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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Richmond is a victory for hope - now let's bring change across the country

The regressives are building their armies. 

Last night a regressive alliance was toppled. Despite being backed by both Ukip and the Conservative Party, Zac Goldsmith was rejected by the voters of Richmond Park.

Make no mistake, this result will rock the Conservative party – and in particularly dent their plans for a hard and painful Brexit. They may shrug off this vote in public, but their majority is thin and their management of the post-referendum process is becoming more chaotic by the day. This is a real moment, and those of us opposing their post-truth plans must seize it.

I’m really proud of the role that the Green party played in this election. Our local parties decided to show leadership by not standing this time and urging supporters to vote instead for the candidate that stood the best chance of winning for those of us that oppose Brexit. Greens’ votes could very well be "what made the difference" in this election (we received just over 3,500 votes in 2015 and Sarah Olney’s majority is 1,872) - though we’ll never know exactly where they went. Just as importantly though, I believe that the brave decision by the local Green party fundamentally changed the tone of the election.

When I went to Richmond last weekend, I met scores of people motivated to campaign for a "progressive alliance" because they recognised that something bigger than just one by election is at stake. We made a decision to demonstrate you can do politics differently, and I think we can fairly say that was vindicated. 

There are some already attacking me for helping get one more Liberal Democrat into Parliament. Let me be very clear: the Lib Dems' role in the Coalition was appalling – propping up a Conservative government hell bent on attacking our public services and overseeing a hike in child poverty. But Labour’s record of their last time in office isn't immune from criticism either – not just because of the illegal war in Iraq but also their introduction of tuition fees, privatisation of our health service and slavish worship of the City of London. They, like the Liberal Democrats, stood at the last election on an austerity manifesto. There is a reason that we remain different parties, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't also seize opportunities like this to unite behind what we have in common. Olney is no perfect candidate but she has pledged to fight a hard Brexit, campaign against airport expansion and push for a fair voting system – surely progressives can agree that her win takes us forward rather than backwards?

Ultimately, last night was not just defeat of a regressive alliance but a victory for hope - a victory that's sorely needed on the back of of the division, loss and insecurity that seems to have marked much of the rest of this year. The truth is that getting to this point hasn’t been an easy process – and some people, including local Green party members have had criticisms which, as a democrat, I certainly take seriously. The old politics dies hard, and a new politics is not easy to forge in the short time we have. But standing still is not an option, nor is repeating the same mistakes of the past. The regressives are building their armies and we either make our alternative work or risk the left being out of power for a generation. 

With our NHS under sustained attack, our climate change laws threatened and the increasing risk of us becoming a tax haven floating on the edge of the Atlantic, the urgent need to think differently about how we win has never been greater. 

An anti-establishment wave is washing over Britain. History teaches us that can go one of two ways. For the many people who are utterly sick of politics as usual, perhaps the idea of politicians occasionally putting aside their differences for the good of the country is likely to appeal, and might help us rebuild trust among those who feel abandoned. So it's vital that we use this moment not just to talk among ourselves about how to work together but also as another spark to start doing things differently, in every community in Britain. That means listening to people, especially those who voted for Britain to leave the EU, hearing what they’re saying and working with them to affect change. Giving people real power, not just the illusion of it.

It means looking at ways to redistribute power and money in this country like never before, and knowing that a by-election in a leafy London suburb changes nothing for the vast majority of our country.

Today let us celebrate that the government's majority is smaller, and that people have voted for a candidate who used her victory speech to say that she would "stand up for an open, tolerant, united Britain".  But tomorrow let’s get started on something far bigger - because the new politics is not just about moments it's about movements, and it will only work if nobody is left behind.

 

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.