Student protest has been quietly sweeping the nation. Now, it's getting louder

The Occupy Sussex movement has acted as the spark for a new wave of protest against the marketisation of higher education.

In 1967, the London School of Economics suspended two students for taking part in demonstrations. The harsh treatment of the duo inspired their peers to hold a sit-in protest and a boycott of lectures. Within weeks, the suspensions were lifted. This began a decade-long student movement that took on social injustice at every turn. Protesting racism, US foreign policy and a whole host of other issues went hand-in-hand with studying in the UK.
 
Fast-forward 46 years. The University of Sussex suspends five students for their involvement in an occupy-style campaign. University management refuse to release evidence of the disruption they have caused and the student body is moved to action. More protests are arranged, a petition is started, messages of support flood in from MPs and academics. Within less than two weeks, senior management buckles to the pressure and the students are reinstated – with a renewed confidence that they can stand up to authority and force through change.
 
Student protest is back.
 
The Occupy Sussex movement, which first saw students protesting in February, started as a campaign opposing plans to outsource campus services to private contractors. Activists complained that the process had not been transparent, students and staff had not been consulted and the university had refused to consider the alternatives to privatisation. They occupied a conference centre on campus and protests continued for several months. The movement peaked with a 1,000-strong student march held on campus.
 
The occupiers inspired their peers at other universities to start movements of their own. Birmingham, Edinburgh, Sheffield, University College London and Warwick are just some of the institutions that have hosted similar movements over the past year.
 
At each university, students have had separate grievances. Some have opposed campus sell-offs, others have objected to the increasing pay of senior management and many have fought against the privatisation of student debt. What underlies and unifies all of these protests is a frustration with what activists call the "marketisation of higher education". In other words, they oppose universities being run like businesses, rather than the unique public institutions that they are.
 
Until recently, these campaigns have largely slipped under the mass media radar. One reason for this is that they have been transient and only locally coordinated. Although students are keen to show solidarity with those at other universities, the protests have not followed a national timetable. It must also be noted that the movements have not yet attracted the same widespread support of the 1960s campaigns – in the wake of the LSE suspensions, 100,000 took part in a single protest.
 
However, all this might be about to change. When the Sussex Vice Chancellor suspended a handful of protesters, he galvanised a large number of otherwise apathetic students. Instead of quelling the protests, this exercise of power gave activists a new, perhaps more tangible injustice to fight. Students at Sussex talk of the suspensions polarising opinion and engaging those who had previously been cynical. At the end of last month, Facebook logged just under 2,000 people talking about the 'Occupy Sussex' page. That number now stands at just over 5,000.
 
A similar thing is happening in London. Earlier this month, campaigners demanded that their outsourced campus cleaners be granted the same sick pay, holidays and pensions afforded to university staff. Protesters were forcefully dispersed and subsequently, The University of London, which represents a number of institutions, including – somewhat ironically - the London School of Economics, banned on-campus protests. This has only strengthened the resolve of campaigners (who were marching to oppose increased police presence on campus only days later) and media interest continues to grow.
 
By refusing to genuinely engage with students, managers have painted themselves as the pantomime villains of this year’s protests. Their heavy-handedness has become a powerful recruitment tool for existing student activists. Managers have encouraged more students to challenge the dictatorial authority they have embraced, as well as their acceptance of the 'marketisation' agenda.
 
Perhaps it is premature to declare the birth of a new mass movement. With Christmas approaching, the protests may well quieten down. But they are not going away. Students will return in the new year, with another three grand of debt and an ever growing sense of frustration. And you'll hear about it too.
 
A wall outside the University of London Union Building is daubed with paint after protests against a heavy police presence on campus on December 12, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

James is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in UK politics and social commentary. His blog can be found hereYou can follow him on Twitter @jamesevans42.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit