It’s 08:00 on a freezing January morning. A steady stream of students trickle up the hill, gathering at the main gate of the University of Glasgow. We’ve commuted all this way for the sole purpose of not attending lectures, seminars or tutorials. Instead, we stand shivering in the morning’s darkness to show our support for university staff confronting their employers and going on strike.
Across Britain, students continue to stand in solidarity with striking university staff. There is massive, widespread support for these strikes, with solidarity groups springing up at just about every campus. Students at Glasgow, Strathclyde, Edinburgh and GCU participated in organised actions, such as a blockade of the staff car park at the University of Glasgow. Such activity has proven effective at disrupting the day-to-day running of the university and pressuring management to cede to staff demands. Such student militancy has also crossed over into other areas of class conflict.
Recently, students at the University of Manchester organised freshers at the university to stage a rent strike in protest of the exorbitant fees charged for their accommodation, in borderline slum conditions. There are currently 350 students withholding rent, predicted to rise to 500 by the next payment. These forms of direct action have an auspicious precedent, with a similar rent strike at the UoM securing a 30% rent rebate in 2020.
As a materialist, this resurgence of militancy seems almost predestined. Students, shafted with debt and living hand-to-mouth in order to study, have returned to the campus after the nightmare of the COVID lockdowns, only to be greeted with increased rent and inadequate ‘hybridised’ courses– as management realised the volume of students that could be enrolled was made effectively infinite by the adoption of online services in place of lecture halls. Students feel cheated and, crucially, comprehend that their lecturers are also being cheated: with diminishing pay and conditions, and increased workloads, when assessment of oversubscribed courses comes into play. With all of this in mind, how could students not take matters into their own hands?
We should of course be lauding students for their success in challenging a pernicious and increasingly neoliberal management across the higher education sector. But just as we must celebrate our victories, we must also be critical, and consider how this militancy can be sustained over a long period. Our movement must refine and evolve, lest our recent efforts fade into historical obscurity.
As time rolls on, student activists have a tendency to engage in purely performative action, with a neglect for localised, grassroots organising of students. As one example, let us examine the Glasgow University Student Tenants Association (GUSTA). Recently, the university have proposed a 9.5% rent
increase for their accommodation. There was absolutely no justification for this rise, other than to shift the operating costs of the university onto young students living in cramped and shoddy halls.
This is exactly the place where GUSTA should be stepping in. Yet, GUSTA have done absolutely nothing as students are ripped-off. It is a prime opportunity to mobilise people around a common grievance– as the aforementioned Manchester strikes would attest. The conditions which have roused students in Manchester to stage a rent strike are no different from the ones faced by those living on Murano Street and we should be reminding them of this fact. Yet the chance for action at Glasgow has now washed down the drain, as GUSTA failed to provide the necessary leadership to coordinate any opposition.
Having the support of a core group of 30-40 people at each university is certainly a positive accomplishment. However, to build a serious vehicle for student solidarity, we should be aiming to organise a large section of the student body to turn up to picket lines, engage in their communities and trade unions. It is only through mass action that management will take any substantial notice of us; having picket lines of hundreds of staff joined by hundreds of students, or hundreds of students in unison withholding rent payments, leaves bosses no choice but to engage. A quote from the late, great RMT union leader Bob Crow comes to mind: “if we all spit together we can drown the bastards”.
As Marxist-Leninists, it is vital that we link the struggles of students with the wider struggles of the working class. Their material conditions cannot and should not be treated separately. After a couple of semesters organising on campus, I have had time to think about what the next steps for the student movement should be. This will take place on the local microscale as well as the national macroscale, but let me stress that neither is more important than, nor can succeed without, the other.
We should be aiming to build a national organisation to coordinate and unite these detached groups of students engaging in class struggle. This institution would offer formal, centralised structure and leadership for students organising around class struggle across Britain. Actions, such as the aforementioned rent strikes, could confidently take place over many universities at once, shaking the entire higher education sector.
Our local tactics must be to engage in agitation around our respective institutions. That’s going to involve going door-to-door in halls and speaking to freshers, conversing with them and conveying that their experience at university has been uncaringly shaped to maximise profit for university management.
The skills involved in this are already used by tenants’ unions such as like Living Rent or ACORN. It would therefore be imperative for such a student movement to learn becoming involved with them. All freshers, as well as more senior students, should be encouraged to join and help build their local tenants unions.
Alongside this work in halls, we must also ensure that student solidarity groups are engaging in their local communities. Encouraging students, in particular the leaders of the movements, to extend their vital work into organised political forces like the Young Communist League, the Communist Party of Britain and the relevant trade unions for their workplace will greatly benefit the struggle. They will be provided with a coherent programme of political and industrial education which will practically equip them for applying their knowledge in their institutions. The inward-facing attitude of many of these solidarity groups ultimately stifles their growth, and disadvantages them.
Lastly, the groups must build concrete and lasting relationships with the various campus trade
unions (UCU, Unite, GMB and Unison). This point is fairly self-explanatory. As mentioned above,
our fights are inseparable and to treat them as different serves only the bourgeoisie. Steps to
implement this have been successful at Glasgow, with the student solidarity group in constant
and close contact with the unions at the university. We have hosted public meetings, teach outs
and been ever present on picket lines.
All of this would be backed by a national, ‘working-class student’ institution, campaigning for student demands. The leverage of such an organisation, built and led through the years by successive cohorts of students, would be monumental. It would be capable of negotiating terms with multiple universities at once, in a similar way to what trade unions currently do with University and Colleges Employers Association. Such an organisation should be structured on Leninist terms: local organising committees elected by the students at their respective universities, with a central committee made up of an elected body of students from across Britain. This would allow for a bottom-up approach to organising, with the local groups combatting campus-specific issues whilst the central committee coordinate actions which affect all students, directed by the feedback from local committees. Such a national group would allow us to break away from the politically vacuous framework of the National Union of Students, and build a democratic organisation to foster the militant student movement which is forming on campuses all across the country.
Although presence on picket lines is vital for improving trust between groups and the trade unions, it is not the be all and end all of the situation. We should be forming student-staff working groups, where tactics for uniting our common struggle can be discussed. Staff, due to draconian trade union legislation, are limited in forms of direct action they can take over periods of strikes. On the other hand, students are less restricted in the methods of action they can take, and have less to lose. We should be making the unions aware of this fact, perhaps by showing rather than telling.
The organisation of militant student groups on a national level that I describe above is crucial to winning the demands of working-class students– now and in the future. Student groups can sometimes be mocked for the idealistic, self-aggrandising disposition of some of their activists. Whilst there’s a shred of truth to be found in this, the attitude on the ground and at the picket lines is one of pragmatic optimism. Students want to fight for the interests of all working people. The task of communist students is how to build a mass organisation that embodies and represents that fight. Our participation is not suggested, but is instead mandatory.
Jack Davidson is a member of the YCL’s Glasgow branch