In the past few days, the National Executive Committee of the NUS (NUS NEC) has voted to support a student strike, and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) has called on students’ unions across the country to demand a student strike ballot. NCAFC are rallying students to go on strike to win maintenance grants for college and university students. With that in mind, what is a student strike, and why should we demand one?
A student strike takes place when students collectively decide to boycott their classes, exams and coursework. A ballot is held by a students’ union to allow students to vote on whether they take strike action. The ballot can be held through a referendum or through general assemblies. In general assemblies, students gather to debate the issue in a big meeting before voting. This gives everyone the opportunity to make their case to the whole student body.
When a student strike takes place, students refuse to attend their lectures and seminars, they refuse to do their coursework, and they refuse to turn up to exams. Instead, students organise picket lines, demonstrations, and other forms of protest to make their demands heard. During normal term time, most students don’t have the time or the energy to devote to these actions. The strike gives all students the time for campaigning on issues which affect them. This means campaigns are no longer limited to a small group of dedicated activists. Even a one day strike can be effective by giving students the chance to participate in mass demonstrations.
When students go on strike, they have safety in numbers. If only a few students decide, by themselves, to boycott their classes, they risk being punished by their university for refusing to attend. However, when students decide to go on strike en masse, they are safe in the knowledge that their university will not punish them all.
Universities depend on students attending their classes, sitting their exams, and graduating. If a huge number of students fail to graduate, the university isn’t performing its function. This is because the university exists, in part, to produce graduates for the job market. Universities are a crucial part of the economy by training students for employment and awarding degrees which allow graduate employers to differentiate between the people who are applying for jobs. When students go on strike, they are armed with the threat of not graduating. In practice, however, student strikers always graduate. The university cannot afford to have whole classes failing to graduate, so instead they push exams and deadlines into the summer holidays. This is what happened in Quebec.
In Quebec, students went on strike to protest a tuition fee hike proposed by the Liberal government in 2012. During the strike, tens of thousands of students came out onto the streets to protest. CLASSE, the students’ union organising the strike, held assemblies in every department of every university they represented. Every week, members of CLASSE came to their departmental assembly to debate whether to continue the strike. Students decided to stay on strike for almost six months. The strike culminated in tuition fees being frozen and the ruling Liberal Party being ousted from government.
The UK has also had a successful student strike. In 1971, Margaret Thatcher, the education secretary at the time, announced plans to make membership of the National Union of Students voluntary. Students were outraged by Thatcher’s attack on the NUS. The NUS called a student strike which lasted five weeks and ended in victory. Thatcher was forced to withdraw her proposal. Ever since that strike, the government has been careful not to undermine the NUS’s ability to defend students.
In the past few months, the Tory government has announced that it will be scrapping maintenance grants for the poorest students and making changes to the student loan contracts we have already signed. They are proposing to make us pay our loans back quicker, and have openly said that this will affect the poorest graduates worst. Only a student strike can build a mass movement to seriously challenge the government. For more information or to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org.