Laboratories of struggle: Occupations, alternatives and strategy

Recent weeks have seen a new wave of campus struggles, with occupations in London and Amsterdam, and strikes in North America. Tabitha Spence analyses the significance of these struggles and where they might go next.

Open meeting at the LSE Occupation. Photo: Dan Swain


Time and again history has witnessed student activists rising to the challenge of playing instrumental roles in building and strengthening social movements. From winning Civil Rights to ending the Vietnam War, spaces of higher education often act as sites for pushing public discourse beyond acceptance of dominant narratives that validate deeply unjust processes.

In these movements and many others, students have found creative ways to foster alliances across sectors, supporting those on the front lines of struggles and those bearing the brunt of harmful policies. As part of the battle against Thatcher’s neoliberal policies, for instance, students took an active position in supporting the miners during the great strike of 1984.

Universities serve as unique platforms for challenging the status quo because they act as sites of a particular type of social reproduction. From the class of students granted access to higher education, to the type of research funded and promoted in universities, academic spaces produce bodies, knowledge and institutions that serve the interests of the ruling class and aid in the further enrichment of those with wealth and power. However, like any other site of production and reproduction, such as a factory, the university is also endowed with the contradictory potential to invert dominant social relations.

The road to achieving such a goal is a long and turbulent one, and requires strong alliances across society. The wave of university occupations and strikes we are witnessing today is emblematic of the political moment we find ourselves in, and the ambition and reawakening of much of society. What university-based movements have indicated is a drive to endure the long, hard days of uncertainty, police violence, and threats of legal proceedings against them. In the Netherlands, the UK, and Canada, among other places, these struggles are developing and in some cases experiencing important successes.

Solidarity wall at the LSE Occupation. Photo: Dan Swain
Solidarity wall at the LSE Occupation. Photo: Dan Swain

Following a violent eviction of the nearly 2 week long occupation of the University of Amsterdam’s humanities building, Bungehuis, which is marked to be turned into a luxury hotel, students and staff took over the Maagdenhuis building, the main administration building for the university, which they have been occupying for the past 5 weeks.

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Today the student movement in the Netherlands is celebrating its first victory, since on April 1st the occupiers came to an agreement with the university’s Executive Board on the formation of two independent committees to investigate UvA’s finances and explore possibilities for decentralising and democratising of the university. Yet the occupation continues, as those involved are acutely aware that the committees may fail them, and that there is a limit to what the university can do within the constraints of national and EU level austerity policies. The students have vowed to fight on, and to push for the other demands to be met regarding university restructuring and property speculation with university funds.

Taking inspiration from growing and relatively successful university-based movements in Amsterdam and Canada, a new wave of university occupations has hit the UK. What began as a discussion between 4 students at the London School of Economics admiring the ambition of students occupying De Nieuwe Universiteit against neoliberal processes and lack of democracy in educational institutions, became an occupation of an administration meeting room in the Old Building, which has lasted for the past 3 weeks.

Photo: Dan Swain
Photo: Dan Swain

As is the case in the recent university occupations and strikes elsewhere, students, faculty and staff involved in the LSE occupation are shedding light on how global neoliberal processes are unfolding at their university, and the ways they play out in the sphere of higher education in general. Finally, they highlight the importance of connecting and strengthening struggles across sectors:

Universities are increasingly implementing the privatised, profit-driven, and bureaucratic ‘business model’ of higher education, which locks students into huge debts and turns the university into a degree-factory and students into consumers. LSE has become the model for the transformation of the other university systems in Britain and beyond…. We join the ongoing struggles in the UK, Europe and the world to reject this system that has changed not only our education but our entire society.

The courage of the students at LSE gave confidence to students facing the impacts of austerity at the University of Arts London to begin their own occupation. UAL is planning to cut over 800 positions in arts and design foundation courses, which were open to students from low income and marginalised backgrounds. The occupiers reject the cuts to foundation courses as well as to staff redundancies, and are making more universal demands against institutional racism and for democratising the university (including the demand for free education and the right to protest).

Within a week students at both King’s College London and Goldsmiths University began their own occupations, joining LSE and UAL under the banner of the Free University of London, a concept taken from previous occupations at the University of Sheffield.


