Recent collusion between management and the police at the University of London during student solidarity with striking university workers has raised the question of university autonomy from state intrusion. Michéal MacEoin looks at a rich history from Latin America.
Spanish and, later, Spanish-American institutions in Latin America based themselves on the medieval University of Bologna in Italy. They conceived of themselves as corporate communities of scholars.
This contrasted with a different medieval model, from Paris: controlled by masters, with students as academic and political subordinates.
This idea was given a modern update by the 1918 Reform Movement, which began in the University of Córdoba in northern Argentina. The movement had many specific educational complaints, from an outdated focus on learning by rote, to inadequate libraries and poor instruction.
Its demands for the institutionalisation of student participation in the running of universities and defence of the university’s autonomy with respect to the state were not just ends in themselves, however. As Luigi Einaudi put it: “Autonomy was a prerequisite for reform of the university, and the reform of the university was in turn the first step toward the reform of the entire society.”
The Reform Movement also wanted to mobilise the university around solving national political, economic and social problems. They were influenced by the Mexican and Bolshevik revolutions, and wished to sweep away the old oligarchy in the name of modernisation, secularism and progress.
Activists built links with labour organisations, and advocated the establishment of courses for workers. They demanded free education and open admission to all qualified applicants, aiming to create a democratic mass institution.
In the five years after the reforms, enrolment in Cordoba grew by around 80% and graduation rates increased by 244%.
Many student organisations took up the mantle of reform, and from Argentina to Mexico, student uprisings spread throughout the continent. The principles of the Cordoba movement were later endorsed by the International Student Congress on University Reform held in Mexico City in 1921.
Although there were demands for financial autonomy from the state, in practice autonomy meant two main ideas: self-governance by students and academic staff through the election of university officials and immunity from police intrusion without warrants or permission from university authorities, who were generally unwilling to give it.
Such autonomy created a “veritable discontinuity between the University and society.” This arrangement, however, far from being depoliticising, often put universities at the centre of political struggle. In the battle against authoritarian governments in Latin American in the middle of the twentieth century, autonomy gave an impetus to the development of oppositional political forces and increased student power.
Thus, one of Juan Peron’s first acts in 1945 after his election as President of Argentina was to appoint his own supporters to the position of rector and dean of the faculties at the University of Buenos Aires, a site of much opposition to Peronism. This was followed in 1947 by a new university law which, while paying lip service to the principle of autonomy, undermined it with an article providing for the appointment of the rector and professors by the “national executive” i.e. Peron.
In the 1950s and 60s, guerrilla movements challenged governments in Cuba and Venezuela. Rioting and demonstrating students opposed to the Batista dictatorship commonly took refuge from the police in universities.
Ironically, the Castro regime was to end university autonomy shortly after taking power. In 1959, there were elections for President of the University Students’ Federation (FEU) at the University of Havana. The favourite was anti-Batista veteran Pedro Luis Boitel, who was supported by the 26 July Movement. But Castro intervened in the election to promote Rolando Cubela, a then loyalist who later became a CIA spy. Boitel withdraw his candidacy, though many students voted for him anyway.
University autonomy was abolished and student demonstrations without government sponsorship were banned in the wake of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Boitel was later arrested for conspiracy and tortured. He died of starvation after 53 days of a hunger strike in 1972.
In Venezuela, the Castroite Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) and the guerrilla Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) made use of university autonomy to oppose the government of Rómulo Betancour. In December 1966 the government sent troops into Central University in Caracas, and proposed legislation limiting autonomy.
In the UK today we should think critically about what autonomy could mean. Now, too, it is not a panacea.
But autonomy from police intrusion, and the creation of democratic institutions could incubate critical thinking and give support to the class struggle.
Generally speaking, university life gives people a measure of time, space and resources between the end of parental authority and the beginning of capitalist workplace discipline with which to think critically about society and develop a worldview. Students can be particularly receptive to radical political opinions, regardless of their class background.
