Issue 176 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review


A sense of the possible

UNL students in occupation

Walking into the two week old occupation of a site at the University of North London you are confronted with walls covered in posters, leaflets, announcements and rotas.

One poster proclaims: 'UNL students' Union presents the UNL occupation. Featuring creche facilities, cheap and good food, library services, free entertainment, study groups and student power!'

The building has been a hive of activity since a meeting of 400 students voted to occupy in protest against proposed course cuts next year. The decision to announce the closure of two humanities courses in the third term incensed students who saw it as a deliberate attempt to push through cuts when students were least likely to fight back.

This year students across the country have faced a devastating assault on their education rights and living standards which exploded in a rash of protests and occupations in November when the Tories announced a 30 percent cut in the already paltry student grant.

Although the occupations weren't widespread enough to reverse the Tories' policy, they succeeded in inspiring the will to fight in many students. The occupation at UNL is a tribute to the argument that flowed from the November struggles: occupations and demonstrations are a weapon that can beat not only local management but the government too.

One of the most striking things about the UNL occupation is the level of involvement: even after two weeks the daily meetings are 200 strong. Debates can last for hours--whether to put ads in the papers, hold a local demo, which local workplaces to visit--and yet the urge to maintain the democratic process is so strong that everyone stays through to the final votes and decisions.

The atmosphere is a mixture of physical exhaustion and unflagging enthusiasm. After the marathon mass meetings students break up into various groups to organise the next day's activities, rotas and publicity statements. Then there are the political meetings--on every subject from Ireland to the Criminal Justice Bill.

When a student was heard to say, 'This is a bit like what socialism would be like', he was referring both to the fact that everything from the creche to the library was organised better and the spirit of cooperation and solidarity amongst students, forged in the weeks of taking control of their college, was like tasting a recipe you'd only previously read about in cookery books. People grew through the experience of their struggle.

When the police and bailiffs broke the doors down and broke up the occupation after two weeks and two days the students left proud and chanting, staging an impromptu march around Camden. Far from being daunted by the prospect of having to continue the fight they immediately made plans to visit students in occupation in Luton to offer solidarity and support.

The most popular slogan of the day was 'We'll be back next term'. The students may not have won their demands yet but what have been won are the hearts and minds of thousands across the country to the idea that occupations are the way to fight. The Tories' troubles over education are not over yet.
Judith Orr

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