The tactic of occupying university buildings has been very widespread throughout the present mobilisation against education fees and cuts. Although they have often involved a determined minority rather than the whole body of staff and students, and without claiming that they have yet achieved a real autonomy from the NUS or the activist networks on its left wing, we would argue that the occupations are still infused with the same proletarian spirit that animates the revolt as a whole. This can be seen in two key aspects: the demands they have raised, and their efforts to apply methods of debate and decision making that reflect the need for workers to control their own struggles.
The demands that the occupations have put forward are not limited to the interests of university students but correspond to wider needs within the working class. A good example is the list of demands agreed by the occupiers at the University of East London:
“1) We demand that the university pledge not to introduce tuition fee increases.
2) The university pledge not to implement cuts, no staff redundancies or wage reduction.
3) The London living wage must be immediately implemented for all staff including contracted workers.
4) We demand that the Vice Chancellor issues a statement against fees and cuts as well as pressurising other members of the Million Plus group to do the same.
5) There must be absolutely no victimisation or disciplinary action taken against any of the students, staff and representatives involved in this occupation”.
At University College London, the occupation made similar demands, including for an increase in the wages of the cleaning, catering and security staff employed by the university.
At the occupied part of the School of Oriental and African Studies on 2 December, a general meeting rejected the university’s statement aimed at resolving the situation, not only because it didn’t clearly oppose rises in tuition fees, but also because it made no mention of the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance, an issue for hundreds of thousands of post-16 students.
The SOAS meeting is also a good example of the attempt to turn the occupations into a focus for real general assemblies that are open to all and which have the capacity to vote after a serious discussion. The meeting was attended by a much larger number of students and staff than are usually present at the occupation, and yet it took the decision to continue with the occupation in the face of threats from the university authorities.
The Edinburgh University occupation, which had a strong anarchist presence, was rather more explicit in its support for real decision-making and action ‘from below’: it described itself as “non-hierarchical” and “entirely leaderless” and affirmed that the strength of the occupations up and down the country was that they had been carried out without relying on leaders or student unions. We may disagree with the alternative being advocated in this statement – a kind of chaotic “swarm” without any attempt to centralise from the bottom up – but these ideas do express a rejection of the kind of premature and manipulative ‘centralisation’ that the leftists are always trying to impose on social movements (See ‘On our chaotic swarm - Edinburgh University Occupation’, libcom.org).
These are just a few examples and this particular movement is very much at the beginning. But they raise real questions about how in the future we can expect to see a truly unified class movement – raising demands that unify rather than divide, and finding forms of organisation that allow authentic discussion and decision-making to the widest possible number of proletarians.