Reflections on the Student Movement in the UK

In 2010 the announcement by the Coalition government that university tuition fees would be tripled sparked a wave of student protest. Remaining largely within the confines of the campus, the movement exhausted itself and failed to spread to other sectors. Nine years later, what’s left?

The Students

Between 1965 and 1975, under the recommendations of the Robbins Report, university provision in the UK was extended, colleges of advanced technology were turned into universities, and the first generation of students from working class backgrounds entered higher education. When campus unrest broke out in 1968, sections of the British ruling class blamed it on the pace of the student intake (and the “quality” of the new students – by which they meant the class origins of the new cohort, even though most of the working class students were either conservative defenders of meritocracy, or thought middle class student activists were just “playing games”). At the time, full-time student numbers were still below 200,000.

In 1992 a Conservative government transformed former polytechnics into universities, nearly doubling the number of higher education institutions. In 1998 a Labour government first introduced tuition fees, and in 2006 the cap was raised to £3,000. At first glance, it might seem that tuition fees would act as a damper on student intake, however the opposite was the case. A range of grants, loans and bursaries were made available to entice students from low-income backgrounds to apply to university. Since 2010 and the tripling of tuition fees to £9,000, a three-year degree can now entail more than £50,000 of debt (and rising with inflation), but most of it will never be repaid – the average annual starting wage for graduates is estimated to be £19-22,000, while the threshold for repayment has just risen to £25,000 a year.

Today, there are around 2.3 million students studying in the UK (the majority of whom are undergraduates – 1.7 million), spread out over 164 higher education institutions. As Robbins foresaw, mass education has largely replaced elite education (recent attempts to “protect the value of degrees” by fining universities which hand out “too many” top degrees, or suggestions to introduce degree “quotas”, highlight this contradiction at the heart of higher education). Since 2017, 49% of 17-30 year olds in the UK will go on to higher education (this percentage has steadily risen since 2006, except for a brief fall in 2011-3 coinciding with the tripling of tuition fees). While socially universities remain the domain of the bourgeoisie (those from the “most advantaged backgrounds” are 2.4 times more likely to enter higher education than their “most disadvantaged peers”), the entry rate for students from the most disadvantaged areas is now higher than ever at 19.7% in 2018 (again, a rate which has continued to rise since 2006).(1)

The class position of students is not straightforward. Despite some 60% of students working while at university – often in minimum wage, part-time jobs in the service industry or the gig economy – for many this is a temporary condition. Unemployment among graduates is relatively low, standing at 5.1% six months after leaving university (as opposed to 10.4%, the UK youth unemployment rate). Student underemployment and precarity however is high (a quarter of graduates end up working jobs which do not require a degree). All this is to say that the image of the student as a violent bourgeois scab during the 1926 general strike is no longer the norm – the student body, since the 60s, has its own proletarian and bourgeois wings, even if both are distorted by middle class aspirations and liberal political perspectives (enforced by academia itself). The student condition is that of being in a state of transition, and where sections of the student body lie on the class divide comes out most clearly during class struggle.

Higher education is now an industry which generates more than £90 billion in gross output, universities compete for funding on a market of teaching and research metrics, student numbers keep on growing, while a workforce of increasingly precarious staff (many on temporary and zero-hours contracts) remains divided by profession, outsourcing, and union membership (e.g. solidarity between lecturers and cleaners during disputes remains uncommon and limited in scope). For a brief moment however, in 2010-1, it looked as if students were in the vanguard of opposition to cuts and capitalist austerity and could actually pose a challenge to the marketisation of higher education.

The Movement

The explosion of November 2010 was defined by the storming of Millbank Tower (at the time the Conservative Campaign Headquarters), but more importantly it gave birth to a wide range of political networks and student occupations at campuses across the country.(2) In April 2009 David Cameron first spoke of the coming “age of austerity”, and in the June 2010 budget George Osborne announced extensive public spending cuts. Two other announcements followed. First, the Browne Review called for the £3,000 a year tuition fees cap to be lifted. Then a plan to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), an allowance of up to £30 a week paid out to further education students (16-19 year old) from poorer households. Discontent was growing on campuses and at colleges, with the formation of more local anti-cuts networks as well as national networks, like the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). It culminated in a national demonstration, called by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the UCU, which overwhelmed both the organisers and the police, unprepared for the scale of the protest.

On 10 November 2010, 50,000 youth from universities, sixth-forms and colleges across the country protested in London over austerity, the tripling of tuition fees and the scrapping of the EMA. Effigies and placards were set ablaze, while thousands of students broke away from the main march and surrounded Millbank, chanting “Greece! France! Now here too!” as they broke through police lines and stormed the Tower. The UK had not seen such scenes in a long time – the NUS decried it as “violence by a tiny minority”, and hand in hand with the media blamed it on “anarchist” infiltrators. The protests continued on through November and into December, but the police made sure to prevent another Millbank, through violence, mass arrests and kettling. Students were beaten off the streets, while both the £9,000 fees and the scrapping of the EMA were voted through. In the end, while it revealed the true face of the state, the spectacle of Millbank failed to achieve anything. In November 2012 the NUS organised another national demonstration, but it only gathered some 10,000. These national demonstrations, sometimes called by the NUS, sometimes by the NCAFC, became an annual event until 2017 when numbers fell to just 1,000.

