An academic assessment of protest?

Following the recent violent actions on the margins of major student protest marches in both Dublin and London, the official student bodies in both cases denounced these actions by the small number of protesters who had taken part. But these denunciations have in turn been sharply criticised by representatives of local lecturers’ unions. In the relation the Dublin events, a letter was sent by members of the Maynooth branch committee of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) to the President of the university’s Student Union. The key passage in the letter is the following:

‘Rather than criticise the actions of those who attacked the student demonstrators, the President of USI chose instead to condemn those of his own members who had attempted to occupy the Department of Finance. In our view, his comments on Wednesday last represent a shameful betrayal of those whom he was elected to serve and represent.’

In relation to the protest and violent occupation of the Conservative Party offices in London, the President and Secretary of the University and College Union branch at Goldsmiths College London issued a statement that contains the following:

‘We also wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ. The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation that will follow if tuition fees are increased and if massive reductions in HE funding are implemented.’

I have no idea of course whether these statements reflect wider views amongst academics in the universities concerned, but in any case they will hugely alienate those whose support will be needed by students and staff who are concerned about government policies and want to express their concerns. The actions by a minority of student protestors have subverted the agenda of the demonstrations, so that what is now being discussed is not the issues but the violence, and for some academics to attempt to reinforce that perspective is plainly stupid. If they want to express solidarity, it should be with the majority of the student protestors, not the violent minority.

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32 Comments on “An academic assessment of protest?”

  1. Victor Says:

    The violence in Dublin and the much worse violence in London by so many students and faculty is a tipping point.
    Throwing a fire extinguisher down on a crowd of police from 100s of feet is attempted murder–a very big deal that will have profound effects.
    In Ireland the life style people have had for 20 years is over and will not return for a generation— if then.
    We will see real unemployment levels of 20% plus, that is already the case in the USA.
    Most people seem to be in denial about what is about to happen—we are looking at a similar situation to Germany in the 20s and 30s, America in the great depression. Read the history.
    We just have not seen who the demagogues will be yet.
    China is a military economy and they see the crisis in the West as an opportunity for hegemony–we live in interesting times— for some.

    • copernicus Says:

      I agree with you entirely, but it is a pity the academics have been in self-denial for a long time, gripped by a sense of entitlement, closted in their own towers in an unreal world. The unemployment in Britain is also high, denied by the Labour government which was defeated-they had 2 years to do something about it. The graduates are finding difficult to get jobs as the business and industry increasignly finding them without the kind of skills in demand. The work permits issued for thousands of people from outside the EU are for jobs that could have been filled by those students who were leaving the British polytechnics prior to 1992, but alas these polytechnics have become universities jettisoning the diploma courses. Those colleges which picked these up are turning out students who easily secure jobs. The other day, I called in at a Santander branch and the young man who served me as personal banker studied in one of these colleges and he said all his mates at the college secured Santander jobs as the 200 university graduates in economics interviewed were too bookish, and out of sorts to the needs of this organisation. Engineering exports are booming in England, hundreds of vacancies exist in SMEs, and most of our universities have closed their engineering departments. I was approached by one desperate recruitment manager of a SME to fill their 10 vacancies, after the job centres failed to find the candidates. After scouring Europe, I approached an Indian friend-an engieer in India, and the applications were on the way to the SME within a week. The work permits were fast-tracked. These types of candidates were produced by former polytechnics.

  2. Jason Michael McCann Says:

    Victor certainly makes this sound like the apocalypse, but the only horsemen that I have seen were at the demonstration in Dublin, and even at that two of them were women. Ferdinand, again I agree with your sober reflection on this. Even anti-government protests are democratic events. The wisdom of the majority carried the day (the majority is not always wise), and fewer kids (and they were just kids) were inflicted with serious head injuries. Methought that the lecturers were meant to be the ‘grown-ups’ in this game? It appears as though they are suffering from the good old envy-of-youth; not getting a piece of the action and all. So to the lecturers: well, grown-imps, the 60s are over – deal with it!

  3. Victor Says:

    The Irish economic situation is in meltdown–look at the evidence–banks stock declined from 18 e to 40c in a years! that is a catastrophe.

    If you know history then you will understand how these horrors begin.
    Throwing a heavy metal object from the top of a building on a crowd of police is, in fact, attempted murder.

    That academics have not condemned this attempted murder means that it will be much more lethal next time.
    We have all seen the pattern before–the demagogues have not emerged yet– but they are on their way.

