Student protests grow in US universities

Posted on November 20, 2011


I blogged a couple of weeks ago about a new form of student protest to emerge in the Philippines and noted how difficult it can be for police to move a dead-weight body. Rather than attempt to do so, campus police at University of California, Davis, resorted to pepper spraying peacefully sitting student protestors.

The video of the pepper spraying has gone viral, the police officers suspended and the vice-chancellor is under pressure to resign. The action has caused outrage. Alumni point to the long traditions of freedom of speech and civil rights protests in these universities as well as the design of campuses and arrangements to facilitate this. They argue that these developments amount to the criminalizing of freedom of speech.

What it has done, though, is draw attention to how the wider ‘occupy movement’ has resonated widely and deeply. Students at more than 120 US universities have participated in protests. They include the private and Ivy League colleges which draw on the middle and upper classes as well as those in state or community colleges. What is at stake for these students is the ‘dismantling of public education’ as a result of rising fees, growing student debt and weak job prospects. That is, university education is becoming the preserve of the elite.

Six years ago tuition fees at the University of California were $5357; it is currently $12,192; and current proposals would push it up to $22,068 by 2015-2016. Bob Ostertag, a professor at UC Davis says, having discussed it in his classes, says that about one-third of his students would probably have to drop out with the new fees. This he argues is what has prompted students who have never been activists before to ‘occupy’ the campus quad in their first civic protest. It was these students, who were pepper sprayed while peacefully sitting down. Occupy Student Debt has started a website where students and graduates can post pictures of themselves with a piece of paper stating the size of their loans and how much they still owe. Many claim they owe even more than the tens of thousands originally taken out because of high interest rates. Hardly surprising, then, that students are becoming more critical of what they hear from lecturers. At Harvard, 70 students walked out of economics class taught by a former adviser to George Bush in protest at the ‘biased nature’ of the class, which they are claimed to have said, ‘contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America’.

This is the ‘model’ that the British government has chosen to use in drawing up its own policies on tuition fees. In the UK, the mass, angry protests appear to have largely fizzled out. Yes, the EAN still turned out earlier in November to protest at the cuts but there does not seem to be the same intense engagement with the issues. Maybe if their Pilipino and American counterparts can sustain their protests, it might re-ignite something in the UK.

It is still early to say whether a new global or even national student protest movement(s) to rival that of the 1960s is emerging but I hope so. The revitalizing of moribund democracies needs angry, active, protesting students. The 1960s movement so the emergence of a new generation of academic from these student ranks ready to challenge existing theory and ideas. It was this climate that gave us Stan Cohen’s ‘moral panic’ thesis.