The trajectory of the 2010 student movement in the UK

Woodcock, J. (2020) 'The trajectory of the 2010 student movement in the UK: from student activism to strikes', in A. Choudry and S. Vally (eds) The University and Social Justice Struggles Across the Globe, 25-40 London: Pluto.

Introduction

The 2010 student movement in the UK was heralded as a return to campus activism, with large numbers of students taking part in occupations and demonstrations across the country. Although the tuition fee increases were eventually passed, the movement almost brought down a government and exposed a generation of activists to the experience of mass movements. It brought together activists from previous movements, as well as students from both universities and further education colleges.

Students, by nature of their transitionary position, go on to new activities and occupations after their studies end. This means the trajectory of these activists, their experiences, and repertoires of struggle can become carried over and translated into other movements. This chapter argues that the key underpinning of the 2010 student movement was the earlier anti-war movement in 2003, the Palestine solidarity activism on campuses in 2008, and the financial crisis of 2008 following austerity programmes. This trajectory is followed for two reasons: first, these were important dynamics in shaping the events of 2010; second, I followed this trajectory of the movement in my own activism. I walked out of school in 2003 in protest at the invasion of Iraq, I arrived at university towards the end of 2007 in time for the financial crisis and the Palestine solidarity movement, participated in the student movement of 2010, then later became involved in on and off campus worker organising.

Despite much writing at the time about the birth of a new movement, the trajectory of this movement is only now starting to be accounted (Myers, 2017a; Cini, 2019).[1] While there is a temptation to draw a clear line between the student movement and the rejuvenation of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – which, as Myers (2017b) and others have argued is worth drawing attention to – there is also a risk of missing the other processes and experiences learned from this moment.

In order to draw out these experiences, this chapter will draw on my own experience of this movement, taking my own ‘engagement’ (Burawoy, 1998:5) and subjectivity as a starting point to reflect on the different moments of the student struggle, as well as the later connection with the labour movement. This took place in three related ways: first, students becoming academics and organising against casualisation and precarity; second, campus organising with cleaners; and third, students graduating and becoming active as trade unionists outside of the university. The chapter takes account of the 2010 movement, understanding it over a longer period of time in which the connections to other movements and events can be explored.

The preceding movements: Stop the War and Palestine Solidarity

I was a school student in Oxford in 2003. At my school, like many across the country, we were outraged at the proposal to invade Iraq. I vaguely remember Tony Blair’s election and a general feeling that things were going to get “better” under a Labour government. However, things shifted rapidly once Blair began supporting George Bush in his calls for war. When the vote was passed in parliament I remember thinking that we had to do something to stop the UK going to war. We discussed the possibility of war in classrooms and the playground, asking friends’ older siblings (some who were university students) what they planned to do. We heard the call for a school walk out and decided we would do the same. Some of us had been on protests before (although mostly taken by our leftie-liberal parents – my first was in a pushchair), but we had never organised anything ourselves. I remember whispered conversations and planning in advance, nervous about whether anyone would join.

When the day of the walkout came, we left school in the mid-morning. I was surprised at how many students followed us out of the buildings and towards the main gate. I vividly remember walking past a teacher who shouted at me: “you can’t leave! We’ll put you in detention!” I waved my arms around, pointing at all the students now joining in, and responded: “what? All of us?” and ran off grinning. We marched into the centre of town to block roads and cause general chaos. As one leaflet at the time recounted: ‘In Oxford 500 school kids walked out and took over the town centre, forcing an Army recruitment stall off the streets, trapping soldiers in their van for half an hour, and blocked the roads’ (Marriot, 2009), while another went higher: ‘1000 blocked Oxford city centre including Carfax and bridges in the south’ (Stop the War Coalition, 2003).

Like many others, I had my first taste of a mass movement with Stop the War. We marched through London as part of ‘the largest protest event in human history’ (Walgrave and Rucht, 2010:xiii) – or mostly stood still given the size – along with an estimated 2 million other protestors (German and Murray, 2005). Yet, despite our best efforts, the war went ahead. After ten years, the war led to the deaths of an estimated 1 million people (Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2015). Although we did not know this at the time, there was a feeling of failure and helplessness at seeing the “shock and awe” of joint US and British military invading Iraq. We had tried to peacefully convince our government not to destroy another country and they had not listened. This cynicism that followed for me slowly translated into fury at not only the government, but became increasingly systemic as I started reading Marx. I finished school, worked boring jobs for a year, then headed off to university convinced this would be an opportunity to put some of this into practice – with some interest in studying too.

