Glasgow students protest against cuts

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by Dan Paris

On February 1st, a group of students occupied the disused Hetherington Research Club at Glasgow University, in a protest at both the closure of the club last year and at looming wider cuts to higher education.  Although an overnight occupation was held on the eve of Westminster’s vote on tuition fees, this attempt at a long-term occupation signals a change in tactics as activists seek to establish a base of resistance against cuts.

The tuition fees vote last year provided a focal point for student protests.  Scottish students were also concerned, although not directly affected.  But for all the political damage inflicted on the coalition, the mobilisation of tens of thousands was ultimately, and inevitably, unsuccessful.  This is not surprising – the Iraq war showed that a government, when fully committed to its policies, can push ahead in spite of the pressure that comes with large displays of public protest.

And if the coalition is one thing, it is committed.  Although small concessions may be won from the UK government, most victories in the fight against cuts will come from local action.  Education policy is a national issue, but when it comes to redundancies or scrapped courses, politics becomes local.  Likewise, health policy is national, but hospital closures are local.  It will be the strength and scale of local resistance that shape how and where public service cuts will bite.

The success, or failure, of this occupation could be seen as an early indication of the ability of the anti-cuts movement to function on a local level – and doubtless we will see this story repeating itself across Britain over the course of this Parliament.

Although previous protests attracted support from across the student body, occupations are by nature the preserve of a smaller and more radical base of activists.  This action is as much the result of a desire to maintain the momentum of the anti-cuts protests as out of concern for the future of the Hetherington building.  Strategically, if the occupation continues it does give activists significant leverage in upcoming struggles with University management.  The protest is likely to be supported by staff, who have so far been damning in their criticism of the current university administration.

I visited the initial overnight occupation last year and was surprised at the level of support offered by staff, several of whom emphasised to me their fears about the creeping marketisation in higher education and the shift in emphasis from the traditional university education.  Tuition fee rises, they argued, were an important issue, but not one to be viewed in isolation.   

A strike in June of last year was only narrowly averted after management backed down on threatened compulsory redundancies.  At the time, staff passed a vote of no confidence in the university principal Anton Muscatelli, who received a salary of £283,000 in the academic year 2008-09.  Staff are also furious at managements attempt to shift the balance of power on the University Court away from academics, with an increase in lay members appointed by the Principal.  In documents leaked to the Glasgow University Guardian, one unnamed professor claimed there was ‘an oppressive managerial culture’ in the University.

The university is facing a cut to its budget of 8%, which it will attempt in part to cover by attracting more students from outside the EU.  Non-EU students pay significantly higher tuition fees.  Although this should not affect the number of places on offer to Scottish and EU students, there are fears that the university will seek to move towards more business-orientated subjects in order to attract these students, and in doing so dilute the strength of the institution.  In the leaked documents from the University Senate, one professor wrote, ‘We risk losing the ethos of an institution that is primarily driven by academic excellence’.

As the anti-cuts movement shifts towards these local struggles, the next Scottish government will face huge political pressure as public spending cuts bite.  Whoever has power in Scotland after the upcoming elections will face an obvious problem – how to make informed spending decisions during difficult economic times despite the complete absence of any fiscal powers.

If we seek responsible and accountable leadership from our devolved government, it is essential that Holyrood has money-raising powers to match its spending powers.  Yet the ‘It’s Westminsters fault!’ argument could quickly begin to ring hollow.  If the SNP succeed in their re-election bid, difficult decisions and the public scrutiny that come with them will simply become the cost of being in government.

Scotland, with its comparative reliance on public spending, is particularly vulnerable to pain inflicted by spending cuts.  We now have a generation with no first-hand memory of the Thatcher years, but there are communities in Scotland that could potentially suffer even more than the dark depths of the 1980s.  If the next Scottish government fails to protect our most vulnerable, the electorate will come to regard them as culpable as the ConDem coalition.

However, if Holyrood can provide effective management and cushion the worst of the pain, public confidence in the competence of our devolved government will increase.  This, in turn, could see Holyrood being trusted with the real economic powers it desperately needs.

The future of our higher education system will be one of the first tests of competence.