While student unrest disappeared from the public eye in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots(3), the local student networks kept on going. These networks were much stronger at Russell Group universities as opposed to former polytechnics, but throughout 2011-3 they were instrumental in creating alternative spaces for discussion, often with at least a sense of “anti-capitalist” intention and engagement with Marxism, while also organising local protests and occupations. Inspired by the 2012 Quebec student strike which spread beyond the campus, student activists in the UK increasingly realised that in order for their actions to have impact they had to be grounded in workers’ struggle. Students began to oppose redundancies, outsourcing, and pay cuts. They joined picket lines and supported the campaigns of smaller unions in London like the IWGB or the Pop-Up Union in Sussex. To understand the limitations of these student networks, and how by 2015 most had dissolved or were eaten up by the Labour Party, we need to look at the role of the left of capital within them.

The Left of Capital

The strongest political current among students was, without a doubt, Trotskyism. In the course of the student movement, groups like the SWP, SPEW, Socialist Appeal and the AWL managed to build a presence on many campuses. They formed their own student societies through which they recruited students into their organisations and, more or less critically, reinforced the idea that working within the “labour movement” (i.e. the Labour Party and the trade unions) should be the primary orientation for young socialists. They funnelled members of student networks into standing in student union elections and trying to “transform” the NUS (the same tactic they apply to the Labour Party and the trade unions). The alternative was anarchism, a tendency which saw a period of popularity after Millbank, but often in a caricatured form. The young anarchists were prone to localism and fetishised direct action and democratisation. In groups like the NCAFC, which sought to unite the different student networks towards a common goal, these tendencies clashed (Trotskyists vs. Trotskyists, anarchists vs. Trotskyists, etc.). Interest in anarchism however waned pretty fast and did not translate into a real membership swell for the existing anarchist organisations, leaving Trotskyism as almost the only game in town for students looking for revolutionary perspectives. Initiatives like the NCAFC were entirely lost to Labour and NUS entryism.

Since the gradual decline of the student movement, the student networks that existed gave way to single issue campaigns again (environmentalism, feminism, divestment, anti-racism, LGBT, etc.), a tendency compatible with the soft-spot for immediatism and decentralisation common among anarchists but now stripped of any anti-reformist framework. Meanwhile, many former student activists have found a new home, and a career path, in the bureaucracy of the Labour Party, the trade unions, groups like Acorn and liberal NGOs – and are well on their way to becoming future managers of capitalist society (like the Cohn-Bendits and Sanders’ of the past). In other words, with few exceptions, both anarchism and Trotskyism tended to reinforce middle class aspirations and liberal political perspectives (by encouraging either direct action reformism or institutional reformism). It should be no surprise then that when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015, and promised to rethink tuition fees and restore maintenance grants, so many student radicals of all colours, even anarchists, rallied around him (just as they had previously rallied around the Liberal Democrats and then the Greens).

While a tiny section of the student movement have come to realise that capitalism has nothing to offer them and that struggle has to be carried outside of the existing structures (trade unions and parliamentary parties), the majority have not. Others still have simply become disillusioned with politics in general. For around seven years (2010-7) students kept on marching under the same slogans of “free education now”, “tax the rich”, “grants not debt”, “no fees, no cuts, no debt” to little or no effect. Petitions were signed, pleas were made, banners were dropped. Even rent strikes and mass pickets were tried, but the illusion that the education system can be reformed in the interest of “students and workers” was never dispelled. The term “socialism”, so popular nowadays(4), was never properly understood. While students knew what they were “against”, there was little agreement about what they were “for”.

What Next?

Not all is lost. The fight for free education and against cuts and marketisation was only a beginning. As the 2018 strike of lecturers showed, a new generation of students has absorbed a sense of class consciousness from previous years and recognises their interests as that of workers.(5) However, the old illusions – in reforming the Labour Party and the trade unions – have not gone away. Arguably, with Corbyn at the head of Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition, these illusions are now stronger than before. Inevitably, contradictions within the education system or world events, aggravated by nearly 50 years of economic crisis, will spark student unrest again. In the meantime, through groups of internationalists at campuses and colleges which encourage the autonomy of workers' struggle, what class conscious students can do is learn from the mistakes of the 2010 student movement, escape the student ghetto (and its leftist student societies) and begin to formulate a political alternative to capitalism which that movement failed to do. With trade and currency wars threatening extended imperialist wars, as in the Gulf today, and with climate change competing with that threat in a race towards human extinction, the time to start building an international anti-capitalist political organisation of the working class is now. If you are interested in being part of this, or are already in a group with similar aims, get in touch and enter into discussion with us.

Communist Workers’ Organisation

August 2019



(2) Some of these networks had been in existence since early 2009, when the Gaza War galvanised students into occupying more than 20 universities, initially to condemn the Israeli attacks and demand divestment from the arms trade, but soon taking aim at other issues such as marketisation of higher education.




Friday, August 2, 2019


I would imagine that the real opportunity for revolutionary organisations lies with those graduates whose expectations are dashed rather than with the students themselves. Despite massively rising numbers of graduates, opportunities remain relatively unchanged and the losers are largely the graduates of working class origin who are "sent back to where they came from".