At the University of Manchester, I got involved with the growing Palestine solidarity movement in British universities. Some of those participating had been school students involved in the Stop the War organisation, while others were involved in Muslim societies (with a significant crossover), and some who were looking for a charitable cause. The students’ union was a hub for these activities, as well as organising anti-fascist demonstrations, supporting a postal worker strike, and so on. In our local group, Action Palestine, we took part in educational events and stunts, as well as building connections with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

However, this changed in December 2008 after the Israeli Defence Force launched a two-week invasion of Gaza. The school students who had walked out over the invasion of Iraq, now joined with many new activists, once again saw the human tragedy of asymmetrical warfare. 1,400 Palestinians were killed, with white phosphorous raining down on civilians trapped inside the Gaza Strip. The first action started at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London as students tried to stop a military exhibition, briefly occupying a building before forcing the event’s cancellation. The news travelled fast through the Stop the War, Palestine solidarity, Socialist Worker Student Societies, Amnesty groups, and among other left-wing activists. Soon, students across the country were taking part, with occupations at thirty different universities. At the University of Manchester, we held a general meeting of the Students’ Union to debate the issue, with over 1,000 students attending. From this meeting, we occupied buildings on the campus – first the management building, and then later a teaching building. The occupation lasted 31 days, becoming a hub for activism on campus. After escalating to blocking the Vice-Chancellor into his car park with upturned bins and setting off flares, the occupation won almost every demand – including the divestment of university funds from companies in breach of international laws, including those operating in Israel.

The occupation had become an accepted and successful tactic in the university. While the war on Gaza continued, students were able to express solidarity and win important concessions from local management. However, the university year had also started with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis. While the occupations over Palestine were not explicitly anti-capitalist, students began to make the connection, with placards on the demonstration appearing with slogans like “capitalism fails”. Moreover, the movement popularised anti-imperialist ideas and anti-authoritarian practices. This shocked many pre-existing groups like the national Stop the War Coalition, as well as the established Palestine Solidarity Campaign - which failed to support the students occupying over Gaza. As The Independent(Dugan, 2009) reported at the time

They are the iPod generation of students: politically apathetic, absorbed by selfish consumerism, dedicated to a few years of hedonism before they land a lucrative job in the City. Not any more. A seismic change is taking place in British universities. Around the UK, thousands of students have occupied lecture theatres, offices and other buildings at more than 20 universities in sit-down protests. It seems that the spirit of 1968 has returned to the campus. While it was the situation in Gaza that triggered this mass protest, the beginnings of political enthusiasm have already spread to other issues.

One example of this is the G20 demonstration in April 2009 in London. Activists from these previous waves of struggle took their keffiyehs to a broad demonstration, ostensibly under the banner of “March for Jobs, Justice and Climate.” The students I travelled down with from Manchester joined the anti-capitalist bloc “G20 Meltdown” outside of the Bank of England. We were metres away from Ian Tomlinson (the newspaper seller who was not part of the demonstration) who was attacked and killed by the police (Lewis, 2009). The connections and experiences being developed in 2009 created the grounds for an ‘anti-systemic movement’ (Arrighi et al., 1989) that would later follow. Students were waking up from a ‘culture of silence’ (Freire, 1970), while also finding a mass audience and milieu of activists that was being transformed through shared collective action. In the process, ‘repertoires of contention’ (Tarrow, 1998) were being developed. For example, the occupation was then used at SOAS against an immigration raid called by the university against its cleaners. These previous cycles of struggle also brought students into direct confrontation with university vice-chancellors and managers, something that would be quickly repeated in 2010.