According to Occupy Goldsmiths, “This is in direct response to a commercialisation of our universities, and the commodification of education. We seek to establish an alternative vision of education, free from restrictions, oppression and the whims of the market.”

Their demands differ from many of the single issue occupations we have seen in recent years in that they emphasize how the concerns of students and workers in particular contexts fit into the broader picture. Moreover, the demands cannot be accused of being merely oppositional, as they include clear alternatives of what the occupiers are fighting for, rather than just what they are against. By carefully and specifically laying out the problems they see in the ways their universities operate, the larger processes shaping university policies, and clear alternatives, it is evident that the occupiers are posing not just student demands, but are questioning the entire edifice of power.

A statement by occupying students at King’s College London says, “Our aim is to create a constructive and open space to discuss how an alternative and free education can be sought. This demand for free education has a material meaning in the form of the immediate alleviation of financial debt, but also describes a freedom to challenge accepted orthodoxies and to embrace knowledge as an intrinsic good, irrespective of the ‘business case’.”

Meanwhile, graduate students and staff at the University of Toronto (UofT) and York University in Canada have just concluded month long strikes for a living wage, job security and less tuition fees/greater graduate funding among other things.


York University PhD student, Ayyaz Mallick said: “Last weekend, in a pleasant and sudden surprise the university management capitulated across the board on almost all our main demands. We managed to reduce increase funding for international graduate students (as a way to offset the differential in tuition fees between international and graduate students). Our new agreement also makes sure that a mechanism is in place whereby any increase in fees is accompanied by a corresponding increase in funding for all graduate students (without increasing the work or teaching responsibilities that we have now). We also managed to increase funding for Masters students and include LGBTQ as an equity group in employment practices. These demands fit into a broader context of increasing commercialisation and decreasing accessibility of higher education for people from subordinate classes, racialised minorities and marginalised sexual orientations, and students’ and workers’ struggles against these trends. So it is a major (temporary) victory against austerity as far as York University is concerned. However, now it will be crucial for the union leadership and the militant rank and file to further deepen and broaden the consciousness gained to move towards a struggle for free higher education (Canada being only one of the few OECD countries where higher education is still not free)”.

Student and workers union rally in Toronto. Photo credit: Alex Felipe of York University.
Student and workers union rally in Toronto. Photo credit: Alex Felipe of York University.

The UofT union agreed to binding arbitration, taking negotiating power out of their own hands and into the hands of a ‘neutral’ third party, meaning a win is far less certain in their case.

In Quebec, site of the successful student movement of 2012, the movement is once again mounting, with unions, both within and beyond the education sector, voting for a social strike on May 1st. The student movement in Canada has powerful unions with disciplined rank and file membership. Time will tell what the strength of the student movement in the Quebecois context will be capable of this time around.

Recent victories continue to serve as a source of inspiration for other university-based struggles, which are continuing to rise rather than buckle under the weight of neoliberalism. This is because students, faculty and staff are fed up with being treated as customers and cogs, and recognize that nothing will change without exposing the dehumanising structures head on. Yet, as we are seeing, the only way to challenging the dominant narrative is by insisting upon alternatives, and demonstrating them in practice. The occupied spaces are serving as living laboratories of what can be, where people can live in dignity and be valued for more than just their capacity to produce capitalist profit.

Yet merely showing the alternatives in isolation is not enough. Strategy is key if the students and supporters in higher education hope to intervene in any meaningful way, particularly for those that lack union backing. By deciding to take these actions simultaneously and as part of a collective bloc unified in solidarity with one another, the students in London have made a strategic decision to up the ante of the fight for freeing the university of the constraints of market logic, and to challenge the global processes that produce exploitation and oppression of all kinds. The very logic of their demands are making them question an order that is not restricted to their particular universities, or to the university sector, but to the way societies are organized.

The student movements are placing the key questions of public goods and equality at the center of public discussion, raising the stakes of political debates in society. While these occupations are pushing public discourse and producing new alternatives, state level power structures in places like the Netherlands, Canada, and the UK are thus far unaffected. It is essential to face the elephant in the room and consider just how to bring together these movements and other struggles to transform the more structural aspects of state power and global capitalism. For now, however, the fact that these occupations and strikes have brought questions of equality and justice into mainstream public discourse, after decades of its obliteration from collective memory, is itself a victory.



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