Meet Britain's New Generation of Pissed Off Student Radicals

Campuses are becoming hubs for seasoned activists with a lot to be angry about.

by Ben Beach
04 November 2015, 1:00pm

A student protester from the 2013 cohort (Photo by Oscar Webb)

"I knew paying £9,000 fees is bullshit and I knew I was prepared to do something about it," says Angus O'Brien, who's studying European Social and Political Studies at UCL. "It isn't simplistic to say that universities should be a free and open space for learning, but when students are forced to act as consumers the purpose of education is lost."

To be a fresher, in 2015, the consensus is that you can't idealise. Putting it mildly, it's a complicated time to be undertaking a degree in Britain. Admissions may be at a record high but graduate prospects are, for most, rapidly fading. George Osborne, amongst other things, intends to abolish the maintenance grant and a further rise in tuition fees is widely anticipated. Many students are feeling monumentally screwed over, and some are yet to even set foot in a lecture theatre. Today, students are holding a national demonstration ambitiously titled: "Free education and living grants for all – no barriers, no borders no business!" But who are the new crop of campus lefties, railing against a government that wishes students looked less like Rick from The Young Ones and more like the cast of the Young Apprentice?

Ele is 18 and started her Law degree at The London School of Economics in September. She has just joined the Free University of London; the campaign group that received backing from David Graeber and Russell Brand after it occupied an LSE building for six weeks earlier this year. "Most of us are going to graduate in tens of thousands of pounds of debt, we'll then be pointed towards unpaid internships in a desperate scramble for jobs," she explains.

"It's a certainty that direct action will be an increasingly regular occurrence under this government," says who, before moving to London, was part of the successful anti-Farage campaign in South Thanet where the UKIP leader contested the general election. "There can be a tendency to give up hope and acquiesce, but if we organise in even greater numbers and resume occupations and demos, we will be a force too large to ignore."

The view from the top of Millbank on the day it was stormed by angry students in 2010 (Photo by Henry Langston)

Five years have past since activists stormed the Conservative Party's Millbank HQ, and now a new generation of student radicals is taking shape. In an evolving political landscape the student movement could find itself at a strategic advantage. Recent occupations have already brought worldwide attention to the fight for British universities, and following the rise of Jeremy Corbyn – propelled to leadership by the enthusiasm of the young – there is an expanding pool of primed and practiced activists converging on campuses across the country.

"I volunteered on Corbyn's leadership campaign – it's one of the reasons I've become more politically active this year," says Demaine Boocock, a new recruit at The Free University of Sheffield, whose favourite bands include The Smiths and The Clash owing to the social message ingrained in their lyrics. "The atmosphere around the campaign was really special, and it's so invigorating to now have a Labour leader unashamedly supporting free education."

Of the 13,000 people who volunteered on his campaign a vast amount were students. Huge swathes of the allegedly apathetic youth flocked to his rallies; the average age of a Labour member dropped by 11 years over the summer, and "Team Corbyn" t-shirts are now being sported around campuses by left-wing students almost as much as keffiyehs.

What this really means for the student movement is simple: some tactical barriers have, at least temporarily, been lifted. The events of this summer could present an opportunity for the latest cohort to multiply its efforts.

Cops vs. student protesters in 2012

O'Brien, who was briefly a Labour member under Ed Miliband until "he said something terrible about immigration", believes that Corbyn's election means that for the first time in a generation there is an opposition leader around which a movement can be built.

"Currently I devote a lot of my time to the fight against extortionate accommodation fees on campus," explains O'Brien, "now can you imagine what would happen should students at a London university go on a rent strike and win?"

And just a few weeks after speaking to O'Brien, the UCL rent-strikers – campaigning against what they saw as "unbearable" living conditions – did win. Despite unlawful threats of academic sanctions, and even expulsion, the campaign triumphed. These are activists who know their politics, their aims, and – most importantly – their rights.

Campaigners today feel equipped to aid those challenging exorbitant rents throughout the capital and beyond. The forging of links with wider social movements is well under way. For example: in Manchester a growing coalition of activists has emerged in defence of the city's rising homeless population. Such co-ordination, on both a local and national scale, is symptomatic of a breakout from the isolation of student politics.

The building of momentum will be dependent on resilience to any backlash, though. Stuart McMillan, 19, concedes that press coverage can often be "damaging and depressing", however, he insists, "we should remember that it is slowly losing its grip on public consciousness." McMillan, who was influenced by the Situationist International and its role in the Paris uprisings of 1968, after taking an Art Foundation course prior to university, strongly identifies with their ideas of decentralised power, syndicalism and spontaneous action.

"This, right now, is the opportunity we've been waiting for to change the political narrative," explains 18-year-old Rebecca Easton, in her strong Leeds accent. "After the election result in May, I thought optimism had been written off for our generation, but things have changed so quickly," says Easton, who has been part of local anti-hunger campaigns since her mid-teens. And that mood of resurgence is at the epicentre of this fresh group of student radicals, and a summer of re-awakening for the British Left has provided focus.

"We will win – the rules are changing fast, and power can't keep up," declares Dan Mulroy, another fresher and a self-described anti-consumerist with a penchant for charity shop attire and home-brewed cider, whose timetable is far more taken up by public meetings than lectures. "People are rightly incensed and it's great, because they're all coming together. If this keeps growing, who knows where we'll be in a few years?"

For those who, soon enough, will lead this fight, their future is one of uncertainty. They don't know what sort of Britain they'll graduate into, nor what sort of university they'll leave behind. But their resolve is unwavering, their experience is authentic, and their motivation runs deep.


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