Recently, I rediscovered this interview from 2011. It is well worth a read given that NUS Conference is only a few days away. Special thanks to Ché and Al.
Mark Bergfeld is an education activist who has played a vital part in mobilizing – and being a part of – the student movement in London, which took every political radical by surprise last November, and ignited the anti-cuts movement here in general. In this interview Mark shares with Freedom his thoughts on the subject, the current state of the movement, as well as the coming big action on J30.
- Can you speak about the inception of the Education Activist Network (EAN) and your involvement in it?
In early 2010, we saw a small yet significant number of campus struggles. At Kings College London, UCU members were at the forefront of fighting against redundancies. At Sussex, the students took the lead on fighting against cuts to courses and jobs. In Leeds, as many as 700 jobs were at threat. The particularities in these struggles had to be addressed. At KCL, lecturers were battling a vicious management. They understood that they needed the students’ solidarity and thus linked up in weekly joint-organising meetings. At Sussex, the students had mass demonstrations of a thousand plus. Yet, the lecturers lacked the confidence to take strike action. Thus, students started building a strike fund and actually managed to convince the UCU branch to go on strike. In Leeds, lecturers voted for strike action but the Students’ Union ran a horrible ‘scab’ campaign.
Thus, a number of lecturers and students decided that we needed a national network to address the ‘unevenness’ by facilitating, sharing ones experiences, co-ordinating days of action and building concrete solidarity to those fighting. I have been involved on many levels in the network. At this moment, we are building for the court hearings of students, 30 June and are starting to build for the demonstration at the Tory Party Conference in October.
- EAN has done some good job in providing a forum for students of all stripes to come together by creating almost weekly assemblies. What was the idea behind these assemblies?
Whilst the movement was at its highpoint, there were many questions that we had to tackle head-on. The question of police violence and repression became a central feature of our assemblies and forums. Now, that the street mobilizations have receded we also have to re-orient the network as well as win an argument in the students’ movement that we cannot simply call for a re-run of the events of last November/December but must re-define what student-worker solidarity means. The Education Activist Network is not a formal organisation but a network. Many different organisations, campaigning groups and workers and students need to be linked up in the struggle for education. We provide such a forum to people with our meetings.
- Do you think EAN has done enough to physically reach out to all students, especially outside the University of London-UCL-LSE circle?
There are EAN groups at different colleges and universities across the country. Essex, Sussex, Teesside University, Kingston Uni, Sheffield are just some examples where we have managed to provide the same kind of level of activity but also debate about the movement. At Teesside university EAN activists have been bringing out a fanzine. At Essex Uni, there have been American-style rolling teach-ins of 200+ and Kingston University, EAN activists have played a crucial role in organising 2000 strong school student walk-outs.
- Let’s talk about the general student movement as such. When it all exploded in November were you expecting that to happen, especially in the way it did? Did your involvement in the NUS and in radical Left politics provide you with a special insight as to the storm that was brewing? Surely, a lot must have happened before it all kicked off?
It became very clear that NUS was investing a lot of their resources into mobilising for the November 10 demonstration. On behalf of NUS, I was travelling across the country mobilising students from September onwards. However at many campuses the mood only changed two weeks before the actual demonstration took place. I did expect a large demonstration but never would I have thought that students would storm Millbank tower and display such a high level of militancy. We saw a huge number of demonstrations in the run-up to November 10. In Oxford we saw 3000 plus demonstrating at Vince Cable’s visit. In Birmingham, students built cardboard barricades and had similar numbers. There also were some flash occupations of finance offices and other management offices.
At one NUS mobilisation meeting I said: ‘Perhaps we should learn Greek’. I never thought we would learn it that quickly. Without NUS though having mobilised 50,000 we wouldn’t have had 5000 lay siege on Millbank. For many people it was the best day of their lives. It was liberating. The events at Millbank changed my life as well – only for the better.
- Where is the NUS in all this? We all know about the infamous Aaron Porter and his double-dealing. The NUS has a new President now. Is it getting any better? Do you think that institution can be redeemed politically?
At this year’s NUS Conference, we polled our best election results in living memory. However, I was still far from coming anywhere close to winning Presidency. Unfortunately, we also lost crucial votes on another national demonstration and free education. It is in that context, that Liam Burns the new NUS President ‘triangulated’ by calling for strikes and occupations on the one side, and appealing to right-wing students on the other side by labelling me a ‘violent thug who wants to bring down the government’.
Someone once said to me: ‘A right-wing bureaucrat will sell you out at breakfast. A left-wing bureaucrat will sell you out after lunch. It’s only a question of time’. I don’t know what Liam Burns is going to do, but he – in as much as me winning Presidency would have been – is not the solution to the structural problems we have mobilising.
- Since the actual introduction of tuition fees this year the student movement seems to have died down here in London. Why do you think that is? And what can be done to change the situation?
Firstly, in November/December, there was a clear national focus: the parliamentary vote. Once that vote was lost, students did try to mobilise but the defeat weighed upon them. Secondly, the level of police repression and brutality on the demonstrations is unheard of and scared a lot of students who were first-time protesters. Also, the number of students being charged with ‘violent disorder’ or ‘aggravated trespass’ has forced a retreat upon us. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, we did not have a generalisation across the trade union movement until March 26. If the TUC had called a demonstration before Christmas, things would have been very different.
- The EAN has sort of gone out of the picture as well. There are no more assemblies. Is it going to make a comeback? It seems crucial to me that at a time like this students need some common ground on which to meet, exchange ideas, gain confidence and support each other, and EAN was that kind of forum.
For some time, it was very difficult to get people into meetings and assemblies. We have started to put forums on again, and are planning to have one after the June 30 strike as well.
- At some of the previous EAN assemblies there was some talk about taking coordinated international action. With the current social upheavals in Spain, Greece etc., do you think that kind of action is a possibility now or sometime in the near future?
We are currently in discussions with UNICOMMON, a group from Italy. We also have made some links with some Spanish organisations such as Juventud Sin Futuro. There is some talk about having a co-ordination in December. I can’t really say what is happening in detail as the international meeting in Italy ended up not being able to really take a decision. But I definitely think that we will see an international or at least European-wide day at some point in the near future.
- Thankfully, June 30 is coming up. With the whole generalize the strike action being undertaken, do you think it can reignite the student rebellion? What form do you think it will take? Because even though student-worker solidarity is essential, the one place where students can make a real difference is within the educational system which is a huge battleground in itself.
The Education Activist Network has been crucial in pushing an argument around June 30, and at the same time involved itself in the J30 assemblies as well as built joint co-ordinating meetings with trade unionists. It is very possible a date that could re-ignite the student struggle. I have heard from several FE colleges across the country that there will be walk-outs the day before, as well as different actions on the day. It is problematic however that the universities are on summer holidays. Thus, a lot of students feel atomised and don’t have their usual networks.
June 30 can both deepen and broaden the resistance across the country and create a mosaic of resistance with students delivering solidarity at picket lines, trade unionists on strike taking direct action and everyone affected by the cuts making sure that they do whatever they can to turn this into a day of rage against the Con-Dem government.