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Fight to win! Students vs. Top-up Fees

hamster5 | 05.02.2004 15:07 | Analysis | Cambridge

The UK government's position on top-up fees is a straightforward plank in the neoliberal platform that was first laid out by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s, gathered steam for a while, and has recently run into quite a few setbacks (in Seattle, Genoa, Porto Alegre, Cancun, and Baghdad). It is not a "normal" domestic dispute within the UK, and it doesn't make much sense to act as if it is; it's part of a worldwide trend to privatize public resources, and to destroy the legitimacy of the liberal political consensus of the 1950s/1960s/1970s.

Think it the right thing...
Think it the right thing...

Every country in the developed or developing world is facing the same situation. This sucks, but if the Iraqi resistance can fight economic takeover and brutal military conquest as part of the same process, and middle-class housewives in Buenos Aires attack banks with rocks in their hands, surely a few hundred British students can be found who will walk past the secretary in front of the Chancellor's office and pull off an occupation...

In Canada, we lost our fight against massive tuition fee increases in 1996; tuition fees subsequently rose from about $1000/year to about $5000/year in a period of 5 years, leaving most students with large ($15,000 - $20,000) debts that they can repay to private banks for a decade or so. Want to avoid the same fate? Try this:

a) Alone or with a few friends, come up with a snappy name for a group and call a public meeting. Publicize it widely with posters, make it clear that *all* students are encouraged to come to it. You'll see some new faces. You'll get good people if you make the posters (i) inviting and (ii) obviously not part of the "normal" run of what passes for student politics.

b) Together with these people, do a quick analysis of what the next move should be. Disregard any student union people completely, I have never met a person in mainstream student politics who wasn't completely engrossed in their role as a budding bureaucrat. However, it is smart to wait for the Student Union to call some kind of rally, which gets students concentrated in one place. At that point, do a direct action such as an occupation, and send someone back to scoop up the people who are half-heartedly rallying (or vigiling, or whatever lame time-killing activity the student union has planned) and invite them to join in the occupation. A simple "this sucks, if you want to actually try to change something, come join this occupation we've just pulled off" will usually do the trick. I've seen it work quite a few times. Don't feel bad about it, if people don't want to come to the occupation they simply won't.

c) Be participatory, let people make decisions for themselves. Don't lecture people or yell at them with megaphones (says the person lecturing whoever is reading this little lecture). Talk to people like they are people, and they will respond creatively in ways that you might not have expected.

d) Have a direct-action team figured out before you do anything. If you are going to try to make your way into an office, for example, get some people together who are actually going to occupy it, and make sure everyone is prepared to act. Don't depend in this capacity on people who you don't think are actually going to back you up. Conversely, make sure that everyone has talked through the general plan and is comfortable with it. Keep in mind that there is little point in being violent during student occupations, even in pushing someone out of the way; for the most part, it's simply a matter of getting 10 or more people together and taking over whatever you want. If a security guard stops one of you, it suffices that the rest of your team just goes around that confrontation, and sits down. Considering that it takes 2 security guards to drag away one determined person who is sitting down, it could take between 20 and 40 fairly determined security people to drag 10 demonstrators out of an office (assuming that you're willing to stand back up and walk back into the room, or to occupy another office nearby). The university simply doesn't have a security force like this available; when it comes to political action, Cambridge students generally have more to fear from the cops in their heads than from anything that the university can actually muster physically. The problem is compounded for them once you can get reinforcements in place; once you have 50 or so people involved in an occupation, you can pretty much own that territory for as long as you want to keep it. This is when an occupation becomes a real political issue for the University administration; given the special role of Cambridge (inter)nationally, it will rapidly become an issue in the national media, and then you've got the ball rolling.

e) Break the psychological tension that develops during an occupation by *really* taking over the space you occupy. Smoke cigars while sitting in the Chancellor's chair with your feet up on his/her desk. Rearrange the furniture; paint the walls; set up a free bar in the occupied weapons lab; use your imagination! Keep in mind, *you* are in control of the situation, not the regularly constituted authorities.

f) Be prepared to stay at least one night, hopefully more. This drives the administration crazy as it's much more difficult for them to dismiss it with a paternalistic "let the kids have their fun today, tomorrow it's back to business as usual."

g) Get your act together, develop a political analysis of the role of the student in modern society, think about the role of the university, and consider why most people in Britain don't really care about the issue of top-up fees. My guess: the university is an institution that is designed to reproduce the next generation of the managerial classes, let's say about 20% of the population. Cambridge and Oxford play a special role insofar as it's their job to produce the very top managers, that is, the heads of banks, the Foreign Office ministers, the people who run prestigious research labs, economic think tanks, etc. This is why the general population doesn't get involved - they think you're a bunch of wankers, and they're usually quite right. Without an analysis that says "It's wrong that our society is structured such that I get paid lots of cash for doing pleasant stuff and telling other people what to do for the rest of my life and they had better listen or I send the cops into Brixton and the army into Iraq," the whole issue of student fees is going to be irrelevant to most people in the UK - the vast majority of the population hasn't gone to university, and despite Blair's promises, they're not likely to. In this environment, the top-up fees discussion will be at best an argument between the managers and their sons (and daughters). If you are interested in this line of thinking, start investigating the things that the French student radicals were saying in 1968.

h) Build a movement, network with other similar groups nationwide, and be prepared to go back again and again until you gain victory. (This is what we didn't do, and it's why we lost.) Also, make alliances with other pissed off people and support them in their campaigns; they'll support you back. We didn't have the issue of the war to hit the government with, for example; the war is a major political weakness for Blair when it comes to justifying spending priorities, especially given the amount of lying he's had to do to overcome domestic opposition. Use what you've got. Organize and win!



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  1. some more tips — javier