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5 Student Strikes That Show How Students Can Win

by Josh Berlyne and Callum Cant

Why does anyone care if students don’t go to class?

When talking about the potential of a student strike, people come back with this question again and again. We’ve tried to explain the reasons elsewhere and argue why a strike is necessary.

But the clearest indication we have that student strikes work is that they have worked before. Across the world, time after time student strikes have won their demands. Whilst there are obviously very important local specifics, the general trend is clear: a democratic stoppage of the education system can exert huge collective power.

To this inexhaustive list we could add many other examples – from the very recent strike victory in Bangladesh for the #NoVATonEducation campaign to older examples such as the UK’s own strike victory against the Conservatives in 1971, when Margaret Thatcher was education secretary. Just because we aren’t so familiar with the idea, it doesn’t mean the student strike isn’t a well established tactic in the strategic handbook of confrontational politics.

1. Mexico, 1999.

In 1999, the president of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) announced tuition fees would rise from the equivalent of two cents to 150 US dollars per semester. The rise in fees threatened to seriously disrupt the studies of thousands of students. In response, students organised disruption of another kind: a student strike.

Close to 25k students went on strike. Decisions were taken collectively, through discussions in faculty or college assemblies which involved all striking students. The UNAM campuses were occupied to enforce the picket, stopping the classes of 270k students.

After seven weeks of strike action, the UNAM administration offered a compromise: voluntary tuition fees for all students. The strikers didn’t accept this, instead demanded institutional change rather than small changes in policy. They did not succeed with these demands, but their struggle became a symbol of resistance to a wider government agenda of privatisation and repression, galvanising the public to take to the streets and demand change.

2. Colombia, 2011.

2011 saw the Colombian government propose the extensive marketisation of the Colombian higher education system. Students called a national meeting at the beginning of 2011 to discuss how to expand the student movement into a mass movement which could include different parts of Colombian society: sports teams, artists, academics, and so on. The meeting gave birth to MANE (National Student Wide Table).

MANE’s strategy had two main components: first, national days of strike action. Second, a positive vision of what higher education should be. This was a six-point list of demands covering student needs, democracy and social engagement in academia, and demands for democratic freedoms. These demands resonated with the people of Colombia, expanding the movement beyond students. There was so much pressure from MANE and the public that by the end of 2011 the government was forced to scrap its plans for marketisation.

3. Quebec, 2012.

Quebecois students opposed an attempt to increase tuition fees to the level they would have been at had they risen with inflation since 1968. The most militant union, ASSE (Association for Student Union Solidarity), opened up its membership to for a coalition group, CLASSE (Broad Coalition of ASSE), and began mobilising. After a huge campaign of political education and a slow escalation of pressure tactics, they began to call strike votes.

What followed was the largest general unlimited student strike in Quebec’s history. 250k students went on strike for six months. Their campaign of economic disruption, huge demonstrations and closed down campuses threw the government into such a crisis that the situation led to early elections and the halting of the tuition fee hike.

4. Brazil, 2015.

In Brazil in recent years the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) has lurched to the right, implementing an agenda of cuts to public services while cosying up to banks. In response to savage cuts to the universities budget, students, lecturers and in-house staff at many of Brazil’s universities have chosen to take coordinated strike action. Around 100 days ago lecturers and in-house staff chose to go on strike, with one demand: repeal the cuts. This mobilisation has now reached fifty universities, and students have formed their own strike committees to support and extend the strike action. Right now in Brazil, students are on the frontline of resistance to neoliberalism.

5. UK, 2016?

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts has released a call out to the UK student movement, arguing that in order to beat the Tories, we need a student strike.

Strategic innovation, and a change from the stale cycle of national demonstrations and days of action which threatens to bog down our movement, is essential. But more than that – the student movement now faces an historic opportunity.

The change of maintenance grants into maintenance loans is a huge mobilising issue. But it’s not the only one – the government is simultaneously going after graduates, academics, further education students, disabled students, international students, and Muslim students. If the Tories succeed, this will be a bigger change to education than £9k fees. If we can articulate a collective response, it could be the first defeat of this new Conservative majority.

With Jeremy Corbyn storming to victory in the Labour leadership election, a sense of political possibility, audacity and confidence is spreading amongst young people. Now is the time to be ambitious.

As students return to campuses over the coming weeks we will see how strong the anger is – and more importantly, how willing students will be to fight the government. But if the reaction is anything like we expect, we need to get ready for the biggest opportunity for collective action we have seen in the UK since 2010.

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Published 18th September 2015

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