Autonomous Students Network: UK Statement

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This is a call out for radical anti-authoritarian students and student groups interested in (re)creating a national Autonomous Students Network.

Following the statement of the original ASN(active in 2010-2011), we are proposing a network for building solidarity and grassroots power in our campuses, workplaces and communities as part of the struggle for radical social change.

The ASN would be a project aiming to highlight the problems facing higher education and the student movement and taking action to resolve these problems. In the bog of trotskyist soundbites, we need an anarchist discourse on education and student organisation that has a sustainable network of contact and support behind it. The network should have both a local and a UK-wide focus, allowing local groups to support each other’s actions and projects while also coordinating groups for joint action on wider issues.

We hear plenty about cuts to education but we hear nothing about how our universities have been taken over by oligarchies of professional managers running undemocratic institutions for business interests. Our universities depend on students, lecturers and staff to function. We should be the ones deciding how they are run.

Similarly, there are few voices pointing out that the NUS is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to the realisation of a strong student movement capable of bringing meaningful change. It is little more than a careerist ladder for future Labour politicians whose vested interest it is to suppress radical student action. The NUS is unreformable and unrepentant. It should be opposed with creative alternatives.

This is merely a post to test the waters. We look forward to hearing what people think. Get in touch by commenting here or by messaging Sheffieldautonomousstudents@gmail.com

In solidarity,

Sheffield Autonomous Students.

Statement: Sheffield Building Federation of Assemblies

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From September 2013, the students of Sheffield University will be creating a network of departmental assemblies as a space for democratic participation and political action. Implementation is still in its early stages, but the assemblies will exist in every department and will be federated together on a directly democratic basis. They will have full decision making power over themselves and will give students the chance to experience and advance a radically new form of student organisation in the UK. It is a form that is uniquely suited to combating the torrent of attacks on students in recent years, a form that is a loud and serious response to the alienation, isolation and oppression of the neoliberal system which we all find ourselves in.

We have had enough of the betrayals of our ‘leaders’ as they leap at opportunities to advance their own political careers. We have had enough of the futile demonstrations they call to appease us, always stage managing them with the police to ensure demonstrations remain utterly ineffective and always quick to denounce any student action that goes beyond our assigned role as sheep. Most of all, we have had enough of an educational system in which we play the role of turkey’s being fattened for the tables of private businesses. It is an economy in which we labour for scraps of what we produce without any control over our work or our lives.

Against alienation, assemblies offer empowerment, against isolation, community. Against oppression they offer a platform for creating independent alternatives by students for students and the communities which we are a part of. The fight is not in Kennington Park, it is not on the NUS’s answer machine or in the smiles and nods of politicians. It is in the actions which we decide and take on our campuses, in our departments and in our communities.

In Sheffield we are ready to create something new. For those as disillusioned with the present situation and as desperate for alternatives as ourselves, lets work together.

Sheffield Students

Reflections: Our first shot at departmental organising

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In this helpful commentary piece, Fanny Malinen details how departmental organising has worked in Development Studies at SOAS.

Fanny Malinen is an undergraduate student in Development Studies and Economics at SOAS. Part of the anti-cuts group at SOAS, she has also been with the Occupy movement since its beginning and organised assemblies in many different settings.

I have been part of organising the assemblies in our department of Development Studies. We’ve been a group of four students, and what is great is that most of us are active students rather than student activists. We just had our second assembly the last week of April.

Practicalities

We organised the first Development Studies General Assembly in the last week of term 2 with a fairly short notice because we wanted to get it done before the break, and then another one in the revision period, which turned out not to be a great timing. The turnout in the first one was better, some 25-30 people. We started with some snacks, let everyone add things to the agenda, and then just before we started, the facilitator went through the agenda and sorted the items into a good order. Involving everyone in agenda-setting worked really well, and a lot of points had been raised on the wall of the facebook event already.

Involving Staff

We decided to involve staff from the start, but many academics have family commitments and find it more difficult to attend in the evenings, so next time we’ll try to have it in the afternoon – room bookings are tricky at SOAS and that’s why we’ve had to opt for evenings this far.

