Are These the Glimmers of a Resurgent Student Movement?

Coll McCail detecs solidarity between students and staff that is regenerating a united movement that can face current challenges.

Thirteen years ago, thousands of students stormed Conservative Party headquarters. The ramifications of the Millbank occupation reached far beyond the student movement. It was a critical juncture in the fight against David Cameron’s austerity agenda. Since then the organisational strength and militancy of yesterday’s student movement has evaporated. In 2023, amidst unprecedented industrial action, the student movement is noticeably absent from the tide of increased political activity. In February, the University and Colleges Union took six days of strike action, suspended their remaining twelve days on account of ‘significant progress’ in negotiations, then scheduled a further five days in March. This followed UK-wide action from Unite and UNISON members in higher education earlier in the year. Academic, professional services and facilities workers have a common struggle. If the student movement can find the spirit and politics that inspired the thousands-strong demonstrations of the last decade, it can help them win.

Since 2013, the tentacles of marketisation have reached ever further into Scotland’s universities. Higher education is, in many ways, predictably neoliberal. Poorly paid, casualised labour is more common than ever. The continued use of online learning post-Covid serves only to further alienate students from one another, their work and staff. University workforces, already compartmentalised, are further divided by the outsourcing of services. Students, treated more and more as customers or service users, are pitted against ‘undeserving’ staff who dare to demand better. The consequence is the growth of a pervasive apathy among students who may have sympathy for their staff, but will still cross their picket line. The process of commodification leaves students with such little stake in their university that they see the fight of staff as totally disconnected from their own. The destruction of community, of course, is imperative for neoliberalism’s onward march. It is for this very reason that there have been such determined attempts to formalise campus organising within university structures. This bid to control and sanitise potential resistance, coupled with punitive action against more organic dissent, breeds a sense that the university is immune to resistance.

However, with a resurgent labour movement behind them, students across Scotland are rallying in defence of their staff and education. At Glasgow Caledonian University, where there were previously no political networks on campus, there is now a strike solidarity group – a testament to rising consciousness among students. At Strathclyde University, collective pressure from students and staff has forced events taking place on strike days to move venue. Those which went ahead were disrupted by students. In December, Strathclyde students made so much noise outside one exam hall that the University was left with no choice but to automatically pass all students. In the same month, across the city at the University of Glasgow, a coalition of formerly disparate and ideologically distinct student organisations united with students from other universities to blockade lectures taking place on strike days. Staff were forced to cancel their classes. Most students who had arrived to attend class were more than happy to walk on, or to take leaflets and convince classmates not to cross the picket line.Then, in February, Glasgow University students set their sights on the university’s management and bureaucracy by blockading the largest car park, provoking angry men in suits, queues of traffic, and threats of suspension and arrest. Elsewhere, a blockade of lecture halls during a break ground the university’s operation to a halt. Alongside these more militant actions, students have run ‘teach-outs’ on Glasgow’s radical history, committing to learn from past struggles.

Of course, this trend is not limited to Glasgow. It was only a few years ago that thirteen Stirling University students were barred from campus having occupied management buildings. This February, Edinburgh University students disrupted a planned postgraduate fair with a banner that read ‘Don’t Cross Any Picket’, extending their struggle beyond campus. The student movement across Scotland may still be catching up with the labour movement, but it is gathering steam. While higher education has fallen prey to the worst of neoliberalism, student activists across Scotland are advancing the case for reorganising the economy. Students have once again begun to exploit the vulnerabilities of a market-driven higher education sector. Campaigns are exposing the pay disparity between vice-chancellors and casualised staff. Management’s divide-and-conquer strategy has been countered by the construction of strong relationships between students and local union branches. Students have cut to the heart of capitalist contradiction, focusing on record university reserve funds as a means of decrying pitiful pay offers.

Paulo Freire wrote: ‘To study is not to consume ideas but to create and recreate them.’ Against a backdrop of climbing class consciousness, collectives of students are aspiring for a more radical, unmarketised pedagogy. More than that, in creating and recreating tactics and strategies as Freire entreats, that aspiration has come to inform struggles in support of staff and a transformed education. If higher education workers are to win then this work must continue, coordinate, and grow.

Coll McCail is a Glasgow University student. He writes for Progressive International and represents young members on Scottish Labour’s executive committee.