The British University as a Millbank Riot



We saw two young kids dance to the heavy dub-step beats in the trashed lobby of the Conservative Party’s headquarters. She, sporting a short smart skirt and a hoodie, holding her hands up high; her parents or grandparents likely born in a former ‘oriental’ protectorate. He, in skinny jeans and a big jumper with a neon print; his background likely to be found in a British colony in the Caribbean or Africa. Around them young students, lecturers, activists, as many as the lobby could hold. Outside, behind a rim of broken glass and a meagre line of aggressive police officers, at least three thousand others: higher and further education students and lecturers, school pupils, recent graduates and unemployed. On the roof: university and union banners waving along with communist and anarchist flags. The Millbank Tower, a few hundred metres from Parliament, had become the site of a carnival of the enraged and hitherto despondent, a site of power turned into a popular manifestation of will, strength and defiance.

This day, Wednesday November 10th, still colours the talk of those who participated, both those who continue their open struggles, and those who only really began it at Millbank. For all, there is a before and after Millbank. For the wider movement, Millbank runs as a blurry line of division. On the one hand stand those who follow the right wing media and the Government in alleging, against many of their colleagues, that the mass demonstration with its 50,000 participants (the largest student demonstration in decades) was ‘hijacked’ by a ‘tiny minority’ that was ‘bent on violence’. On this side stands, for now at least, union leaders from the National Union of Students (NUS) and University and College Union (UCU).[1] On the other stands hundreds of vocal lecturers and students, who declare that: ‘The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation…’[2] Between and below these ‘makers of opinion’ a still tender movement is forming. This is a movement of its age, the age of austerity. And yet amidst the well known depression and defeatism of the ‘pre-defeated’ English commoners, it is somehow already, as seen in the eyes and smiles, in the voices and gestures of its meetings, signalling the return and coming anew of solidarity and collectivity in struggle.

Riotous Replies to Turbulent Times

So why this sudden resurgence of activism amongst the supposedly ‘apathetic’ students? The immediate reason was the October 20 release of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) by the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition government. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who had the aristocratic pleasure of unveiling the review, brought the news of greatest cuts in public spending since the 1930s. Claiming that the British economy was near bankruptcy and that a deficit reduction plan was ‘unavoidable’ (something challenged even by the Financial Times’ chief analyst Martin Wolf[3]), but avoiding to quote the bailout of the banks and the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as causes, Osborn set out to cut £80.5 billion of state expenditure over five years. Higher education (HE), amongst those sectors to be hit hardest, can expect a cut of 40% in funding (excluding research funding), down from £7.1 to £4.2bn, while further education (FE) is to be cut by 25%, 1.1bn down from 4.3bn by 2014-15.[4] More concretely, vice-chancellors estimate, this will mean the disappearance of between 75% and 95% of all teaching funding, whilst research subsidies to science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be continued.[5] In practice this will mean the total or near total withdrawal of state funding from the social sciences, the humanities and arts.

To fund these unprecedented cuts to higher education the government has chosen to follow the recommendations of a report issued a week earlier by British Petroleum’s former CEO Baron Browne of Madingley. The Browne Review, commissioned by the New Labour government of Gordon Brown,[6] proposed massive raises in tuition fees as a cure for the shortfall in public spending. Concretely the suggestion was to remove the cap on tuition fees, thereby letting universities charge as much (or little) as they can from students. The government, however, has opted for a two tier fee system, in which most universities will be allowed to charge up to £6,000 per year (up from the current £3,290, whilst universities who encourage students from poorer backgrounds (in ways yet to be specified) can charge up to £9,000. Even Browne acknowledges that there will be a huge shortfall in funding for all universities who charge the lower amount, whilst it  seem that primarily wealthy institutions will be able to live up to conditions of setting the fee at its maximum. [7]

Within the perverse horizon of capitalist realism and its imperative of reducing the deficit by cutting universities (‘if we don’t cut universities we will have to cut health – people will die!’) higher fees have been seen as a panacea. Thus the Labour Party can hardly be shocked by the conclusions of Lord Browne and neither can the universities. Sectoral associations such as the Russell Group (counting the most prestigious universities) and Universities UK (UUK, the organisation of all British universities) both howled to be allowed to charge more, even for a removal of the cap on tuition fees.[8]