    Once you excuse attempted murder you encourage the next step–and we all know where that leads in the context of economic meltdown–which is what Ireland is facing—the guns may be buried–but they are not far underground—colleges need to put a stop to this by dismissing all students identified as acting violently—you can already see blogs in Ireland like– Bock The Robber
    Inciting violence and demeaning the police–this is how it starts—how it ends is very ugly

    • Jason Michael McCann Says:

      Easy up Victor, no-one is denying the facts, but these things have also been survived before. I’ll make sure and look out for falling fire extinguishers in future.

  4. Vincent Says:

    In all fairness, the word Union as used by Irish SU officers is a Union in the same way and for the same ilk as the Medical and Bar councils
    Further, and being totally Classist here, you could pick the Tory SU in the UK blindfolded.

  5. copernicus Says:

    To what extent John Wadsworth of Goldsmith College reflects the views of his colleagues is not clear. But this college, though the constituent of University of London, is a fringe College, mired in militant academic politics. Most of the academics there come from middle class. The Daily Mail has published details of students who crashed into the building and without exception they all come from middle class, one of them a foreign student, a Pakistani, educated in an exclusive school in Pakistan and shipped over here by his rich parents.

    The student who threw the fire extinguisher has been arrested and I guess released on bail, comes from Anglia Ruskin University, a post-92, where I was at one time an external examiner. I was not impressed with the students I met there, but the staff there unlike Goldsmith were hardworking and there was no militancy.

    Surprising, though the LibDems were blamed, their office was not attacked. The Labour Party which brought in the student fee,and commissioned the
    Browne report, now talks with a forked tongue, typical of the left. This vandalism by students will ensure that the fee will be voted on and any protest from now on will be properly met with by appropriate police force. Academics and students have long hallucinated about entitlement, and this incidence has turned the public against them. That is the general opinion here in my borough and in other parts of London.

  6. anna notaro Says:

    One always wonder on such occasions whether protesting in the streets is going to have any effect whatsover on government’s policy. Still the streets (and icreasingly the internet) are the people’s public fora – the ‘public sphere’ Habermas celebrated – the effects might not immediate but the seeds for critical debate inside society at large have been planted. The danger though is that ‘rather than the enormous outpouring of the Demo resulting in a critical public discourse on higher education, we are now in danger of suffering a mediatic reduction in which the metonymic scene of adrenaline-fuelled brainlessness with a fire extinguisher stands for the heart-felt expression of thousands.’ (M. McQuillan,

  7. Myles Says:

    Unlike some commentators, members of IFUT were actually present at the Dept of Finance.

    They state in the letter, “Those of us who were present witnessed first-hand a response to the demonstration on the part of the police that was excessive, indiscriminate and downright dangerous.”

    No amount of media spin can alter what those present witnessed.

  8. Al Says:

    I think that you are on to something here.
    There has to be a ‘fit for purpose’ mindset.
    I had a debate with a colleague recently over the merits of training vs education.
    He said that he could train monkeys but couldnt educate them.
    Fair point.
    My reply was that I had a degree in boxing and he had better watch what he was saying..

    • Al Says:

      Reply to Copernicus at 935

    • copernicus Says:

      Yes, there is difference between training and education. But the bright universsity graduates I see here are all educated and yet they do not get even work for minimum hourly rate. Their work ethic gets worse as they get more and more desperate and cynical with no jobs in sight. One of them borrowed a few tenners from me, and he was thus desperate. But then the young lad who studied in a local college who updated my Santender account etc..( mentioned above), was trained and he has already 1 year work experience. I was working in US in 1970s when jobs were hard to find, and the situation was then the local industry and business were not hiring those from the universities like Cincinnati and Ohio State, but were happy to offer positions from Miami University, Ohio, a small university which had undergraduate curricula with practical and academic mix, more like the pre-92 polytechnics, just the industry and business wants. This university has continued this mix of curricula to date with success.

  9. I’ve looked at as much footage as I could find of both the London and Dublin demos. They just don’t easily compare. Some of the, let’s call them, “violence junkies” may wish that there had been baton charges and cavalry assaults in Dublin but it didn’t happen! There were assaults and they should be pursued by the law. Academic comment on the demos cannot reasonably be evaluated solely in relation to a simple opposition to all violence: comment on Dublin and on London is different because the Dublin and London demos very different.

    It’s obvious too that calling a street protest invites the participation of parasitic groups whose own efforts couldn’t bring more than a handful onto the streets. Some of these groups argue openly for violence. Aware of this, protest organisers will have to be careful, deliberate and take control of their events.

    The early trace of a decline into fascism feared by some contributors to this thread is not something that I can see. However, a population aware that we are into a crisis, simply cannot be expected to share the burden of its resolution in the face of ludicrous inequality. No, I’m not talking radical egalitarianism. I’m saying that it is silly to expect soiety to cling together when wealth and particulrly inflated salaries are flaunted before people who are struggling.

