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.

Photo: Getty
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What the debate over troops on the streets is missing

Security decisions are taken by professionals not politicians. But that doesn't mean there isn't a political context. 

First things first: the recommendation to raise Britain’s threat level was taken by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), an organisation comprised of representatives from 16 government departments and agencies. It was not a decision driven through by Theresa May or by anyone whose job is at stake in the election on 8 June.

The resulting deployment of troops on British streets – Operation Temperer – is, likewise, an operational decision. They will do the work usually done by armed specialists in the police force protecting major cultural institutions and attractions, and government buildings including the Palace of Westminster. That will free up specialists in the police to work on counter-terror operations while the threat level remains at critical. It, again, is not a decision taken in order to bolster the Conservatives’ chances on 8 June. (Though intuitively, it seems likely to boost the electoral performance of the party that is most trusted on security issues, currently the Conservatives if the polls are to be believed.)

There’s a planet-sized “but” coming, though, and it’s this one: just because a decision was taken in an operational, not a political manner, doesn’t remove it from a wider political context. And in this case, there’s a big one: the reduction in the number of armed police specialists from 6979 when Labour left office to 5,639 today. That’s a cut of more than ten per cent in the number of armed specialists in the regular police – which is why Operation Temperer was drawn up under David Cameron in the first place.  There are 1340 fewer armed specialists in the police than there were seven years ago – a number that is more significant in the light of another: 900, the number of soldiers that will be deployed on British streets under Op Temperer. (I should add: the initial raft of police cuts were signed off by Labour in their last days in office.)

So while it’s disingenuous to claim that national security decisions are being taken to bolster May, we also shouldn’t claim that operational decisions aren’t coloured by spending decisions made by the government.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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