Critics have not spared many chances to point out how this reform will fundamentally change and even destroy the British university system. Social sciences, arts and humanities will nearly be closed off to all but the privileged few studying at prestigious institutions. As Stefan Collini argued ‘this is more than simply a ‘cut’, even a draconian one: it signals a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it’.[9] Our present, it seems, is locked in narratives of economic necessity giving birth to an apocalyptic rupture, or, as Martin McQuillan put it, ‘the nuclear option, total and irreversible wipeout’.[10]

Corporatisation of the British University

Looking back, the present malaise of the British university appears not a real rupture, but only the sudden acceleration of a process that has been going on since Thatcher was wielding the stick while dangling the carrot of individual prosperity in the faces of the Britons. The process however, can be seen as carried by universities themselves, with the 1985 Jarratt Report, commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (later UUK). This document analysed universities as enterprises along the factory-model, and viewed academics as workers producing services (teaching and marking) and products (books and articles), both of which subject to performance reviews, while helping the university to compete against other universities (rather than serving wider ends).[11] In economic terms this process entailed the becoming consumer of the student, which can be described as the gradual transferral of the cost of education from the state to students, or on the level of discourse from an understanding of education as a public good and individual right to the narrow understanding of education as a good to be seized by the individual. The two main vectors of this process has been the gradual defunding of universities (a drop of 36% per student from 1989 to 1997[12]) and the introduction of student contributions in 1998 by the Blair government. Since then, the state has continued its steady withdrawal of funding, especially to teaching, while top-up tuition fees were introduced in 2004 and capped at £3000 (since this figure, charged by all universities, has grown with inflation). Overall, the costs of studying for a degree have risen 312% since 1988, while they are set to rise another 101% by 2012.[13]

This process can be characterised as the hyper-Americanisation of the British university, with the characteristic that the American federal government, despite a much higher percentage of private universities proper, will henceforth will subsidy its universities at a much higher level of GDP than will the British.[14] Universities will have to operate as corporations to survive; under the growing competitive pressures they will have an interest in offering as poor and little training as possible for the highest possible price, and in focusing exclusively on profitable research. However, while being under the competitive pressures of the private sector they will remain under tight government regulations. For instance accreditation is still linked in with the Research Excellence Framework, a highly bureaucratic bibliometric monitoring mechanism. This process will force most universities to fundamentally restructure their activities (programme closures, redundancies and ‘efficiency savings’, making employees work harder and longer), while some will have to close altogether. Meanwhile the existing multi-tier system will be entrenched, as student fees soar and ‘bring about a much closer correlation between the reputational hierarchy of institutions and the social class of their student body’.[15] The gap between tuition fees for home and overseas, i.e. non-EU students who are now paying an average of around £10,000 p/a is likely to narrow, while the contradiction between the university system’s financial dependence on overseas students and the government’s strong wishes to reduce migration will deepen (as home student demand for HE fall).[16]

The ‘choices’ of the edu-consumer

The students, at least those who are not part of the great migrant student population, come into the university system at a relative young age (between 17 and 19). They enter from a system dominated by standardized test and an early focus on future employability. But while students of that age (16-19) have hitherto not been forced to work, many will as the education maintenance allowance (EMA) – a weekly payment to support the costs of study – is planned to be cut. Hence the 10/11 banner: ‘Forget university, I can’t even afford college any more. Where’s my future?’

Most who make it to university have to work to sustain themselves through their studies. But not only work is required, since the introduction of top up fees it has become impossible to ‘work yourself through university’ – debt must be incurred unless you belong to the exploitative and expropriating classes. Students at British universities are already amongst the most indebted in the world.  With the Browne review and the CSR, debt levels will be pushed above £30,000 for a three year degree – for students paying £6,000 a year, while those paying £9,000 and living in London upon graduation will face debt levels far higher than £40,000 (only counting tuition fee costs and the miniscule £3750 p/a flat rate student maintenance loans suggested by Browne).

