Students protests spread across Europe and beyond

March 29, 2015
Students protest in Quebec on March 26.

The London School of Economics (LSE) was occupied by students on March 17. The occupation, still going as of March 28, has since spread to King's College London, University of Arts London and Goldsmiths University of London.

More than 100 students took over the school, which has been associated with neoliberal economic theory for decades, and declared that the central university administration building has been transformed into the Free University of London.

Students opened previously exclusive space and are calling all students, staff and members of the wider community to visit the occupation and get involved.

A series of core demands have been proposed, including that the university lobby against tuition fees and for free education, for student and staff control over management and curriculum setting, for a rise in pay and an end to precarious employment for university staff, for an end to the elitism and exclusivity of university life and for a curriculum that liberates and empowers students instead of capital.

The occupied hall has been used to run workshops and discussion topics, as well as painting banners and organising for future rallies and actions.

Students are using the opportunity to organise actions and to build an image of what they want the university to look like: a free and open space for the sharing of knowledge, where access is a right afforded to all, not a privilege.

The irony of the occupation was not lost on students. The LSE has long been a prestigious university with close ties to parliament and the Bank of England. It produces sought after political advisers and economic strategists, as well as ideologues. Friedrich Hayek, father of neoclassical economic theory even taught at the university in the 1940s.

This occupation is not, however, an isolated event. The LSE joins the University of Amsterdam, where students have been engaged in a weeks-long occupation of the university administration building. Students at the UvA greeted the news of the occupation in London with a message of solidarity.

The UvA humanities department was occupied after a series of large demonstrations against attempts to defund humanities courses. About 60 students blockaded themselves inside the building, demanding that funding be restored. They began running workshops and discussions over what they have called the need for a “New University”.

After a police raid, students moved their occupation to the administration building. They have received guests, including US anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber, who came to speak on the struggle against bureaucracy and social control.

In a March 18 article in the autonomist Roar magazine, Nicholas Vrousalis, a social scientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, summed up the demands of the occupation: “Instead of commercialization, academic freedom. Instead of bureaucratization, democracy.”

The LSE occupation follows protests by students across Britain demanding free education. The campaign, organised largely outside of the National Union of Students, drew thousands of students to London to protest last November. Since then, students at various universities have attempted small occupations, though none have been as large as this.

Across the Irish Sea, at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, students challenged the college administration with a series of demands, including: reversing fee hikes; returning the glass-work department’s only furnace; and scrapping fees to use student services, which include a fee for using the campus doctor.

Beyond Europe, students in Quebec, Canada, have once again decided to directly challenge austerity. Confident after their victory through a prolonged struggle ― which brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets ― against an attempt to raise tuition fees, at least 24 student groups have voted to support strike action against austerity measures rolled out by the Quebec government.

These student groups represent 30,000 students. Vice magazine reported om March 12 that another 110,000 students are set to carry out strike ballots. Already dubbed the “Red Spring”, students in Quebec look set to bring the ruckus once again.

The lessons from these struggles are many. Importantly, it shows that students must always be looking outward, looking to rally people around their demands to bring new people into the struggle.

In Quebec, we can see the level of mobilisation needed to get a government to submit to the will of students. In London and Amsterdam, we can see that while small groups of students can start to fight back against austerity, it is only when they create political spaces ― sometimes physically via occupations ― that they can draw wider layers of students into a discussion about a better type of education and university.

[Angus McAllen is a member of Resistance:Young Socialist Alliance in Brisbane.]

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