The 2010 Student Movement

In May 2010, the Conservative and Liberal Democrats successfully formed a coalition, ending the Labour government that had started with Tony Blair. While the new coalition began to propose wide ranging changes to higher education, as well as the public sector more broadly, there was also a shift happening with the NUS (National Union of Students). This national organisation had previously had very close ties to the Labour party, even failing to put up any serious opposition to the introduction of tuition fees in 1998. As Dan Swain (2011:98) has argued, the ‘NUS’s reluctance to challenge the Labour Party was a huge barrier to the movement’, so it is ‘no coincidence that its biggest mobilisation for decades came only once Labour was in opposition.’ However, at the same time, two campaign groups were launched: the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and the Education Activist Network (EAN) at the start of 2010. EAN (which I was founding member of) started building solidarity with international campaigns and workers’ struggles in the UK, while NCAFC organised on student-related issues.

It was not long before the lessons learned in the confrontations with university management in the previous year were being applied again. Lord Browne[2]outlined a proposal to increase tuition fees, and this was met with immediate protest from students. Again, universities were occupied, which quickly connected with each other to discuss tactics and strategies. Student assemblies were called, sending delegates across the country to decide on the way forward. From fighting local managers, students now started to coordinate a national campaign. The previous struggles were one part of a learning process that allowed the student movement to constitute itself as a national political actor for the first time.

Towards the end of the first term, the protests grew into national demonstrations. On November 10th, the NUS called a demonstration in London. We funded nine coaches from Manchester, bringing students down to take part. I remember handing out a marker pen on the coach for other protestors to take down the solicitor’s number on their arm in case they were arrested. Many were surprised at this, saying they saw no need as the police would not cause any problems. Once we arrived on the demonstration, it was clear how large the movement was becoming: over fifty thousand students filled the streets. We marched along the majority of the route, but took part in a breakaway that had been organised beforehand. As we turned off the agreed route, a NUS steward asked us to keep marching as there “was nothing to see over there.” As we pushed off the route we caught a glimpse of the fires being started outside the Conservative Party Headquarters.

This demonstration was a turning point. Students faced police brutality and the aggressive use of “kettling” (the forming of a cordon around a protest and containing it within a limited space). However, on arrival at the headquarters, students surrounded and then occupied the building. The NUS president derided the “violence” of the demonstrators, but this was a key victory for the movement. As an Egyptian comrade joked with me at the time: “the students in London attacked the ruling party’s headquarters before we did!” On the coach back from the demonstration, we argued about the student throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof (who would later be arrested), but the argument for writing solicitor’s numbers down on our arms was no longer contentious.

This action created momentum for further demonstrations two weeks later, in which an estimated 132,000 students took part on what became called “Day X.” Echoing the Iraq war protests, thousands of school and further education students walked out to join university students. In Manchester, students at a Catholic school had to scale walls to join our demonstration after their disciplinary teachers locked the front gates. These younger students would play a key role in the mobilisations, bringing energy and fury to the demonstrations. For example, at Bury College in Manchester, almost a thousand students walked out. In London, 10,000 students marched and were kettled by the police. The head of the Metropolitan Police in London, Sir Paul Stephenson, announced to reporters: ‘the game has changed, we are living in an era of mass protests’ (quoted in Lewis et al., 2010).

By this point, there were thirty-two universities in occupation. These were organising centres, not raising demands like the Gaza occupations. Regular general assemblies were held, not only trying to build the student movement, but also inviting workers on campus and more widely too. This was one of the ways that activists, particularly from EAN, tried to connect student militancy to the labour movement. In Manchester, we would leave the occupation daily to speak at trade union branches and trades councils – asking for support for our own struggle, but also trying to encourage them to take action too. We wanted to see a response to the attacks they were facing, while also building towards our longer-term goal of coordinated action. In this context, EAN has helped to initiate coordination of occupations and campaigns. In its statement of intent, the coordination declared (EAN, 2010):

Our fight for education is part of a wider fight against austerity which seeks to make ordinary people pay for a crisis not of our making. A victory against tuition fees and to defend EMA would be victory for all those under attack. It’s a fight that we can win, but not if we are left to fight alone … We call on parents, workers and trade unionists to do everything in their power to join our resistance on the day of the vote in parliament, up to and including walking out to join our demonstration … Visit our occupations and support every protest. We will return your solidarity in every way we can, starting with sending a delegation from this coordination to support the tube workers’ strike. We are stronger if we fight together and we add our names to the call for a general strike. We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters fighting against austerity across the world.

