Claude Lynch delves into UCL’s burgeoning community of activism, to remedy despair with direct action.
In the German student movement of 1968, the postmodern philosopher Theodor Adorno stood by and watched as his pupils fought against the idiosyncrasies of an economy that had plunged students into poverty. Adorno died in 1969, shortly after his students accosted him for his refusal to engage with the movement – which he saw as largely futile. His philosophy can be summarised by this tour de force of a quote: “there’s no right living in wrong life”. For the longest time, I thought that was a fair summation of my own stance on student protest: if everything is so despairing, why bother fighting? We all end up like Adorno in the end. But I wrote this piece with good intentions. I wanted to believe in that distant, clouded idea, that student life could change for the better.
As a matter of fact, student movements at UCL have, for some time, been the bearers of visible change in UCL policy – far more than the cynic in all of us might anticipate. UCL’s Cut the Rent has secured millions in concessions to make student accommodation more affordable, and made national news as a result. Fund Our Mental Health Services secured £140k earlier this year for counselling services. This success isn’t isolated to UCL; protests and strikes all over central London in solidarity with IWGB’s Justice for Workers campaign have helped end a slew of precarious contracts and improve working conditions for facilities staff at London’s universities.
But behind these successes lies a peculiar problem. Cut the Rent only needed 200 strikers withholding rent to force UCL’s hand. Fund Our Mental Health Services’ protest attracted less than 100 official attendees but won £140,000. Only a ragtag bunch needed to occupy Senate House before University of London reconsidered bringing their facilities staff in-house. Even 200 students constitute barely 0.5% of UCL’s student body, in spite of Cut the Rent’s status as a national movement and the relative appeal of, well, not paying your god damn rent. At UCL, a strike doesn’t have to be massive, popular or even representative to achieve something; does it just have to speak to students’ interests?
Democratise, UCL’s latest student movement, is aiming to get the Provost the sack. They’re working with a good precedent, given that Michael Arthur has already suffered the same fate once before. Democratise hope that ousting the provost will help change the stick-in-the-mud mentality within UCL’s ruling body, the Council – encouraging wider reforms to make the (arguably corrupt) body more accountable to academics and students alike. These reforms are necessary and essential, especially in the context of an increasingly expensive university experience where students don’t know what happens to their tuition fee, or the private interests of the people who run their institution. Democratise is doing good work. And yet, the downward trend seems to be perpetuating itself; only ten people showed their face at their demo this week.
This is the coldest take I think I’ll ever write, but here goes: some young people are apathetic. But that’s not enough to explain why this sort of thing keeps happening. UCL has almost 40,000 students and only ten of them can turn out to a demo that’s thrown its social media weight around and circulated in tens of activist pages. This isn’t a criticism of Democratise, nor is it a criticism of students; there has to be something deeper going on. I’m sure, reader, you care at least a tad about issues like these, and yet you don’t jump at the chance to light up a flare and shout “hey ho, Michael Arthur’s got to go.” Why might that be?
Any good student activist will tell you that going to university is a political choice in itself. This is indisputable; when an individual chooses to go to university, they consent, albeit quietly, to the tuition fee, to the graduate debt, and to three or more years of study to earn their degree. But they also gain the ability to identify as a “student”, to reach into a new aspect of the political and seek out the opportunities only students have to challenge the status quo. The problem is that for so many students, being one is a passive identity, something that doesn’t imply (or oblige) action in the political sphere. Participation in Union elections at UCL is paltry, and student movements, as we’ve discussed, are a reserve of the few that still find time to care. Of course, all of these issues have different causes – and some of them are well known. But they all share the same foundation: the latter day university experience, especially at a non-campus university like ours, is one where a student can totally dissociate from large parts of the student experience. They can attend lectures, go to the library, go home, sleep, repeat. For most students, getting through the degree and coming out the other end with a job, and trying to have a good time in between, is most of what matters. Questions of UCL’s investments or UCL’s management aren’t immediate factors. It’s like climate change: it seems far enough away that an individual actor or even entire governments can be deemed “rational” in their choice to put off the transition to renewables for another day. Divesting from fossil fuels or democratising the structure of UCL’s council wouldn’t have a visible, immediate knock on impact for an undergrad, least of all a finalist. Even though these things do matter, morally, from principle, they’re not catastrophic. There’s no “Project Fear” for Democratise (beyond, perhaps, the whole eugenics debacle).
