“We demand the democratic and collective control of staff and students” – Debating student power

This is the third contribution in the debate.

Alan Sears’ 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 contributions: Ross Speer, Mark Bergfeld

Any genuine education that was really about student learning would be under the democratic and collective control of the students themselves in partnership with teachers, staff and others. Students discover some of the sense of what this real learning looks like in situations of occupation where people engage in collective discussion and debate that is integrally connected to action, often stimulated by additional speakers and reading. In this situation, as Mark argues in his post above, we get a real sense of student power unleashed.

It is a bit more contradictory when students are given some degree of input into the management of bureaucratic educational institutions under the pressures of austerity. In Quebec, students have demanded transparency and democratic oversight of post-secondary education as part of their massive strike mobilization that has gone on for over four months. At one point, as part of a government offer to settle the strike that was voted down, students were offered potential reductions in ancillary fees in proportion to cost savings identified in a joint student-government-administration process.

There is a very fine line these days between a process of genuine participatory decision-making and one that make students partners in the administration of cutbacks and in the oversight of a hobbled, second-rate system which is already framed by government austerity policy and managerial perogative. This can be simply a way of trying to win student buy-in to a second rate education system and to obtain their partnership in attacks on campus unions, rather parallel to team work in lean production systems in factories.

The most important counter-weight to participation on management terms is a genuinely mobilized student body. Student representatives who are held accountable at genuinely democratic members meetings, where real discussions about the direction of the education system are on the agenda, will do far better at expanding student power than those who become captive to the processes and limitations of university committee work. Real student power ultimately depends on mobilization and the enriched political atmosphere when students, campus unions and others engage in common actions to fight the cuts, eliminate fees and transform the education system.

Alan Sears is a faculty member at Ryerson University, Toronto and has written on the Quebec student movement.

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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