On the day of the vote in parliament on tuition fees, December 9th, the movement reached a turning point. There was a large demonstration in parliament square, which came under sustained attack from the police while the vote went ahead. Again, we brought coaches of students down from Manchester. From our contingent, a student had their collarbone broken by a police baton, while another had their arm broken. My friend Alfie Meadows was attacked by police at a cordon, needing emergency surgery to save his life – something the police tried to prevent by keeping him within the kettle (Gayle, 2018). The result of the vote was 323 MPs in favour and 302 against tripling the existing limit of tuition fees, allowing £9,000 in exceptional circumstances (which would rapidly become the norm). The Liberal Democrats, who had previously signed a pledge with NUS not to raise fees, voted mainly in favour and could have changed the result.

We ended the demonstration kettled on Westminster bridge in the freezing cold. The majority of our contingent missed the coaches back to Manchester. When we were finally let out of the kettle we had to walk single file through a line of police who photographed us, some pushed or struck with batons, and most verbally abused us. The learning process about the role of the police had come quite far by then. We tracked down our hospitalised or arrested friends, and arranged accommodation in the university occupations in central London, ending the day bruised and depressed. This protest was the crystallisation of a wider political mood in Britain. Shaped first by illegal wars, the greed of bankers, MPs’ expenses scandals, many broken promises (first from Labour, then from the Liberal Democrats), and a worsening economic crisis. Despite the negative media coverage, polls showed that the majority of the public supported the students.

After this defeat, the movement diverted into local struggles on campuses, again fighting university managers. Attempts to organise demonstrations were lively, but they never recaptured the intensity of 2010, particularly as the school and college students were not re-engaged. I served on the NUS National Executive Council the following year, watching the machinations of the Labour-dominated leadership, content to move back into lobbying the government. By 2012, the movement was a shadow of its former self. A demonstration was called on the November 21st. The NUS planned for 10,000 students, but only 3-4,000 turned up. In a move to take even more energy out of the demonstration, the final rallying point was Kennington Park in South London – a place of no strategic or symbolic importance. The demonstration ended with speeches and the NUS president, Liam Burns, was ‘pelted with eggs and fruit at the conclusion of the march’ (Malik and Ratcliffe, 2012). Once again, echoing critiques made by David Widgery (1969:119) following 1968, NUS appeared to have ‘all the passion of an ashtray.’ There were arguments about NUS being the problem and that breaking away could be the solution. However, as Widgery (1969:137) also argued, ‘a real student movement will grow out of real struggle, not vice versa.’ The student struggle was now at its lowest ebb.

Building connections with the labour movement

By 2012, many of the organisers of the movement had graduated from university. I had moved to London to start a PhD at Goldsmiths, while most of those I organised with at Manchester had moved onto new things too. Some organisers were elected into student union positions, the NUS structures, or started working for political parties or trade unions. In the UK, the window of being a student is usually three years (undergraduate), which can be extended to four (with a masters), or at the higher end seven years (with a PhD of three funded years). By doing a PhD, I stayed in the university far longer than many of the people I organised with. Many of the school and college students who protested in 2010 were excluded from university with the higher tuition fees. The state of higher education began to shift too, as many students had to take on one or more jobs to make ends meet while studying. The grants that I received while I was an undergraduate became few and far between. This was exacerbated by the wave of police repression which continued long after the demonstrations ended. However, many of the organisers from 2010 went on to be active in the labour movement.

For students like myself who went on to study PhDs, the university became a focus for labour organising. During this time, the traditional image of academic work has become eroded. As Gigi Roggero argues (2011:22) ‘unhitching itself from the traditional idea of working one’s way up, or the passage toward tenure-track employment, precarity ceases in fact to designate a contingent phase in order to become a structural and permanent element of the corporatization of the university.’ The reality of academic work fell well below the expectations of a generation of PhD students who became workers. While we had fought management as students, we became increasingly frustrated with the conditions of our work. By the end of the student movement, the majority of teaching staff in universities were now on short-term precarious contracts.

