In the past academic year we witnessed great unrest on university campuses. The University and College Union (UCU) continued their struggle over decent pensions, pay and conditions with a return to strike action for the fourth year in a row.
These kicked off in December 2021 with a 3-day strike, and continued into February, this time over 3 weeks.
In the following March, the National Union of Students (NUS) came out in support of the UCU, and also called for a student walkout on the 2nd of March. Some student activists went even further and launched occupations. These took place at universities in Nottingham, London, Sheffield and Kent.
Ahead of the next academic year it’s important we take a step back and review what lessons we can draw from the struggles we have seen on campus.
These struggles by both students and staff on campuses are no accident. Both the NUS and the UCU have been forced to act under pressure from below.
The cost of living is the highest it has been in 40 years with inflation rising alongside soaring energy bills. As a result, university workers (including PhD students who are at the thin end of the wedge) are not just facing stagnant wages but what are effectively pay cuts.
This comes on top of years of the marketisation of higher education which has resulted in low pay, casualisation, high workloads and inequality: fought collectively as the Four Fights.
University workers have also seen outrageous attacks on their pensions too.
As a result, the UCU has been taking strike action every year now for 4 years.
But it is not just the staff who are angry. Students had previously faced a year of lockdowns, mental health crises, high rents, and reckless decisions by university management – all on top of paying over £9000 per year in tuition fees.
Added to this, the Tory government couldn’t care less about this situation. In fact they have only made matters worse for students, such as increasing the interest rates to 12% on student loans, and extending the repayment period which means that students will be paying off their loans into their 60s!
The tension on campuses is brewing. It is likely to explode to the surface in the near future on an even higher level.
In December 2021, three days of UCU strikes took place. Our comrades joined UCU members on picket lines across Britain and reported great energy and militancy.
The Marxist students have assisted every UCU strike, and have been present at many picket lines to build student-staff solidarity. However, what we offer is more than that. At every opportunity, we firmly and boldly put forward our ideas for a fighting strategy to win for both university workers and students.
For example, in Leeds, there were rallies every day at the pickets. Student comrades from the MSF took to the mic to express solidarity with the UCU staff and link their struggle to that of students – and both struggles to the need for the socialist transformation of society.
Slogans like ‘open the books’ and ‘for a democratic running of the university by staff and students’ reportedly also struck a chord with strikers. And at the end of the three days of strikes, we organised a rally in London where we had UCU, NEU and student speakers.
However, these days were just the opening shots for further action in the next term. In February another strike round was called for 10 days, but even that proved unable to break the intransigence of university bosses.
There was a growing mood of discontent and the call for indefinite strike action was finding an echo among the UCU rank-and-file. Our comrades in the UCU helped draft a motion on this demand which passed successfully in Sheffield. Similar motions calling for an all-out strike were passed in other UCU branches across the country.
All along university management, and the media, desperately tried to drive a wedge between students and staff during this strike.
But our experience – and events themselves – have shown that students support their lecturers taking industrial action to defend pensions, pay, and teaching conditions, especially when this is connected to the ongoing struggle against the marketisation of education.
And as Marxists, we always put the common interest we share to the fore.
Student activism in crisis
The NUS called for a student walkout on 2 March 2022 to coincide with the UCU strikes. This included demands for a fully funded, accessible, lifelong and democratic education.
It was a great step forward for the NUS not only to call for such an action which it hasn’t done for many years but to also do it on the basis of these demands, which the MSF fully supported.
However, unfortunately, there was little to no mobilisation prepared in the months and weeks leading up to it. Many students didn’t even know this strike action was called, nor did any real promotion take place such as flyering or calling mass meetings.
Even when there was finally a “national” meeting based in London – with only 16 people present – they were not around the demands or how to politically inspire other students in taking part in the walkout.
Instead, it focused on how the few activists who turned up should look after themselves and “keep safe”. When an MSF comrade raised the need to actually build for the walkout by promoting the demands on campus through leafleting and postering, the NUS organisers responded with a diatribe about “self-care”.
As a result, these meetings by the most active layer of students contained no programme and sowed confusion about what effective organising looks like. Like an umbrella with holes in it, the NUS was useless precisely when it was needed.
The result? What was supposed to be a mass rally of 100,000 people in Central London with the UCU staff and students marching in solidarity around radical demands, turned out to be a washout with only around 200 people.
Why did this happen? In the past, the NUS had authority in the student movement and managed to mobilise demonstrations of tens of thousands of students for free education.
But due to successive right-wing leaderships and a bureaucracy of upstart careerists, the NUS has effectively dissolved into an apolitical body and lost its foothold amongst the students.
Where the MSF took a lead in organising rallies and marches across the country, such as in Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham, we found there was clearly an appetite among students. Our experience shows that a successful march could have been organised by the NUS.
For example, in Leeds, our call for a demonstration and organised closely with the Leeds UCU branch saw an incredible turnout of 1,200 students and workers.
A huge march in London was certainly possible. The anger was, and still is, there.
But what was missing was a leadership capable of truly channelling this in a militant and organised fashion, and to really mobilise students and young people around the demands put forward.
However, the government is clearly very fearful of what’s brewing on campuses. Two months after the walkout, the government decided to suspend funding, and cut ties with the NUS, over antisemitism allegations.
The basis for this were some old tweets by the NUS’ president-elect Shaima Dallali when she was a young teenager. It is no surprise this was the attack used given how useful it had proved against the left in the Corbyn-led Labour Party.
Such smears are now a common weapon in the arsenal of the capitalists. It has its basis in identity politics: to hide political attacks under the cloak of personal identity, “legitimate concerns” and “lived experiences”.
Unfortunately, too often those on the left immediately buckle in the face of such attacks and respond with profuse apologies and self-flagellation. This was the case with the NUS leadership as well, which only responded with an apology to these allegations. Nothing else was put forward; no strategy or demands on how to overcome this attack.
Moreover, the fact the NUS is funded by the government in the first place is a huge weakness and a way for the ruling class to keep them in order. Trade unions aren’t funded by the bosses!
We can therefore not expect the NUS to take any serious action in the near future. While the NUS could have attracted a wider layer of students behind its programme, which is by no means revolutionary, it clearly fell at the first hurdle and will likely continue its ignominious decline.
Which way forward?
Clearly, there is a crisis of leadership in the student movement. And as both students and university workers continue to feel the squeeze of the cost of living crisis, we can expect more explosions of struggle on campuses.
Indeed the UCU has already announced further action which will hit universities in the autumn – amidst a potential wave of strikes from civil servants to doctors.
This is why it is vital radical students who want to fight back start organising now around socialist demands and militant methods to achieve them.
As Marxists, we argue that free education can be won and safeguarded by taking universities and other educational institutions out of the hands of private investors and bureaucrats and instead run them democratically by students and staff.
It is also vitally important we link the struggle of students to the wider labour movement, not just on campus but in all industries, which is in a resurgence.
After all, these are not separate struggles: at root, they all come down to the crisis of capitalism, which the ruling class is making the working class and young people pay for.
We have a crucial role to play. The MSF will continue to support the UCU demands. At the same time, along with Marxist activists in the UCU, we call for future strikes to be coordinated with other higher education unions, such as Unison and Unite, as a stepping stone to a public sector wide strike. After all, unity is strength.
It is also vital we arm ourselves with ideas to steel ourselves for the struggles to come and the attacks we will face. This means studying Marxist theory, which are the only ideas capable of not only explaining the world around us but arming us to change it.
The unrest we saw on campus last academic year is the new normal. More battles will be coming. We need to be prepared. If you are ready to join the struggle for socialism, then we need you to join the Marxists today.