    I won’t get into the issue of education and employment here. I’ve contributed to this on other threads and on my own blog. Suffice it to say that that unless the dominant view on education policy changes soon, we’re about to create an expensive mess.

  10. Victor Says:

    The economic forecast hold no good news, Irish banks profits have fallen by 40%,in 2010 the budget deficit will be at least 32% of GDP and the public debt is almost 100% of GDP.
    Food prices will rise sharply in early 2011.
    As the FT points out–

    “If things are left as they are the risk of further social unrest will rise, while tax revenues will collapse at a time when budgets are already under enormous strain.
    Meanwhile, institutions holding government bonds (particularly banks, pension funds and insurance companies) will have to confront the fact that they are sitting on large losses, and do so either on their own or through mounting downgrades by rating agencies.”
    They predict a vicious cycle of path dependency,rather than snapping back to a better outcome, bad developments increase the probability that the next set will be even worse.

    The example of violence in the streets set by students and supported by at least some academics will follow the same path dependency involving workers and the unemployed.

    The attempted murder of police by a UK student means a very bright line has been crossed.
    In future demonstration we will see the use of water cannons and tear gas, if police start getting murdered then we will see the use of anti-terrorist tactics and armed police.

  11. Just in case people might be concerned that my presentation of facts is prejudiced, you can find a comment by someone who says they were present here:

    Mind you, I might be slightly cautious about recognising the detached reasonableness of someone who gives themselves the pen name ‘Revolution Now…’.

    • I’m becoming increasingly annoyed by the acceptance of pen names in on-line debate. I appreciate that there is an occasional need or even a fun reason for using a pen name but it is now the norm rather than the exception. What is wrong with these people that they cannot stand over their views?

      • homophilosophicus (Jason Michael McCann) Says:

        I think that it is just naughty.

      • Myles Says:

        Considering that an increasing number of companies now Google prospective employees, it makes sense to be weary about what you publish on the internet.

        If the person who wrote that piece called themselves Anthony Leonard for example, would it make the piece any more valid?

  12. Martin O'Prey Says:

    I won’t speak on the London matter, but certainly I would agree with the content of the letter sent from the NUI Maynooth members of IFUT. Your opinion that the staff members should have stood by the majority of student (peaceful) protesters shows that your argument is ill-informed. The letter did in fact prise the protesters who turned out in their tens of thousands and who did not end up involved in the controversial events which unfolded (that you claim subvert from the original agenda of the protesters). The letter went on to critcise the police brutality employed against those students who engaged in what the IFUT members referred to as a legitimate form of protest. All seems pretty straight forward to me, and certainly it was the response I would have expected from any decent member of University staff.

    • Martin, that depends on what you mean to achieve. If you want to secure broader public support, then occupations of government departments will have the opposite effect – as will statements from academics praising such action.

      • copernicus Says:

        You are spot on. In the aftermath of London Vandalism by students, the government will not give in, and the new tuition fee will be voted in, despite the Labour which brought in the tuition fee a a few years ago and commissioned Browne report, voting against joined by a few Libdems. The govt has a majority of 80. The messages reaching me is that the statement by the academic from Goldsmith college is received with dismay by his own colleagues in the wider Goldsmith precincts and by others in universities around the country who think rightly that the vandalism + the statement has removed any hope of persuading the govt for gentler introduction of the increase and the cuts.

  13. Stephen Baker Says:

    How do you know that occupations of government departments will weaken public support? My own feeling is (probably based on the same speculation and casual conversations with friends, family and colleagues as your own) that it might very well attract public support.

    Also, I might be just as inclined to be ‘slightly cautious about recognising the detached reasonableness’ of someone who was once a university VC.

    One of the reasons people use pen names online is because they are fearful. Frightened that if their views are judged ‘unreasonable’ by those with the authority to define such things, that they will be ridiculed, sacked or worse.

    Oh aye, and ‘violence junkies’…. behave.

    • Stephen, if you want to hear an average assessment, just be in a pub (as I was) when they were playing TV footage of the occupation, and listen to what people were saying. Trust me, this is not a winner! Occupations never were. Yes, we can listen to our friends and colleagues telling us how great it all is – doesn’t mean a thing.

      • Myles Says:

        I presume that was RTE news from the day of the event itself, rather than the footage RTE was forced to show 6 days later.

        The original report fails to show Gardai striking students sitting on the ground, it also fails to show images of students covered in blood as a result of blows to the head. RTE had a team of reporters present, but choose not to report this.

        Compare and contrast

        RTE News Nov 3rd:

        RTE News Nov 9th:

        If I was basing my opinion on what RTE originally reported, I’d probably have the same opinion as your drinking colleagues.

