Are you a student starting or returning in the year? Want to promote class politics and be more involved in activism on campus? In our first activist guide of 2019, we begin to map out radical student collectives, societies and activist groups at universities around Scotland. We lay out some of the key problems you may be facing on campus and why campaigning collectively is so important…
Fifty years on from 1968, a year when students played a significant role in many of the movements pushing seismic political change around the world, students across the UK stood in solidarity with lecturers in what was the longest-ever strike in UK higher-education history. Here in Scotland, students occupied university premises in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Strathclyde, Dundee, Stirling and Aberdeen – all to show solidarity with striking staff in their pensions dispute.
The nationwide occupations were the most prominent examples of student activism in the UK since 2010, when tens of thousands protested against government cuts to education and increased tuition fees. Student collectives formed at different universities off the back of the occupations. Their aim? To transform their respective institutions. As Vijay Jackson of the Edinburgh branch put it earlier this year: “We see education as a public good that provides for all of society. It’s a universal right, not a privilege.”
The old maxim of “educate, agitate, organise” is prevalent in socialist circles. Perhaps in most contexts, this refers specifically to political education, but it’s also true in a wider sense that we must agitate and organise for the right of education. The following guide, which can be periodically updated as initiatives develop, is not encyclopedic by any means. We’d really recommend this ‘Student Organisers Handbook’ for advice on how to mobilise, organise, run events and build movement support in a university context. While we’ll reiterate a handful of the points made in the handbook, this guide is more concerned with mapping out what resources already exist to help connect the dots between different active groups. Hopefully, it will ultimately serve as a useful resource for students and staff who want to reform their academic spaces, join existing movements and campaign against marketisation and expensive accommodation among other things.
First off, it’s useful to recognise that transforming your university isn’t a local concept and there are radical student groups all around the world (see the International Student Movement). But before getting onto that, we must remember there’s also ‘student politics’ in the very literal sense of the word: getting involved in your student’s union, also known as associations or representative bodies. These are certainly not radical organisations by default, but their ultimate role should be to democratically represent the interests of members. Electing radical student union representatives is therefore vital, particularly as they represent students in discussions on important issues with those running the university.
Most unions will also be affiliated to the National Union of Students (NUS), whose stated aims and objectives include fighting for a better funding system, and promoting accessibility, equality and diversity. While there various factions in the NUS which are overtly socialist or left leaning, there are also Conservative and UKIP groupings. Pushing for radical demonstrations on key issues is certainly possible in this arena – the NUS co-organised the 2010 student demonstrations with the University and College Union (UCU) for example – but it’s only one front. As with parliamentary politics, bureaucracy and various conventions can delay any progress you maybe fighting for. At a grassroots level, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you taking direct action by forming distinct collectives of your own (examples of this later further down).
Setting up clubs and societies within your student union is one effective way to bring people together. For the purposes of this guide, we won’t list every single society set up for and by feminists, people of colour and LGBT+ identifying peoples because there are a huge number across Scotland, but engaging with them is certainly recommended if it’s possible and appropriate to do so (and it’s worth setting one up if your university doesn’t have any particular one).
Most universities in the country also have political party-specific societies: Scottish nationalist associations in support of the SNP and Labour students are prominent. Students seeking to effect radical change can judge whether such groups are viable depending on your orientation, however it’s worth considering that last year’s occupations tended to bring together out-and-out left wing societies, Labour societies, Marxist societies, anarchist societies and other groups not necessarily affiliated with a student union. Working together with radicals across parties or perceived sects may often prove necessary on different issues – it’s always worth taking advice from the following aforementioned handbook: “Keep a list of contact details for friendly journalists, staff members, student union officers, activist groups, community organisations, etc.” Whatever your campaigning on, knowing your allies is a valuable thing.
What Are the Big Issues?