Debt is not only a means to pay education, but a form by which student life becomes different, tendentially in all its aspects. Hence the system casts students as consumers of their own education. Lectures complain that students become demanding and spoiled, students that their lecturers don’t ‘deliver’. Meanwhile universities and the government are groping for quantitative measures to monitor the ‘student experience’. The experience of the carefree consumer is, however, not all there is to student life. Thus students are increasingly seeing themselves as investors in their own future, thinking strategically about their future employability and earning capacities. In this, as in their edu-consumerism, they are cheered on by NUS leader Aaron Porter, who calls for ‘a consumer revolution in education’ and Lord Browne`[17]:

‘Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals. On graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to move from one job to the next’.[18]

However, while Browne suggests that individual students rather than companies and the state gain from university education, the individual gain – for those who can afford to be ‘consumers and investors in education’ – is increasingly uncertain. On the one hand studying at university must be understood – since the removal of state subsidies to HE – as the student selling the fruits of her future labour power to the state. Here the British situation, the state still owning the student debt, diverges from the American in which the state has transferred the cost of education to the individual, but simultaneously ‘transferred’ its subsidy to the banking-sector (via the student) by guaranteeing these loans.[19] Higher education still makes employment more likely, but with youth unemployment for 16 to 24-year olds soaring at 19,8% (making the total of unemployed youths 934,000)[20], it is no longer a guarantee.

Of the few who are lucky enough to find employment relevant to their degrees immediately upon graduation most are enrolled into the stress inducing machine of self-realisation and overwork (how many young graduates ‘work to rule‘?). More likely, however, they face a long period of precarity – with its periods of ‘overemployment’ and unemployment, often initiated or interrupted by the mostly unpaid and fiercely exploitative labour of internships.

The Movement of the Millbank Event

Millbank is the event of the generation of debt, precarity and unemployment. Millbank marks transformation of the university, for a decade practically a site of non-struggle, into a focal point of discontent. The movement against the devolution and privatisation of the welfare state in the acid bath of the Tory ‘Big Society’ can be understood as a positively existing multifaceted movement. However, in its unity it can be characterised as consisting of the all those unions, campaigns, groups and initiatives who relate to Millbank in productive disagreement. In as sense the dawning movement, from being the abstract notion of the confluence of interests (‘workers united / will never be defeated!’) has become the concrete and dynamic struggle over the meaning of ‘Millbank’. This cut in the movement, a condition of the movement as well as of is impossibility, for now seems to be productive in the face of the resolve and arrogance of an enemy seen by broad layers of the population as illegitimate.[21] The immediate reactions to Millbank might have seemed as the cutting in two of the movement between the supportive stand of the Goldsmiths lecturers, the Education Activist Network (so far an SWP front), the University of London Union, and the broad union and left-and left-of-Labour Coalition of Resistance on the one hand and the denunciation of the UCU and NUS leaderships on the other. But after the dust of the media storm of condemnations had settled, there are signs that many union leaders are being forced to listen to their members, or, put more cynically, are forced to up the anti in order to ride the wave of the movement. Meanwhile the far left – rarely missing a chance to attack union bureaucracy – is having to work practically with unions, recognising that no serious movement can be built on riots alone and that no serious movement (i.e. one that can bring down the government, reverse the cuts and force Labour to the left) can be built without union participation. If the unions cut off the most combative of the movement and if the most radical proceed in purely avant-gardist fashion, faithfulness to the Millbank event will ebb out, and despondency and depression will flow across the country again and veil the power of the masses, workers and students in the grey haze of a neoliberal nuclear winter (lightened up, for the press as it were, with occasional riots of desperation). If the call for unity against the government of capital prevails without cancelling disagreements necessary to the situation then, amidst all the dangers of cooption and new splits, the Millbank-disagreement can be productive, as was at times that between social democrats and communists, between the black panthers and the civil rights movement.

At the same time this generalised assault on public institutions seem to open up discussions into struggles pointing beyond the reactive ‘no to cuts’, beyond the parameters of the current battle itself. Alternatives must continually be raised, and herein lies a crucial challenge for a young movement operating in hostile waters. Thus education must be thought beyond not only neoliberal schools and universities; we must develop and expand our concepts of welfare beyond the welfare state, and our struggle beyond the dialectics of labour-capital and consumer-seller. This struggle is not to reclaim the past that bred the present, but to give rise to a new future established by the powers we have in the present: A present learning from past struggles, whilst freeing itself from the shackles of the past.

Fear and desire in the age of austerity

At the Millbank tower students were taking the lead – but of what is not yet clear. Only after more than four hours of occupation did the police ‘manage’ to surround and arrest the remaining protesters (did the police stage their own ‘no cuts’ protest while making the case for hasher repression in the months to come?[22]). Protesters returned home to see the picture of a student kicking a window – an elegant ballet backlit by a flare – as the key signifier of the event. The media awash with condemnations from unions, the media itself and politicians of all main parties, while a few saw themselves named and shamed.

