There is tension and anger in the air at SOAS – as well as in virtually every other university in the country. While students – having woken up from their temporary slumber – are starting to protest again against fees and privatisation of their debt, lecturers and regular members of the staff are striking for an increase in their wages.

The struggles at SOAS

Students and workers at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) are involved in several additional issues: a) the seven year-old struggle that cleaners have carried against outsourcing, and the lack of pensions, sick-pay or holidays; b) the decision made by the University of London (UoL) management (whose head is Paul Webley, SOAS’ Director) to shut down the University of London Union (ULU); and c) the recent mobilisations of students against the presence of police forces on campus, which is a response to harsh measures undertaken by the management of the UoL, after which students have organised, demonstrated, and occupied, and some have been arrested.

All these – the cuts to education, the privatisation and outsourcing, and the impoverishment of staff and students conditions are being carried out by a selected group of university managers that, it must be underlined, have sky-high salaries (although, in the particular case of SOAS, these have been frozen, so the Vice-Chancellor has not enjoyed the annual increase of 8% that, on average, his peers across the country are eagerly collecting – but he still makes £192,000 a year!).

The tide is beginning to turn at SOAS. The SOAS Marxists enthusiastically welcome the initiative of a group of staff and students to launch the “Democratise SOAS” campaign. This campaign builds upon the excellent work and leading role that the Student Union have shown already, especially with regards to the mobilisation of students against the presence of police on campus, the support to the cleaners’ campaign, and the solidarity with the strikes of Higher Education staff.

Within this dynamic of student organisation, the Democratise SOAS campaign marks an important step forward in the fight to reclaim universities as places of learning and education. It aims to create a network of students and staff that would oversee the functioning of the current governing bodies at SOAS, which currently have no representation from the broader community, do not hold elections, and are not in any way accountable. In addition, the Democratise SOAS campaign proposes a second phase, which would build a coherent proposal for a transformation of the institutional framework of the university, engaging with mechanisms of representation and democratic elections.

Democracy – a means to an end

The Student Union at SOAS has taken a strong lead in organising students’ mobilisations, and this positive and bold step forward should be applauded. The presence of over 200 participants at a recent “Democratise SOAS” meeting demonstrates the success of the Student Union in providing such a lead and shows that this is a key issue for students and staff. The task now is for this organisation and mobilisation to be given a clear political programme. In this respect, the “Democratise SOAS” campaign contains some weaknesses as it stands.

The question of the democratisation of universities cannot be considered from a purely structural and institutional angle. “Democracy” cannot be considered as an end in itself; it is a means to an end, a tool for workers and students to organise and fight for concrete demands. Limiting the scope of student-staff campaigns to the formulation of new legal and institutional mechanisms – in order to guarantee representation and some kind of indirect participation – is not enough.

Real democracy – in a concrete sense – means having the mass participation of students, workers and academic staff in the decision processes within the university. One can create the most “democratic” structures, rules, laws, and organisations on paper; but without the flesh and blood of actual people participating, such structures would in reality be hollow and devoid of any real democracy. Even the most democratic structures and legal frameworks are meaningless if they do not engage people through active participation, which means the collective formulation of demands, strategies and goals.

The key to genuine democracy, therefore, is to engage students and staff in the movement for concrete aims, and this engagement can only come from having a political programme that provides a solution to the problems that the mass of students and workers face. It is the task of the student and trade union leaders to provide such a programme, which must link the particular issues at stake to the general perspective of transforming society along socialist lines.

The struggle for democracy is a struggle for socialism

Looking across the world today, we can see that the struggle for greater democratic rights and control is inseparable from the struggle against capitalism. Think about the historical trend that has intensified the weight of Capital over Labour since the mid 70’s. Think about how the institutions of the welfare state are being destroyed one by one through austerity, the falling of real wages, the decreasing value of benefits and, among others, the commodification and marketisation of university education.

The crisis of capitalism expresses itself as a crisis of democracy. This is not to be intended in the sense of legalistic arguments – perhaps democracy as a set of rules is, today, more widespread that it has ever been; this is about the practices of democracy.

All those democratic gains of the past, which were fought and won by the organisation and struggle of the oppressed, are now being undermined. In Britain, the Tories are talking about taking the right to strike away from the Tube workers. Across Europe, austerity and economic crisis have convinced the bourgeoisie that democracy is a luxury that can no longer be tolerated: temporary governments in Greece and Italy, composed of bourgeoisie-friendly technocrats, have ruled without a single bit of popular legitimacy.

Translate this world situation into our universities and you will see that the story is quite similar. Democratic rights, such as the right to protest are being constantly attacked by the management and the government. We see the criminalisation of student protest being used to prevent demonstrations against rising fees and privatisation. The coexistence of all these issues, whose causes and central dynamics can be traced back to the same core of explanations, shows that the fight for democratic universities is inseparable from the fight against today’s austerity and, overall, again the capitalist system that demands it because of its own insurmountable contradictions.

The simultaneous occurrence last Thursday of the HE strikes at universities and the Tube strike in London might have been coincidences, but it is the responsibility of the elected student and trade union leaders to make them happen simultaneously in the future. Democracy, understood as a means to an end, is here a central tool to the process of organisation and coordination among different struggles to articulate a broad movement. This movement should be class-conscious, politically orientated and democratically structured.

We need, therefore, to build mass campaigns in every university, led by the student unions and trade unions, which should involve and engage students and workers on the basis of a political programme – a socialist programme that provides an alternative to austerity and crisis.

The “Democratise SOAS” campaign should be a central part of this, not only through the reformulation of governing structures within SOAS, but as another component of the broader movement that we need to build. Workers across the country and students in every university are fighting over issues with a common cause, the root of which is capitalism and its contradictions. Students can play an important role in supporting the struggles of the labour movement and helping to build a mass campaign for socialist policies.

  • No to cuts! No to fees! Abolition of student debt!
  • Universities to be democratically run by elected representatives of the students’ and staff unions on the wages of skilled workers.
  • For the maximum participation of all students and workers in the fight against fees and cuts!
  • No to attacks on the wages and working conditions of university staff! Link with the labour movement and campaign for socialism!

by SOAS Marxist Society

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