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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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.