable to witness a campaign against the PREVENT program without including those particularly victimised by it. This came into sharp focus at the recent occupation of SOAS where some occupiers were told that because they were not students they should have less of a say in decision making.
The free education movement has also done a decent job of paying attention to systems of oppression such as racism, misogyny, ableism and queerphobia. Although actually fighting these oppressions has often been badly handled, it is a good thing that they are not being explicitly ignored. A failing of the movement has been the marginalisation of poor and working class people. Universities that have seen radical political action are almost exclusively centred on traditionally elite universities. Former polytechnics, universities with a majority of students receiving maintenance grants and other higher and further education institutions on the sharp end of government cuts have been left out, dismissed as not worth the effort. The voices of single parents, those who have grown up in care and students who work menial jobs – those who make most use of grants – have been left out.
The #grantsnotdebt demonstration yesterday showed signs of improvement. The rally at Parliament Square was typical of the soft, complacent rally that the middle class seem to think work – complete with a speech from a nominally left wing Labour MP. However the occupation of Westminster Bridge showed a new side to the movement. On short notice a group of about 100 students, incredibly including Blairite students and NUS vice-presidents, took the police by surprise and held the bridge for over an hour and a half. There was a clear distinction between those outside engaged in radical and disruptive action and the gaggle of student bureaucrats inside parliament ineffectually lobbying an uninterested Speaker.
It is a failing of the organised left in this country to describe every major demonstration as the beginning of a new radical movement, only to see activity quickly fizzle out. The #grantsnotdebt demonstration really did nothing to address the concerns raised above. However the demonstration was an example of the kind of radical and vibrant actions that will attract new people and widen the free education movement beyond the limited parameters it has previously worked in. Middle class students need to realise that the situations of a great many of their fellow students is desperate, and that boring lobbying, party politicking and community forums will simply attract those already in a comfortable situation. This is not to say these things should not be done – the Focus E15 campaign and the New Era campaign both engaged in these tactics – but nothing is going to be won by waiting for Corbyn to maybe get elected in 2020. Students need to get out of their universities and onto the streets.