The department has been very supportive and last time we had the student support officer from Faculty Office and the next head of department present. It actually turned out that in addition to academic staff, administrative staff presence is utterly useful, as most of the discussions are around quite everyday items such as course choices, grade weighting, essay feedback, contact hours, student support…

Differing Interests

It is really empowering to have people in a room discussing their concerns and to realise that there are a lot of us students who feel strongly about for example getting feedback for exams and that we need to figure out how to pressure to make it happen.

But obviously some issues are more important for undergrads than postgrads or research students, and we haven’t figured out yet how to organise the meeting so that the larger presence of undergraduates wouldn’t dominate the discussions and we could truly engage all students and staff.

Something for next year, and a call to encourage graduate and research students to get involved in organising!

Structure and Organisation

We haven’t had a discussion on the structures and organisation of the assemblies yet, nor the relation to student union.

I personally feel this is important as how it is now, we can’t do much more than identify things we need to bring to the student union’s attention and where communication needs to be improved.

This was largely because the second assembly was a lot smaller and we didn’t really feel like end of the year was a good time to start discussing the identity of the assemblies.

We did decide to continue with them to keep the discussion going and that once in a term is a good timeframe, so hopefully in the autumn when we return to it we will have the possibility to have a discussion on the purpose, autonomy and possible decision-making structure of the assembly.

Fostering democratic structures

I feel that the assembly is a great space for us to come together as a department in a much more democratic setting than is normally possible, and hope we find ways to identify common concerns and goals we want to work towards instead of it working as student feedback to the admin and academic staff.

Issues of grade weighting, feedback and contact hours are of great importance in our everyday student life, however education faces even greater challenges and we are in a privileged position to be at University in a time it is seeking a new direction.

Hopefully the assemblies can contribute to that new direction being determined as democratically as possible.

General Assemblies toward a UK Student Strike

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Matthew Brett at student demonstration in Montreal, Quebec.

Students are spreading a model of departmental organising in universities across the UK loosely based on Quebec student union structures. The following is a Q&A between Matthew Brett and an organiser from a university in the North of the UK. The interviewer is working with others to build a directly democratic alternative to the National Union of Students. Matthew is actively encouraging departmental organising in the UK and the development of an alternative to the NUS. He was an organiser at Concordia University in Québec leading up to the 2012 general student strike. The Q&A was conducted online on 8 May, 2013.

Q. You have had assemblies in the Politics and the Development department at SOAS, with more departments likely to adopt the model next academic year. Who is responsible for organising the assemblies? (The practical side of making them happen.)

Matt: The core of departmental organising happens with a departmental mob squad or mobilization squad. My hat goes off to the mob squads at SOAS. They’re really just a core group of students in their department who do all of the planning and organising. This is the vital, nitty-gritty stuff: room bookings, making class visits, printing and distributing flyers, drafting an agenda, getting speakers, snacks a facilitator and so on. To me, the key is that everyone in the departments is well-aware that an assembly is happening. If you’re going to make a serious decision on behalf of a student-body in a department, everybody had better at least received the invite.

Q. What is there relationship with the SAOS union?

Matt: There is currently no relationship between the departmental assemblies and the central student union. Co-presidents in the student union have been supportive of the process, but they are not playing an active role. I prefer it that way. Assemblies should evolve organically from within the departments rather than top-down from the union executive. That said, the union can play a vital role by providing financing for departments, sharing its communications resources and so on. But the autonomy of departmental associations should be respected. This was critical in Québec during the strike. Departments were the highest sovereign body during the strike, even over the student union.

Q. How are the different assemblies co-ordinated?

Matt: There is currently no coordination across departments at SOAS. During the student strike in Québec, departments coordinated fairly closely. For example, several departments may put forward a motion about holding a day of action or coordinating a picket line. We also had inter-departmental meetings at the height of the strike. This was a great space where representatives from active departments came together to coordinate actions. It gave us a good sense of what other departments were dealing with. Most departments had active facebook pages and mailing lists where people talked about issues online. Some still maintain excellent blogs.