A group of now-PhD students, myself included, pressured the NUS to organise a national survey of the pay and conditions of postgraduates that teach. The survey found that a third of the respondents were paid under the minimum wage, after taking into account the unpaid preparation time. Around another third had no employment contract for their teaching. Inspired by workers’ inquiry, we launched a similar survey at Goldsmiths to start organising. We later won the best deal in the sector for casualised teaching staff. At SOAS, a survey was also used to start organising. Over their campaign, which was led by organisers from 2010, they took unofficial industrial action to force concessions from their managers. Both of these, along with other anti-casualisation campaigns in universities, fed into organising with the UCU (University and College Union) that represents academic workers. There was national strike action of one-day strikes, ill-fated two-hour strikes, and the threat of a marking boycott in 2014.

In 2018, the union took fourteen days of strike action across 64 universities against proposed pension cuts. Across different campuses, activists from the student movement could be found organising picket lines and pushing the union to go further. 42,000 workers took part in the action, with an estimated 575,000 teaching hours lost, affecting over a million students. As I have argued with others elsewhere (see Woodcock and Englert, 2018), the rank and file of the membership had little control over the direction, tactics or strategy of the dispute. Instead, this remained mainly in the hands of paid officials and the leadership of the union. As a response, with other activists who had previously been involved in the student movement, we started a workplace bulletin called The University Worker.[3]The bulletin was collaboratively written by rank and file activists and handed out at London universities – with copies sent to other cities and distributed online via pdf. It catalogued the dispute, sharing stories of the picket lines and proposing tactics and strategies to win the dispute.

By the third week of the strike it was becoming clear that the leadership had diverged from the rank and file. There was an attempt to end the strike after the offer of a deal with no concessions, averted by an occupation and picket of the union’s headquarters in London. Younger union members tapped pound coins on the windows of the union office, trying to have their voices heard in the votes about their pensions – and were met with warnings from officials that they would call the police if this continued. A petition was signed by over 10,000 members calling for the deal to be rejected. While the deal was voted down, the planned strike then ended just before the Easter holidays, pulling the momentum away from the struggle. A new deal was proposed, appointing a so-called “joint expert panel” to spend a year reviewing the pension scheme. This was accepted by 64% of the membership and no further strike action was called. This effectively froze the campaign, with the membership then expected to wait a year to find out the results. This was then followed by a union conference in which the paid staff organised a walkout over criticism of the general secretary, as well as the failure to win as trike ballot over pay. At the time of writing the panel is still due to report back, with no progress having been made. While this has not ended in a victory, the mobilisation of the rank and file of the union at various points can also be traced back, in part, to activists who had come through the 2010 student movement (Woodcock and Englert, 2018).

A second example of this is activists who became involved in campus worker organising with cleaners. In addition to students, lecturers, and administrators, there are a large number of cleaning, security, and catering workers employed on campus. From 2001 onwards, there were attempts to launch “Justice for Cleaners” campaigns, in part modelled on the successes of “Justice for Janitors” in the US. In London, these have centred around demands for a living wage. Citizens UK[4]was involved in setting the living wage, as well as some of the initial organising, building community union campaigns. The connection with student activists began in 2011, as they came into contact with workers on campus, as well as Citizens UK, UNISON, and later the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) (Kirkpatrick, 2014:239). The organising became focused around the University of London Senate House, as well as SOAS, which is a central point for students in London. The workers eventually organised into the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) which led to the “3 Cosas” campaign. This was a fight by outsourced workers who were fighting for three areas of disparity between themselves and in-house workers: sick pay, holidays, and pensions (the name taken from Spanish, the first language for many of the Latin American workers).

While the campaign has had a series of victories, helped by the support of student activists, it continues today at the time of writing. This involves a boycott of the University of London, with students (and those who used to be students) involved in pressuring organisations and speakers to pull out from events until the in-house agreement is made. This connection between the student and labour movement continues today. There are regular stalls hosted by students at universities in London, providing breakfast to cleaners and involving them in the campaign. Students who have gone through the experience of organising with cleaners on the campuses have then moved into other forms of labour organising after they have graduated.

The IWGB has grown from organising cleaners and university workers to foster care workers, electricians, couriers, food delivery platform workers, Uber and private hire drivers, security guards, and most recently videogame workers. Across the union, those active in the student movement can be found organising, whether with Deliveroo and Uber drivers, or supporting new groups of workers to unionise. As well as the IWGB, some participants from 2010 have become active in other public sector and transport unions, continuing to put the tactics and strategies experimented with during the student movement to use in the new context of labour organising.