      • Stephen Baker Says:

        …and listening to people in a pub is more meaningful? Ferdinand, let’s be frank, we don’t know what the British and Irish public really make of any of this. And I don’t trust the mainstream media to tell me what they think. So what are we going to do…? What’s your point?

        • My point is simple enough. If what you want to do is impress your friends and fellow radicals, then occupations may seem like a good wheeze. If you want to create a coalition of support for higher education, then occupations are plain daft.

  14. Stephen Baker Says:

    I didn’t mention any fellow radicals. I mentioned friends and colleagues. And I never said I wanted to build a coalition of support for higher education. I have no interest in supporting higher education as it is currently constituted. And I doubt the students who occupied Millbank on Wednesday were doing it to advance the version of higher education that you hold to. Occupations may seem daft to you, but then again I doubt that your agenda is shared by the students. So carry, Ferdinand, doing whatever you do through the ‘usual channels’, because that probably looks just as futile to many students as those students actions look to you.

    • Not meaning to be rude or anything, Stephen, but that’s a really uninteresting answer, because you’re not telling us what version of higher education (or of anything) you *are* wanting to advance. Then one can judge whether occupations will help. Presumably, from what you write, you are not wanting to advance anything that requires popular support?

  15. Stephen Baker Says:

    Sorry Ferdinand,
    I’ll try to be more interesting. But perhaps my reticence is because the debate about higher education being conducted through the mainstream media seems very proscribed and narrow. To me it feels like there is a cabal of ‘reasonable’ people carrying on a conversation about the future of HE and these people have decided that people like me can only join that debate as long as we bring our opinions into line with theirs. Otherwise, we get label Trots, anarchists or as one of your contributors put it ‘violence junkies’. I am none of these things.

    I’m a university lecturer in the UK system. I’m a father of two young children. I support Labour. My political heroes are more likely to look like Nye Bevan than Leon Trotsky. I once called a policeman a pig at a Blue Lamp disco and was given a week long detention by the headmaster. Apart from this I have never had any trouble with the law. I occasionally go on demonstrations. Sometimes I take my kids. I marched for peace in Northern Ireland. I marched against the privatisation of water. I joined anti-war demos. And I joined a demonstration recently protesting against the cuts to public services. I’m a little fed up being told by ‘respectable’ politicians that I and everybody else have every right to protest peacefully while at the same time they take no notice of the concerns and issues we raise. So, Tony Blair took a country to war that was deeply divided over the issue and the present UK coalition government have no mandate for the cuts they are pursuing. The Tories failed to get a majority and they are propped up by Lib Dems who have reversed many of the promises they made in the election. My feeling is that politicians treat the electorate with contempt. And I’ve lost patience.

    I expect political defeats; like shit, it happens. I can live with compromises; that’s the nature of politics. But I can’t abide the lies, hypocrisy and cant I’ve witnessed recently. So, I’m angry and I know lots of others just like me who are angry also.

    On the specific question of higher education: I will not get out of bed to join a coalition that does not argue for free tertiary education and a decent maintenance grant for students. I don’t want to teach students who behave like consumers; are dependent upon their parents for support, so arresting their development as independent adult learners; and who are dependent upon part-time jobs that distract them from their studies. I don’t want my children to be burdened by massive debts before they’re even 21. I don’t want the education of my children to be reduced to a new market opportunity for financial capital. I want higher education paid for through a progressive tax system.

    After that, I want a debate opened up about the nature of tertiary education. I want proper public debate about the relationship between higher education and the economy, a relationship, which in recent times, has seen education rendered utterly subservient to economic imperatives without any real benefits for either.

    I want to ask is it sensible to herd massive numbers of 18 year olds through HE when some (at that stage) have no real aptitude or interest? Shouldn’t we do more to support adult education, that would encourage people to explore HE at a time when they feel ready for it and in open forms that allow them to? And shouldn’t ‘knowledge transfer’ be about more than snuggling up to ‘business agenda’?

    I could go on (sorry, this reply is probable too long already).

    Given wrecking-job being done to HE at the moment (and for sometime) and the absolute paucity of the debate that has attended it, I find it extra-ordinary the condescension and bile poured upon student protestors, many of whom have acted not in their own interests, but in the interests of subsequent generations. I think they’ve shown the way.

    • Thank you, Stephen, for that full response. I expect you and I may differ on some matters, but I agree with you on this:
      ‘I want to ask is it sensible to herd massive numbers of 18 year olds through HE when some (at that stage) have no real aptitude or interest? Shouldn’t we do more to support adult education, that would encourage people to explore HE at a time when they feel ready for it and in open forms that allow them to? And shouldn’t ‘knowledge transfer’ be about more than snuggling up to ‘business agenda’?’

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