Q. How well are the assemblies doing so far?

Matt: I would say the Development assemblies at SOAS are going very well. They’ve had two general assemblies so far. The Politics department also held a successful assembly and plan on holding more. The organisers have been amazing. I imagine more departments will begin to adopt the assembly model next academic year.

Q. What is the vibe regarding the announced ULU closure? Are assemblies a possible way of filling the gap?

Matt: The vibe is mixed regarding ULU closure. People are obviously pissed off that it’s closing, particularly the abrupt way management went about it. There will be active opposition from students at SOAS, no question. That said, many also recognise some of the weaknesses of ULU, weaknesses which ULU executives themselves have been addressing with internal reforms, including more localised general assemblies. It’s clear that people see the potential implosion of ULU as a very serious loss. But it’s also clear that people see it as an opportunity to build something new.

The upcoming 8 June NCAFC extraordinary conference is going to be really important in this respect. No question people have their valid reservations about NCAFC, but there is no question that this is going to be a vital conference. Register and go. I only hope they decide to make the development of an alternative to the NUS an open process. This should include far more players than NCAFC themselves.

I really hope students start building an alternative to the NUS. The NUS is a joke. I don’t even need to go into the details. Students need a real alternative that will take free education seriously. You need real struggle to have any victories. I think departmental organising is critical when it comes to an alternative. Departments are more directly democratic, smaller and reflective of specific problems and goals. Most importantly for me, departments are the best level to implement a student strike. You can really shut your university for a sustained period of time with a strike. And if you can coordinate across universities, you can put huge pressure capital and the state. They have to listen, because you’re in control. I say this from first-hand experience. Just look to Québec. They really disrupted the system.

There are some dangers too. There is clearly a desire to resist the possibility of a London-based NUS regional union. I’m sure NUS are hovering around ULU like vultures. They will corrupt the last bastion of militancy if they get their careerist hands on ULU, no question. More promising though is the possibility that a more militant alternative to the NUS will emerge. It’s an exciting prospect – a necessary one if you look at the state of things. It’s clear to me: if a fighting alternative to the NUS isn’t created, the NUS will step in and fill the void.

This article was first published on Syndicalist Students (http://syndicaliststudents.wordpress.com/). Visit Organise2013 for useful resources on departmental organizing (https://organise2013.wordpress.com/).

Departments renew strike mandates: from the archives

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Organise2013 will present occasional articles from the archives of departmental organising across the world. In this first instalment, departments renew strike mandates during the unlimited general student strike in Quebec.

COMPILED BY JACOB ROBERTS, DAVID MURPHY & LAURA BEESTON. The Link. Volume 32, Issue 3, March 13, 2012. (pdf here.)

For the last week, The Link has been following the General Assemblies of as many faculty associations as possible. For the full stories on the following, and daily updates, follow @linknewspaper on Twitter, and head to thelinknewspaper.ca online.

 Urban Planning Meeting Messy

The Urban Planning General Assembly was a little messier than originally hoped for. According to President Sam Carter-Shamai, people were speaking out of turn, clapping and booing, interrupting speakers, challenging the mediator— who was from the University of Winnipeg, not Concordia—and were generally acting inappropriately.

Carter-Shamai said he chose a moderator from outside the Concordia community because he believed it would be a more neutral solution and avoid any perceived conflicts of interest.  Overall, the UPA students voted in favour of the strike, with 59 votes for and 27 opposed. But since that vote, the president has been attacked with criticism.

“I’m trying to do this the best I can,” said Carter-Shamai, who says after running the first GA, he’s confident he can handle a second one much better.

WSSA Sends a Message to the Minister

The Women’s Studies Student Association was the first student association to hold a GA and vote to go on strike in protest of tuition increases. They have successfully boycotted classes for a full week.  Prior to the second vote, WSSA executives met with the Simone de Beauvoir Institute faculty to discuss plans moving forward.

It was a meeting WSSA External Executive Gabrielle Bouchard called “magical, wonderful and very, very feminist,” that lead to both student and faculty parties coming to an understanding of each other’s “democratic and contractual realities.”