However, participation in meetings has surged after Millbank. Declarations of solidarity with the protest have been drawn up and carried as motions in union branches across the country. Occupations are being planned where they are not already taking place. People are speaking with greater confidence and resolve when they debate the way ahead. Workshops on press work and legal rights are being held and organised. Teachers, fire-fighters and activists from the continent are invited in to share their experiences and to build links of struggle and solidarity. In the weeks ahead the students will take the next steps – the invitation to the workers, the unemployed and the school pupils is going out. And soon it will be their turn.

[1] However, UCU president Alan Whitaker refused to condemn the Millbank protesters, while sizeable minorities of the UCU and NUS National Executive Committees signed a petition to support the protesters.

[2] Letter issued by Goldsmiths College UCU branch.

[3] Wolf, ‘A spending review for a diminished country’, Financial Times 20.10.2010

[4] Department for Business Innovation and Skills Spending Review Settlement, 20.10.2010

[5] Simon Barker, ‘V-cs set to lose more than 75% of teaching grant, survey reveals’, Times Higher Education, 27.10.2010

[6] The Browne commission consisted of all but one Oxbridge graduate. Of its seven members none were students nor did any represent academics below the sphere of high management. Members had backgrounds in oil, management consultancy and banking. Gareth Dale, ‘Changing Interests’, Times Higher Education, 18.10.2010

[7] See Stefan Collini (2010), ‘Browne’s Gamble’, London Review of Books, vol.32, no.21, and John Morgan, ‘Fears made flesh’, Times Higher Education, 20.10.2010

[8] Rebecca Atwood, ‘Russell Group: if you want the best the cap must go’, Times Higher Education, 18.05.2010, Richard Garner, ‘Universities’ response to cuts ‘could lead to £40,000 student loans’, The Independent, 18.05.2010

[9] Collini (2010)

[10] ‘ Martin McQuillan, ’If you tolerate this… Lord Browne and the Privatisation of the Humanities’, The London Graduate Student, October 2010

[11] John Sizer (1987), ’In Search of Excellence – Performance Assessment in the United Kingdom’, Higher Education Policy in the Britain and Australia, T.B. Millar (ed.), Australian Studies Centre, London

[12] Collini (2010)

[13] UCU, 10.11.2010,

[14] Already in 2007 public funding of American universities as percentage of GDP exceeded that of the British, by 1.0% to 0,7%, with an OECD average of 1%. OECD (2010), Education at a Glance, p.220. Jeffrey Williams’ ‘The Pedagogy of Debt’ makes the characterisation of this process as ‘Americanisation’ particularly unavoidable. 2009, Towards a Global Autonomous University, pp. 89-96

[15] Collini (2010)

[16] The Guardian reports: ‘Home Office advisers warn numbers may drop by 50%’. Alan Travis, ‘Foreign students in UK to be hit hard by immigration cuts’, The Guardian , 18.11.2010

[17] Mike Barker, ’Students Could be Tough Customers’, BBC, 12.10.2010

[18] Browne et al (2010), ‘An independent review of higher education & student finance in England – Securing a sustainable future for higher education in England’

[19] However, such an arrangement was made possible by the Sale of Student Loans Act 2008. For the American situation see Williams (2009). Is the fact that the debt has not yet been sold that the market conditions have been poor, or that the debt is toxic and as such unsellable? Amidst these considerations arise the warning of an American bubble in student debt. Anya Kamenetz, ‘$830 Billion in Student Loans: The New Mortgage Bubble’, Huffington Post, 11.08.2010

[20] November 2010,

[21] The rise in tuition fees are thus carried through by a Coalition Government consisting of the Tory’s that did not ‘win’ the general election in the accepted sense (it only received 36% of the vote, substandard for a ruling party in a first-past-the-post system) and the Liberal Democrats who are pushing through the reform against their explicit election promise to vote against higher fees.

[22] ‘defence firms are working closely with UK armed forces and contemplating a “militarisation” strategy to counter the threat of civil disorder. The trade group representing the military and security industry says firms are in negotiation with senior officers over possible orders for armoured vehicles, body scanners and better surveillance equipment.’ The Guardian, 13.11.2010




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