Universities set for strikes and protests

Will the anger at higher education cuts gather force across the country?

Are we in line for widespread strike action and protests in British universities?

Higher education is one of the first areas to be hit by public spending cuts. According to the University and College Union (UCU), 15,000 jobs could be lost -- the majority of them academic posts -- while institutions may have to close courses and campuses. The Guardian reported yesterday that potential savings include more than 200 job losses at King's College, London, 700 at Leeds University and 340 at Sheffield Hallam, while entire campuses could be closed at Cumbria and Wolverhampton.

Staff at Leeds have voted in favour of strike action against these large-scale job cuts. The ballot had the highest turnout that UCU has ever seen, indicating that emotions are running high. Staff at Sussex University will also vote next week on whether to strike if the threat of compulsory redundancies is not withdrawn.

And how have students reacted to the budgetary crisis facing their universities? It is a mixed picture. At Leeds, the student union lobbied against strike action from staff, having received assurances that cuts would not affect students. But students at Sussex have launched a concerted protest effort, in recognition that "an attack on education workers is an attack on us".

One hundred and six students have occupied the top floor of a conference centre with the aim of disrupting the university's business interests. Meanwhile, the student union is urging students not to participate in the National Student Survey, in the hope that the threat of reduced survey ratings will put pressure on the university management.

There are two main issues at stake here. The first is the immediate concern of job losses and a shortage of university places for prospective students. The second is the deeper ideological concern about the value the state places upon university education -- is it being deliberately pushed towards private funding? And what is the proper role of business interest in education -- do we risk sacrificing the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself, and the study of the arts, in favour of target-driven, financially motivated research?

Industrial action by staff is clearly triggered mainly by the former, although ideological issues may come into play at some level. The student protests at Sussex, though, seem to incorporate both. Students in recent years have been accused of apathy, but their situation has the potential to draw attention to the deeper concerns underpinning the university crisis.

A wave of occupations of university buildings during the Gaza strike last year prompted speculation that we were witnessing a resurgence of student protest. It will be interesting to see whether protests against cuts gather force in the same way.


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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.