This, in part, is surely why Cut the Rent has been so successful. It appeals to an immediate change that makes all students that join in the Rent Strike better off: they save money on their rent. The longer term, systemic changes, such as challenging the authority of the Vice Provost or maintaining the Hardship Fund, likely remain distant in the minds of strikers. However, the short term gain is enough to have something to fight for. That’s not to say that the spectre of free money is the only thing that makes students cross picket lines; just something tangible that changes the standard university experience when the movement succeeds.
And yet, you don’t have to look far to see the opposite. In spite of good intentions and escalating protests from Fossil Free, the movement pushing UCL to divest from fossil fuels, UCL repeatedly refuses to withdraw its investments. They agree to meet with representatives from the movement, only to offer acknowledgements and platitudes that mean nothing in practice. There is no “concession” option for Fossil Free, no piecemeal hardship fund or counselling service to call for; it’s divest or bust, and UCL still has the power to make that call. Would it be the same if thousands of climate-conscious undergrads came down on the Provost’s door? Maybe not. The problem is structural; people need activating, and when London’s in your face and student issues are distant, that can be difficult.
We could also claim that the diversity of student movements at UCL makes it harder for them to move under a single banner. Even though cross-pollination at protests is common, UCL Student Left (which does indeed exist in principle) is disparate and largely perfunctory. If it were possible for such a movement to gather a “broad church” of activists from different campaigns, you’d think there’s one thing they could agree on: democracy is good. In fact, this was one of the motivations behind Democratise; it holds tacit support from Labourites and Marxists alike. But there’s a problem: “broad church” is a phrase that breeds contempt in the activist phrasebook. It conjures up images of pro-war Blairites holding hands with anarchist revolutionaries, in a non-existent dreamland of the left where cliques go to die and there’s no such thing as a “soft Corbynite”. But that’s not the world we live in. These movements lie apart. Ten attendees it is.
I’ve often heard students complain about the overtly radical nature of these movements, that they won’t join in because they feel they’re outsiders looking in at the far left. These are the people looking for a “broad church”. There’s a grain of truth in this idea, that student movements might get more attention if they strayed from the classic narratives of “marketisation” and avoided coming too close to a fiery critique of the capitalist system. But I don’t buy it (no pun intended). How many events do you claim you’re “interested” in on Facebook? Events that genuinely speak to what you’re interested in, but you can never quite bring yourself to attend? That’s what a Democratise protest would mean to this “broad church”. I’ll reiterate, the problem is structural: we live in a society where it’s easy to be interested in everything, but up for nothing. The problems are distant, and so are the events – the protests, the meetings, and the marches won’t be attended by those on the fence, regardless of whether their presentation is markedly radical or not.
I’ve spent most of this article arguing that student movements at UCL face problems outside of their control when they try and attract students. However, I don’t think for a second that individual action can’t still make a difference. Even if a student movement doesn’t have to be massive to succeed, every new voice matters; every extra inch of sympathy counts towards making these movements more mainstream, and more impactful as a result. It’s like becoming vegetarian, or recycling. The way our society works, individuals will never be responsible for the biggest changes; it’s companies and institutions that need to change. But individuals are unique in that their underlying motivations and resulting actions can contribute to a bigger change in the psyche of those around them. If even a single person reads this article and shares a shred more sympathy for Democratise, that’s a success. The status quo cannot stand.
We owe UCL, our Union, and our fellow students more than this. Every single one of the movements I’ve mentioned here is righteous, ambitious and well-intentioned; they’re run by individuals with drive and commitment, even in the face of paltry attendance. They deserve our support, and most fundamentally, our solidarity. In a system where we’re increasingly distracted, demotivated, and desensitised, we should take all the chances we get to actively identify as students. To fight our corner. If we can manage that, who says we have to despair just yet?
Democratise UCL are holding a general meeting in January, open to all UCL students and beyond. You can find the details here.