It’s kicking off on campus again. Almost three years since nationwide college occupations, marches and strikes against tuition fee rises led to the first wave of crackdowns on student protest, undergraduates are mobilising, and meeting unprecedented retaliation. Last week in Bloomsbury, central London, students organising for fair wages for workers at their institutions said they were beaten bloody. There were mass arrests, and the sort of court injunctions banning all further protest that wouldn’t be tolerated in any country that valued freedom of speech.
«We are facing a concerted attempt to silence a nascent student movement before it gets off the ground,» said Michael Chessum, president of the University of London union. However, despite the clampdown on protest, students, lecturers, service workers and their allies are planning to rally in their thousands tomorrow afternoon.
The University of London described the activists last week as «violent». But it was students who reported having the teeth punched from their mouths and the crutches kicked away after a peaceful occupation in London’s Senate House – the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in the Michael Radford film of George Orwell’s 1984.
Just what is it about this bunch of undergraduates, as well as their more enlightened lecturers, that has scared the Metropolitan police into cementing their reputation for skull-knockery? Possibly the fact that they aren’t just defending their own interests. Instead, they’re making new demands, fighting for workers’ rights, and winning.
The root of the dispute is the 3 Cosas campaign, a joint effort with outsourced service staff at London universities that demands three things – sick pay, holiday pay and pensions. These low-waged, largely Latin American workers formed an autonomous union, and students and allies helped crowdsource a strike fund. On strike day, hundreds swelled the picket lines, and the workers have won concessions on two of the demands.
In December 2010 thousands of young people were kettled, batoned and charged with horses outside parliament. In the three years since, student and graduate activists have been subject to relentless harassment: surveillance, repeated arrests, draconian prison sentences for activists such as Charlie Gilmour and Edward Woollard, and drawn out trials for others such as Alfie Meadows, who was left with bleeding on the brain from the savage headwounds he received in the 2010 kettle.
In London this summer a student was pinned down, handcuffed and charged just for writing slogans in chalk. The University of London attempted to disband its student union, and Michael Chessum was arrested. Then, last week, officers from the territorial support group stormed Senate House. The Tory push to raise tuition fees was meant to modernise higher education. Today, if British universities were a nation state, they would be a military dictatorship.
That hasn’t prevented the rumbles of dissent against privatisation and worker exploitation becoming clamorous. At colleges up and down the country students and lecturers have begun to organise with, and on behalf of, the people who serve their meals and clean their toilets. Last week I visited Sussex University, where a «pop-up union» was created to support service workers; this week hundreds of students and staff marched in support of individuals who have been expelled for political activity. They linked their movement with the victorious and explicitly socialist student struggles in Quebec.
Middle-class students are starting to realise that they have less in common with the millionaire vice-chancellors running their universities than they do with the low-waged workers sweeping their lecture halls. Many undergraduates will find themselves doing similar jobs after their finals, if they can find work at all. The dream of university as the route to social mobility and security has died, and students now accrue debts of £50,000 by the time they graduate. Today students and precarious workers face the same fight – not just for education, but for justice and dignity at work and outside it, for freedom in the face of austerity and state repression.
What is happening in Bloomsbury, in Sussex and elsewhere is a shadow play of what this government fears most: precarious workers coming together across divides of class, race and nationality to resist wage repression and police violence. As one of the activists I spoke to this week explained, three years of intimidation, surveillance and state bullying have furnished today’s students and graduates with the sort of education that can’t be bought, not even for nine grand a year. «It taught us,» he said simply, «how to fight.»
• This article was amended on 11 December 2013. It originally stated that Senate House was the setting for the Ministry of Truth in the Michael Radford film of George Orwell’s 1984, when it was in fact the inspiration.