Learning from the trajectory of the 2010 student movement

Many lessons can be learned from the 2010 student movement, as well as the trajectory that it subsequently took. While my own path through these events was undoubtedly riddled with mistakes that could be learnt from, there are also larger issues that can be drawn out. What is clear is that there was a generation of activists who moved from anti-war protests to Palestine activism, learning from both to shape the 2010 student movement. Across these moments, they came into contact with new repertoires of contention, opposition, and potential support. These different moments acted as learning processes that helped individuals to collectively grapple with the changing terrain of the student movement. At first, this was the introduction to mass movement politics and walk outs, then developing into direct confrontation and the seizing of space during occupations. These subjective factors shaped the emergence of (but certainly did not create) the student movement in 2010. For example, the widespread use of occupations provided the basis for the highly-visible and strategically important occupation of the Conservative Party Headquarters in 2010.

This is not to argue that it was just that generation of students who experienced these different moments in the run up to 2010. The driving force of 2010 was the school and further education students, who had the most to lose from the raising of tuition fees and the removal of grants. The university students had already paid fees at the lower level, so were, in effect, fighting for the next generation – while also taking on questions about what universities should be for. The failure of 2010 could be felt in the rage of the London riots in 2011, channelled into a different form and cut off from the wider social movements. The failures – whether to “stop” the Iraq war, the invasion of Gaza, the sell-out of the Liberal Democrats and tuition fees, or continuing destruction of higher education – have also been points of divergence – at some points into rioting, depression and repression, or the movement into new terrains of struggle.

Participants in social movement networks engage in collective knowledge production and circulation (Juris, 2008). Thus, while the activists traced in this trajectory did not make up anywhere near the majority of the participants, they had developed experiences, skills, tactics, and strategies that became widely shared within the movement. Thinking this through as a participant myself, my intention is to contribute to the ‘creative process of collective theorization and knowledge production carried out from inside social movements’ (Juris and Khasnabish, 2013:24). This has therefore been a contribution towards the ‘collective wondering and wandering that is not afraid to admit that the question of how to move forward is always uncertain, difficult, and never resolved in easy answers that are eternally correct’ (Shukaitis and Graeber, 2007: 11). While we may not have won, it is still useful to reflect on how these processes unfolded.

It is also an attempt to introduce another narrative to the trajectory of the student movement that has become popular today. Not to discount that many activists have become involved in Corbyn’s Labour party, as Matt Myers (2017b) and others have argued, but to draw attention to another trajectory. The learning processes covered in this chapter do not automatically lead to involvement in the labour movement or workplace struggles. However, the role of activists who went through 2010 in the rejuvenation (both potential and actual) of the labour movement is worth tracing. Through these moments, student activists were changed by their attempts to change the world. That some now see the labour movement as a terrain of struggle from which the world can be changed is important too. The failures of Stop The War, international solidarity, students and higher education, the financial crisis and austerity, and so on can be partly explained by the failure of the labour movement to move into action and confrontation. Through my own trajectory, this was a key lesson that I learned, and hopefully not one that is lost with those now organising within the Labour party. While we were students, we fought to connect our struggle to the labour movement. Now part of the labour movement, those same connections need to be made, as well as to other struggles that emerge.

At the start of 2019, an international wave of school walkouts and protests started over outrage at climate change. I watched as students expressed their anger and were condemned in the media, by politicians – and in the UK even criticised for trampling the grass outside parliament. That evening I had dinner with old comrades from the student movement who had followed the same trajectory outlined here. We reflected on whether their walkouts would be a similar transformative moment to the one that we started with. In the years to come, we concluded we were sure it would be.

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[1]: both of which I was interviewed for.

[2]: John Browne (Baron Browne of Madingley) a former CEO of BP, was appointed as the chair of the independent review into tuition fees.

[3]: See: https://notesfrombelow.org/tag/higher-education the archive of the bulletins.

[4]: Citizens UK is a community organising group, with a membership of trade unions, religious groups, and charities.

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