Tuesday 08-11-2016 - 13:59
Ahead of the United for Education national demo next Saturday, Oxford PhD student Matt Myers takes a look back at the proud history of student protest in the UK.
Student protest has a long history in Britain. From defending students' union autonomy, winning divestment from South African Apartheid, to fighting grant-cuts and rent-rises, NUS has played a central part in this history.
Previous student movements have won us many of the freedoms – including the right to have students' unions – that students enjoy today. The NUS of the past wasn’t afraid to organize demonstrations, rent strikes, boycotts, divestment, and occupations. In the rapid turnover of student generations, these memories have become lost. The current NUS stands in the organization’s long tradition of protest.
The past and present NUS have many overlaps. A major NUS campaign in defence of grants in 1973 – which echoes today’s fight for NHS bursaries, the fight for free education, and rent strikes – called on the government to increase grants and for university authorities to reduce rent and food prices. In March 1973, an estimated 400,000 students participated in the NUS grants campaign. Many campuses held marches, pickets, and canteen boycotts. Like today, students and the NUS saw increasing rents as a direct attack on living standards. In 1973, the NUS officially adopted rent strikes as part of their campaign for increased grants. More than forty universities and colleges took part in the rent strikes that followed, including a four-month long occupation at Warwick. Students eventually won a 25 per cent increase in their grants.
Then, as now, the NUS wasn’t afraid to take action against rent-rises and education cuts.
Student movements of the past didn’t accept the false dichotomy between ‘student’ issues and ‘non-student’ issues. What was unjust in society and the world was unjust for students. The removal of the ‘no politics’ clause in the NUS constitution in 1969 opened the organization to solidarity action and the politics of liberation. The Anti-Apartheid Movement Campaign – which NUS helped create in 1972 – won university divestment from corporations engaged in trade with South Africa.
NUS regularly targeted South African sports teams, achieving success mobilizing against the (segregated) Springbok rugby team in 1974. As Goldsmith’s Rugby Club have recently shown by wearing a Palestinian flag on their team kit, the student movement has long seen sport as political. By the end of the 1970s, eighteen universities had withdrawn their financial investments in South Africa. Campaigns for boycott and divestment – against regimes that deny justice and freedom – have been a central part of NUS’ history.
NUS has been active in fighting surveillance and repression of civil liberties – from fighting repression of student protesters to taking on the Prevent Agenda. Students at Essex and Warwick in 1970 and 1973 discovered files showing that the university had been systematically spying on their student’s political activities. An NUS-backed campaign resulted in mass protests and major occupations. The fight against the Prevent Strategy is part of a long history in the student movement of defending civil liberties.
Much like today, the press regularly attacked the NUS and the student movement when they protested against injustice. Former NUS President Digby Jacks explained that in the 1960s that ‘the press sought to stigmatise students, alienate the general public from them and weaken the effectiveness of their actions’. The Conservative Party used the student movement as a political target in their 1970 election campaign. The attacks didn’t prevent students organising then, nor will they succeed in stopping them now.
Demands for liberation were framed as radical challenges to the system. In 1973 NUS campaigned for crèche facilities, nurseries, contraception and abortion on demand, and equal pay for women. At its 1972 conference NUS passed a motion on women’s equality stating: ‘Conference recognises that the oppression faced by women in British society cannot be seen in isolation from the capitalist system’. Liberation then, as now, meant connecting up the struggles.
The last great student revolt – this time over the threefold increase in tuition fees in 2010 – shook the Coalition government to its core. Although the fee rise passed, the movement spurred the anti-austerity movement and helped to decimate Liberal Democrat support at the 2015 General Election. The movement in 2010 politicised a generation – many of whom now find themselves at the heart of NUS.
In 1968, the writer and activist David Widgery called NUS ‘the student muffler’. The organization, he said, had ‘all the passion of an ashtray’. The NUS of 2016 has come a long way since then, and is now one of the leading progressive voices in British politics. The history of NUS is the history of organized militancy for social justice. It is a history of demonstrations, occupations, rent strikes, boycotts, worker solidarity, and campaigns for civil liberties. The current NUS – and the protest on 19 November – stand in a tradition that has won us the rights we hold today. We owe it to past generations to defend the rights we have, to extend those we don’t, and to continue the fight for a free and liberated education.
 Widgery, David. ‘NUS: The Student Muffler’, in Blackburn eds. Student Power. 1969 Penguin.