Though only the working class has the power to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a socialist society, universities and bodies such as students’ unions can be useful allies in class struggle. Think of the general strike and student unrest in Paris in 1968 — a movement which also made reference to the 1918 reforms in Córdoba.
Today at the University of London, the students’ union has provided political and material support to the outsourced Tres Cosas workers in their struggle for equal sick pay, holidays and pensions, to the extent of giving over office space to the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) trade union. This is undoubtedly a factor in the University’s plans to abolish ULU and replace it with an apolitical management-run services centre.
There are some differences, however, from the Latin American experience. In the 1960s, with some exceptions in Peru and Colombia, Latin American universities were the preserve of students from upper- and middle-class backgrounds; regional enrolments from working-class students probably did not exceed 10%, and the peasantry were even less represented.
This is less the case today. Students are from a greater diversity of backgrounds, as student numbers have expanded in the last decade. According to research from the National Union of Students (NUS), 57% of students work part-time to fund their studies. The effect of this, as well as the end of living grants, the rise of tuition fees, and increasingly extortionate level of rents, means that students are less insulated and more exposed to the negative effects of class society. Students as a social group have economic grievances of their own. This provides an objective basis for students linking up with and becoming part of the labour movement, during as well as after their studies.
The role and function of universities has also changed, becoming greatly more enmeshed in the gears of capitalist society.
In the 1960s in many advanced capitalist countries, we saw signs of the tension between the university’s orientation towards business, and the sort of critical thinking and political unrest which could lead in an anti-capitalist direction. In the early 1960s, the President of the University of California in Berkeley, Clark Kerr, wrote a book arguing that: “The university is being called upon ... to respond to the expanding claims of national service; to merge its activity with industry as never before; to adapt to and rechannel new intellectual currents.”
At the same time, however, he tried to ban students from participating in political activity which had its base outside the campus. As Hal Draper pointed out: “[There is] a wide gap between Kerr’s published theory about the ‘merger’ of the university and ‘society,’ and his moves toward restricting student involvement in political and social action off-campus.
“On the one hand he tells us we must accept the integration of the university with the state and industry in this Cold War... and must erase the boundary lines; on the other hand, he tries to muzzle and rein student activity on campus which tends to step beyond the boundary line, while at the same time other ‘constituencies’ in the university community are lauded for doing just that.”
This tension has become sharper, as the marketization of education has vastly accelerated in the neoliberal era. In the UK, post-Thatcher managers, sometimes with little or no experience of teaching or university life, may as well be managing any corporate institution. Protest, and even student representation, are seen as detrimental to corporate image and institutional reputation. Universities dispense lucrative contracts to companies providing outsourced services; for-profit institutions are beginning to proliferate; and collegiate co-operation is becoming cut-throat competition. This is a far-cry from the idea of the university as a community of learners.
As capitalist logics begin to permeate university sector, institutions themselves increasingly become a site of major class struggle.
Managers have faced resistance to course closures and the privatisation of services in universities such as London Metropolitan College and the University of Sussex, and staff have battled redundancies from on campuses such as the University of Birmingham the University of Liverpool.
It is not just autonomy from the state that is the issue, here. Autonomy is essentially a democratic demand. In previous generations, autonomy served to create distance from a repressive state or a reactionary society. In the neoliberal era, class relations reproduce themselves within the university and many of our major enemies can be found within our institutions themselves. The focus of our demands are therefore different.
With demands such as “cops off campus”, we should remember who called the police on to campus in the first place in the University of London: unelected and distant senior management rattled by escalating class struggle and student unrest.
This is why, together with campaigning for police to stay off our campuses, we must also form and extend our links with local workers’ struggles and demand democratic universities run by those who study and work in them.
The idea of democratic universities under students’ and workers’ control is the “crowning summit” of the battle against police intrusion, illiberal court injunctions and the unaccountable vice-grip of neoliberal managers.