Following the multi-stakeholder meeting, the Institute also sent Education Minister Line Beauchamp a video on International Women’s Day, calling for a public debate on the social impacts on the hikes.

“The objective […] would be to create a public space for debate on the present and future of postsecondary education,” said SDBI Spokesperson Viviane Namaste in the video, “and specifically to consider how the hikes will affect women.”

They said Beauchamp had an essential role to play in the education debate, and called for her to deliver her position in the public sphere.

The Ministry responded March 8 that they had received the institute’s letter and would follow up.

Sociology and Anthropology

The Sociology and Anthropology Student Union held a general assembly on March 6, ending with a majority vote to begin striking on March 12. The student association represents about 2,000 undergraduates.

Following presentations by the Concordia Student Union’s Advocacy Centre, Graduate Students’ Association VP External Holly Nazar and CSU Councillor Irmak Bahar, 127 students in attendance voted on the proposed strike mandate.

The motion passed, with 101 students voting in favour of an open-ended, one-week renewable strike. Twenty-three students voted against the mandate, and three abstained.

GUSS What? Another Strike!

Environment and geography students voted to maintain hard strike tactics for the next two days in its General Assembly on March 6.

Those tactics include blocking entry to classrooms, not handing any work in, and recommending alternative teaching methods outside of classrooms.

The GA lasted roughly four hours and the vote passed with 64 people for the vote, 32 against, and four abstaining.

The Geography Undergraduate Student Society represents 750 undergraduate students.

“I’m just really happy with the way the process went down. There were 100 people in the room, [it’s] quite a contentious issue and there was no bickering back and forth. Everyone was really respectful,” said GUSS President Andrew Roberts.

Departments can now affiliate to NCAFC

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Departmental groups can now affiliate to the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) in a step that may mark the beginnings of direct democracy on campuses across the UK.

Some 150 students and activists voted to transform into a member-driven organisation during the December 8-9 NCAFC Conference in Birmingham.

“When the student movement next has an upsurge, we can dissolve our existing structures into a directly democratic delegate model,” reads a summary statement from the conference.

This model adopts elements of the Quebec syndicalist structure at ASSÉ, where local general assemblies at the department or faculty level guide national action.

No departmental or faculty-level groups have affiliated to the NCAFC to the best of our knowledge, as developing strong and consistent assembly structures takes time.

Politics students at SOAS did hold their first general assembly on 14 November, 2012, and organisers in other departments are considering assemblies.

Academic departmental associations can affiliate to NCAFC by submitting a list of three names and email addresses to the organisation.

Local group memberships are formed by submitting a list of at least 10 names and email addresses (if an HE campus) or at least 3 names and email addresses (if an FE campus, school or academic department).

SOAS Holds its First Departmental General Assembly

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Last term saw an important change in autonomous organisation, as SOAS successfully held it’s first ever departmental General Assembly.

Politics students organised an open meeting for all members of the department, kick-starting the school’s first ever on campus direct democracy initiative.

The assembly was established to open a discourse amongst students about how education should be run. In reaction to the closed nature of university management, the GA seeks to bring those who come to study at SOAS closer to the decision making that affects them.

The first Politics Department GA saw a frank and honest debate on a number of issues ranging from the type of assessment we receive and the marketisation of our education.

The roughly 15 students in attendance exchanged views on departmental issues and learned what their peers wanted to change at SOAS.

The assembly resolved to meet again in the spring term and to extend a welcome invitation to the departments staff.

This first Politics GA has engendered a sense of action in other departments, with talk of other General Assemblies in economics, history, South Asian Studies and elsewhere.

Ideally, whole faculties will be independently organising around this democratic structure and advancing the voice of the student body within SOAS.

This General Assembly follows on the heels of a November 1 meeting last year, where students from four universities agreed to organise at the departmental level.

They agreed not to meet again until a minimum floor of four departmental general assemblies takes place anywhere in the UK. Contribute to this vital process by holding a general assembly in your department.

Visit the library section of this website for ideas of how to organise at the departmental level.