Last week students in the UK mobilised by the National Coalition Against Fees and Cuts and a range of other student organisations rallied in London for free education. The National Union of Students controversially, and at a late stage, denied their support for the mobilisation. In this month’s Histories of the Present, we asked second year undergraduate history student and activist Jessica Thorne to reflect on these recent events and ask whether the ‘Golden Age’ of student protest can be revived.
‘The students themselves see a political dead end. None of the established parties represent their views – the leadership consists of older men whose rhetoric represents a different age and style, and thus, there is some generational conflict’. This preceding quote could be mistakenly attributed to a journalist observing the current abundance of student disillusionment and a general apathy towards the political elite in Westminster today. However, this quote was taken from the Economic and Political Weekly in 1968. The author, Phillip G. Altbach, was observing the momentous waves of student activism that had disturbed, dislocated and shocked the post-war system. The student-led protests of the 1960s signified a powerful defiance away from a mass consumerist culture which was commodifying education and dampening a critical approach to the post-war consensus. Instead of succumbing to neo-liberal subjectivities which inhibited critical thought and analysis, students became enthused, and romanticised the notion of free education which culminated in the free-school movement.
Today, the underlying motivations which informed student protests in the 1960s have by no means disappeared. A disillusionment with foreign policy has been highlighted recently during persistent marches around the country for Gaza. Critiques of capitalism have manifested in the form of the Occupy movements, and more recently, June’s Anti-Austerity march. However, media coverage, such as the BBC’s muted attention to the March On Austerity, present an image of the protesters as social misfits, withdrawn and secluded in a utopian fantasy, who threaten the stability of the state with petty violence.
Indeed, we seem more comfortable with remembering civil disobedience in the past, than condoning it in the present day. At the Victoria and Albert Museum this year an exhibition entitled ‘Disobedient Objects’ presents the material culture of past political dissent. Cinematic representations of radical history, such as this year’s film Pride are also framed in nostalgic ways. The backward gaze is attributable more to the nature of their demands rather than the acts of protests themselves, although the two are obviously intertwined. This manifested particularly in the 2010/2011 student riots of which presented the only options for the future as continuing unchallenged stability and simultaneous increasingly higher tuition fees, or a future reality of inchoate violence, disorder and looting. Protests in recent British history have been far from rare, but after the failure of the student protests in 2010-2011, students’ pivotal role in provoking change and challenging governmental policy has taken a defeatist step back. All of this points towards the unavoidable question: do protests have their ‘Golden Age’?
The political reprisals from predominantly white, middle-class students in America and Europe came as an unwelcome surprise to most governments and their institutions in the 1960s and 70s. For most of the twentieth century, universities had attracted and appealed to affluent and conservative members of society, and the transformation in attitudes was hard for the wider public sphere to understand.
What turned the “silent generation” into a generation of unforgettable radicals was undoubtedly the departure from orthodox Marxism and the evolution of the New Left. The New Left distanced itself from the Soviet Marxism of the twentieth century, but still spoke of a powerlessness which was a result of what they perceived to be oppressive bureaucratic institutions; appeasing and distracting the masses by enticing and distracting them with things they didn’t need. As a result, influential student leaders like Rudi Dutschke could argue ‘Our life is more than money. Our life is thinking and living… It is about how we could use technology and all the other things which at the moment are used against the human being’.
Not only were those engulfed in the wave of student protests disillusioned with the lack of political value in materialism, they resented the Cold War neo-imperialist politics impinging on society in the US and in the ‘Third World’. The student movement instead proclaimed a ‘Third Way’, a non-aligned movement itself; objecting to capitalist forms of government complicit in conflict in Vietnam, as well as hard-line, Soviet-style Communism. The transnational student movements became international non-aligned movements, embracing a counter-culture which defied the values of their parents’ generation. The height of the uprisings found itself accordingly in France, in 1968, when students commenced sit-ins and occupied the buildings at the University of Paris’s Nanterre. Such actions were shifting French public debate and forced many to question the role of the establishment in controlling the masses, pondered on the notion of a ‘police state’.
I spoke to Andrew Mitchell, a French and Politics student, and former leader of Royal Holloway, University of London’s Labour Students, to see what he thought about the links—and the disconnects–between the students protests of the 1960s and today. “ wasn’t a movement that affected only ideas and policy,” he argues. “It changed the actual makeup of French society”. The message that the narrative of 1968 can give to today’s is that, “In struggles just like this, you are not on your own and cannot go it alone. Quite often the point is made [by politicians] that students would be alone in fighting fees, privatisation, pay gaps etc, but they aren’t and would not be”. He adds that “such protests do not change policy, but they may change public opinion, and then, in turn, future policy”. It is that agenda-setting function which become the most significant in narratives of struggle, conflict and political disarray.
In many ways, the challenges the students faced in the 1960s are similar to the ones that many students face today. The activism of the 1960s, despite how powerfully it is remembered, was rejected by society at large; the student protests in 2010 and 2011 were equally rejected by the wider public and demonised by various media outlets. Both featured sporadic clashes with police who used controversial crowd control measures, and the media over-publicized incidents of violence. The more recent student protests also subsequently failed: the tuition cap was raised, government funding was slashed, and most Universities raised their fees to the £9,000 mark. We can see already that increased tuition fees have had an instrumental impact on the amount of low-income students applying for university, and as Andrew Mitchell argues “The decrease in poorer students enrolling at University means that the financial opposition to reform is less, because those who are affected by these policies, are those that cannot get there in the first place”. As a student from a low-income background myself, I have come to realize that there are fewer students from similar socio-economic backgrounds breaking through into the world of higher education; and this is denying Universities a diverse student body. Decreased diversity and increased debt may also impact on students’ ability to protest and join campaigns.
The rise in tuition fees has also cemented the notion for many students that the only value in education is money. Combined with an increasingly defunded arts sector, this has meant that students wanting to embark upon artistic studies and other, perhaps less financially rewarding, degrees, have been discouraged. Such areas have often appealed to the free-thinking and creative students who challenge the sort of societal norms governments want to conserve for their own dividends. The result of this is that it has inevitably changed the political climate on campus, to which Andrew and I, and others like us can testify. It has culminated in an increase in political acquiescence towards government and government policy, and a decrease in conscientious challenge.
There is certainly no ‘golden age’ of protest movements, as social injustice and inequality prevail and frustrations are still flourishing in a pandemic of cynicism and disillusionment; particularly in the sphere of the internet and social media. However, for such discontent to reinvigorate the political theatre of our cities, activists need to focus on rebuilding a vibrant, politically critical student community on campus through campus-based workshops and dedicated weeks of activism centred on free education and what a different future might look like. As was demonstrated on Wednesday, such campus organising can result in radical action, even with the withdrawal of official NUS support and after four years of tuition fees.