From Quebec to London – Is student power on the rise?

This is the first contribution to the debate.

Mark Bergfeld‘s article below is a response to Harriet Swain , Liam Burns’  and Michael Chessum’s debate in the Guardian. It doesn’t necessarily reflect all opinions represented in the Education Activist Network but seeks to make a contribution to the work of EAN and the wider student movement. If you would like to submit a contribution please email educationactivist@gmail.com and we will publish them.

Other people who have contributed to the debate so far: Ross Speer, Alan Sears,

A number of Guardian columnists and even NUS President Liam Burns have claimed that student power is on the rise.

These however don’t address the process by which the government is pushing through a ‘consumer-model’ of higher education cloaked in the language of student power. The agenda of Universities Minister David Willetts and UK vice-chancellors has nothing in common with the cry for student power that echoed from the streets during the biggest student revolt since the late 1960s nearly two years ago.

In many universities it is now the case that students are represented on almost every decision-making committee and have a say about capital investments on a university level. On the other hand, students can even influence how subjects are taught and grade their teachers. Thus it doesn’t come as a surprise that some people inside of the movement believe that students have far more power than they used to have.

Being on a decision-making body of a university which is strapped for cash, intent on cutting unprofitable courses and values the ‘student experience’ higher than the education it provides does not empower students but effectively renders them powerless. Vice-Chancellors and Willetts are rubbing their hands at the prospect of students presiding over cuts to lecturers’ salaries, evaluating their teachers’ bad performance and arguing for ‘value for money’.

In the current climate of cuts, existing divisions between students and academic staff will only be reinforced by advocating such a flawed model of student power. Today, academic staff no longer live in ivory towers. In fact, the university sector is highly casualised often forcing PhD students to work for free and forcing lecturers to concentrate on the marketing and branding of their course rather than the teaching itself.

Rather than co-operation students are being co-opted and lecturers forced to compete against each other. In one section of the HE White Paper, Willetts writes about ‘putting students into the driving seat’. The only problem is that he has tied us to the seat and set the car on fire!

Having to deal with a student representative on the board of governors or in the Senate is something Willetts and his lackey Vice-Chancellors can live with. Having 400 students demonstrate against the decisions these bodies make is something they cannot tolerate.

The student revolt in 2010 showed a different kind of student power, a force which successfully united students, academic and non-academic staff in demonstrations, strikes and occupations. The slogan of student power hardly featured. Instead students chanted: Students and workers unite and fight!

Today students are learning the same lesson that students learnt in the course of 1968. Student power collapses if isolated. It must succeed in mobilising broader social forces, most importantly, the working class.

In 1968, French students of the Sorbonne ignited the largest general strike in history. The student strikes this time still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, they have been successful in sparking new social struggles and re-igniting old ones.

Students in Quebec have been asserting themselves in the streets for more than 130 days now. They have won concessions off a neoliberal government and brought the popular classes of Quebec behind the demands of the movement. Undoubtedly, the repression has played a significant role but one cannot underestimate the role of the trade union movement in the casseroles movement.

This autumn could see a new phase of the movement. With the TUC demonstration for pensions, a student demonstration by NUS and a new round of industrial action by teachers and lecturers workers and students can create the kind of power that doesn’t only have the ability to change our campuses and universities but also the society we live in.

by Mark Bergfeld, NUS NEC 2010-2012 & Education Activist Network

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About educationactivistnetwork
The education activist network provides national coordination for trade unionists, academics, university workers and student campaigners fighting to defend jobs and education in the UK.

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