Occupations end, but protests continue

By Abel Harvie-Clark

The student occupations at Sheffield Hallam and Manchester Universities have ended, due to heavy-handed attempts by university management to criminalise the protests, and a refusal to engage with their demands.

The students leave with their heads held high, however, as their three week long protest has demonstrated how to militantly oppose the marketised higher education system. The fact that universities still remain able to resist these immediate demands does not deter students from promising to continue with radical tactics.

The campaigns that have emerged around fee and rent strikes this year have adopted encouraging wide-ranging politics, pledging solidarity with struggles both on campus and beyond. The hundreds of millions of pounds invested by UK universities in Israel’s denial of Palestinians’ human rights through weaponry, surveillance and occupation have rightly been called out by the student campaigns that have gained a platform this year. The investments are indicative of the deeply neoliberal machines that universities have become, but student action and divestment campaigns could change this.

Student campaign group Apartheid Off Campus organised protests on Saturday 15 May with other youth groups such as Global Majority vs UK Gov, connecting the struggle against oppression from Colombia to Palestine. Internationalism is a great strength of this young generation of protestors, which has taken inspiration from the climate and BLM movements to demand international, anti-racist and anti-capitalist solutions to climate breakdown and national oppressions.

The new Police Bill seeks to attack this spirit of protesting, but universities have already been cracking down on student organising long before the most recent occupation evictions. The Prevent agenda has been thought-policing student campaigns, notably those connecting with Palestinian solidarity.

The charity status of student unions has been used, foremostly by the officers of those unions, to limit their political action, negating the right for students to democratically pursue political positions and action. Student unions’ abandonment of campaigns this year when in negotiation with management has been a barrier to winning rent strike demands, and points to the need for left-wing students to engage with and take over their union’s democratic structures.

Activist groups and energetic campaigns are also necessary, but the democratic mandate and accountability of student unions are needed to stand up to bullying managements and mobilise more students.

Campaigns such as Preventing Prevent and Unis Resist Border Controls have been educating and organising on campus to oppose the stifling of dissent and the racist border regime that hinders international students from organising. Continuing big student mobilisations for ongoing demonstrations is important to strengthen campus organising.

In the upcoming weeks, students will be attending Myanmar general strike solidarity action (20-21 May), Kill the Bill protests (29 May), and Uyghur solidarity protests (4 June).

On 22-23 May there will be two youth sessions at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, an open networking session for student campaigners to share their campaigns and make international connections; and a webinar with student campaigners from across Europe and Asia discussing “academic freedom as a democratising factor”.

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