Over 70,000 university staff are striking at 150 institutions on 24, 25, and 30 November, after an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote in two historic national ballots for pensions and for pay and conditions.
Staff are angry, and students should be angry too. While staff struggle to make ends meet on precarious contracts, students pay £9,250 per year plus maintenance and incur decades of debt. One in ten students used a food bank before the cost-of-living crisis began. Our struggles are intertwined, and our solidarity with each other is a necessity to end our poverty.
Therefore, I have tried to put together some practical steps that you can take on campuses to aid the necessary work required to win student demands and show solidarity with the University and College Union (UCU). Understanding the conditions at your university or college is required to implement these when and as required as they may not work at your institution and may need some adapting.
The most important aspect of any campus organising is recruiting and retaining students for your cause. This might be easy if you already have a Communist Society on your campus; however, for a lot of students in the YCL today, this is not the case, and Communist Societies should be looking to recruit more members regardless.
Ideally, you should be organising students wherever they are, be it in student halls, departments, libraries, etc. It is all very well and good to invite students to Student Union (SU) meetings, but what could attract them in the first place and make them stay committed if they do not see the point of SU meetings? At best, an SU meeting could get a hundred attendees, whereas student halls house thousands of students, and appealing to them in their homes, which are bound to have problems, makes any campaign more inviting.
But remember to introduce the wider context to these issues to students. Falling into the trap of a single-issue campaign often leads to the movement fizzling out and students getting disheartened. Ensuring that students know that capitalism is to blame and that their issues are entangled with others’ hammers home the need for a broad left movement beyond only student politics.
Also, check that students are on board with your campaign, and if they are not, have discussions about how to improve. It is not your job to deny them agency.
In a similar sense, allow critical thinking to flourish in these discussions. Every movement needs to learn from its mistakes to carry on building momentum and the people involved are the ones who know the mistakes best. However, be mindful of criticisms that are not constructive and are meant to attack rather than facilitate progress.
Like any meeting, make certain that there is an agenda and a chair to guide the conversation. You do not want a minority of people dominating the conversation and going on a tangent, especially when planning actions that deserve careful thought.
Think about how you are going to pass down information to first year students. The longevity of the movement, and the continuation of the development of tactics, hinge on first year students being “trained up” to progress the movement rather than starting it all over again. This could be done through mentorship, shadowing, and a combination of other means, so long as knowledge gets passed down.
For public meetings, publicity is important to boost attendance. Leaflets, posters, and social media posts made well in advance with regular reminders are good practice, but additionally, personal contact is just as important, if not more, to bring people along. This can be as simple as inviting friends and flatmates, or inviting other campus groups.
A popular tool for student campaigns and supporting UCU strikes is occupation. However, simply showing up on the day is not enough. Lots of planning is required to assure a successful occupation.
To get more widespread support from other students and to encourage students to get involved, you need a build-up to the day that educates people on why you are occupying a building. Planning a variety of activities including meetings and distributing propaganda can bring in students who otherwise might not know how to get involved in occupations or to at least get them involved in helping the people occupying buildings.
Moreover, you need to plan the nature of the occupation. Will it be disruptive or demonstrative? Which building is the most appropriate target? Contrary to common belief, the administration building may not be the most ideal building to target as vice chancellors and administrative staff mostly work from home nowadays, following the pandemic. Of course, this may not be the case at all universities or colleges so make sure to find out the circumstances on your campus.
To boost numbers and aid in your propaganda, ensure mass participation from students across a variety of diverse groups and places. Insular gatherings make it easy for security to isolate and disperse activities, as well as creating an unwelcoming atmosphere that alienates the average student population from supporting your campaign. In addition to this, make sure that everyone is on board with an occupation. Occupation is not the only method a campaign can use, although it certainly can be an escalation tool.
Any occupation needs clear, defined aims, whether that’s as part of an on-campus campaign or supporting the UCU. Writing a demand letter to the Vice Chancellor and publicising said letter can reach an extensive audience while also promoting the fact that capitalism is at fault for the failings of our education system.
Keep a realistic mindset about the goals you are setting out to achieve. The last thing the movement needs is to become burned out and demoralised by perceived failures of any activities undertaken. Always learn from the experience, even as it is taking place, and ensure that members look ahead to what can be done once the occupation has finished.
Occupations are not only about getting inside a building or lecture theatre, either. You have got to keep members entertained. This can be as simple as watching a movie, singing karaoke, or playing board games, as long as no one complains about being bored. Students will want study spaces too, and you need to think about food and sleeping arrangements. Moreover, occupations give you ample time to consider the political development of the members involved, as well as the sit-in itself, so discussions may be a part of the proceedings.
Every step along this journey, tasks should be delegated to every single member so that they can get involved and take ownership of the movement as well as learn important skills for future campaigns.
A great resource for communist students is The Little Red Struggler: A Handbook for Student Militants published by the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1970s. Although it is a few decades old, much of it can easily be applied to our work on campuses today.
In this article, I have not touched on many different forms of protest that students can engage in, but the same core principles of occupations apply to a lot of other scenarios. Occupation is certainly a popular tool, and it has been for decades, but it is vital that any campaign go beyond this one tactic to involve as many students as possible and build a campaign outside of occupation time frames.
At the end of the month, Young Communist League members and members of Communist Societies around Britain will stand in solidarity with UCU members striking for fair pay and better terms and conditions.
Victory to the UCU!
Georgina Andrews, is the YCL’s Student Officer