SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 163 November 2012

A new season of student struggles?

TWO YEARS ago over 50,000 students marched through London against Con-Dem plans to treble university tuition fees to £9,000 a year, cut 80% of funding from the higher education teaching budget, and scrap the education maintenance allowance (EMA).

This triggered a mass movement that lasted until Christmas, put Con-Dem cuts centre stage nationally, and saw the biggest protests and student strikes (with 120,000 walking out at one point) since the 2003 Iraq war. University campuses were occupied for a month, and the government was shaken to its core.

This movement politicised a wide layer of students. Many had voted Lib Dem in the general election. Now they were being attacked by police on the demonstrations and saw the media lying about it. Students came out of that experience with a visceral hatred of the Tories and the Fib-Dems.

Despite winning some concessions, students starting university this September are paying £9,000 fees, supposedly to make up for university budget cuts. Only a handful of local councils continue with EMA-style schemes. These first-year students were the first to face up to the Con-Dem axe as many had lost EMA while at college. They were integral to the 2010 student movement. Mention fees and they recoil in horror.

However, a big layer of students feel that there is not much they can do about it. Fees are not paid upfront, and the tuition fee loan is not commercial – unlike most cases in the USA where student debt has hit $1trillion. So it is not necessarily immediately evident that it will make it harder for graduates to get a house or car, etc.

In Quebec, Canada, students have beaten tuition fee hikes. There, the movement for free education has ousted the Liberal Party government, which has been replaced by the Parti Québécois (PQ). Under this mass pressure, PQ has promised not to increase tuition fees, at least initially, although it is inevitable that it will come into conflict with students and workers further down the line. To reverse the £9,000 fees in Britain, or to force real concessions, we would have to mobilise a movement to shake the Con-Dem government. That is why Socialist Students has been building for a one-day general strike to kick it out, a call which has had a fantastic response from students.

In 2005, the Tories’ manifesto included a plan to turn the universities formed from polytechnics after 1992 (more than half the UK universities) back into colleges. This would leave the right to a university education as the preserve of just a few. In 2010, the Tories dropped that elitist proposal. In reality, however, it is what they are still trying to do – to entrench a two-tier education system.

Battles have already broken out at a number of campuses. Bolton University Student Union president and Socialist Students member, Shana Begum, had been re-elected to her position for 2012/13. She has fought hard for students and seriously tackled racism at Bolton Uni. Over the summer, Shana was sacked by the vice-chancellor and replaced by his close ally, Malcolm Gilles.

The most infamous attack this year has been at London Met. Universities in Britain have a special status allowing them to take on international students, many of whom have to pay a crippling £15,000 a year fees. The UK Border Agency has withdrawn London Met’s right to grant visas, meaning that thousands of its students could face deportation. This is part of the Tories’ ‘tough on immigration’ stance. The strength of the campaign has meant that London Met’s international students have won a temporary reprieve. They are currently waiting for their futures to be decided in court.

At the University of East London (UEL), lecturers organised in the UCU (University and College Union) have taken strike action to stop attacks by university management. UEL has the worst staff-to-student ratio of any university in the country: over 23 students to each member of staff. At the moment, for every hour of teaching, most lecturers do an hour’s preparation and one-and-a-half hours of marking. Many lecturers teach around 18 hours a week, which means they are already working 63 hours a week – excluding all the unpaid extra hours.

The vice-chancellor, Patrick McGee, wants to double the amount of hours lecturers teach to 36 hours. So, if they kept the same ratio of preparation and marking, they would be working 126 hours a week! That is impossible, of course. Instead, management is proposing to cut marking time to 15 minutes per hour of teaching. If forced through, it would be a green light to sack academics, not good for staff or students. UEL lecturers would lose the right to appeal if they are unhappy with changes to their workload (which will be individually ‘negotiated’), or to protest against bullying management.

The anger has also been fuelled by a succession of other attacks: cuts to PhD students’ teaching pay from £47 to £17 for up to ten hours work, staff redundancies, £9,000 tuition fees and the privatisation of services, which have included clauses banning trade unions.

Sussex University staff and students have also fought plans to privatise huge swathes of support services. Jobs have been cut at Queen Mary University, London, including security staff, leaving very few night staff on campus, where 3,000 students live.

It is clear that the cuts to funding from central government will not be matched by the fee rises. As a result, university managements will continue to attempt to drive through massive cuts and privatisation. Socialist Students demands the reversal of the Con-Dem fee hike and fights for free education. Big business is sitting on a £800 billion cash hoard. This could pay for free education for the next 150 years!

It is only on the basis of a united movement that sky-high tuition fees can be beaten. Education trade unions need to begin to call national strike action to broaden out these battles from single campuses to a national campaign to challenge privatisation. Everyone is being affected by austerity. We need a one-day general strike.

Sheffield University and Sheffield Hallam have set up anti-cuts campaigns: Reclaim Your Education and Our Future Matters, respectively. Some sections of the university managements have voiced support for these campaigns. If this is genuine, they should show it by refusing to implement the tuition fee rises, and by using the reserves of the university to pass a budget that looks after the needs of ordinary staff and students. If just one university did this, it would throw the Con-Dems’ education policy into crisis.

So, what are the chances of another student movement developing this autumn? The right-wing New Labour leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS) has failed to organise the kind of struggle needed to stop the Con-Dems in their tracks. On the night of 10 November 2010, after the first major protest, Aaron Porter, then president of the NUS, even went on TV to call for the arrest of protesting students!

Despite the absence of leadership and the NUS’s de-politicisation of university campuses over the last 15-20 years, this year’s NUS conference was compelled, under pressure, to call for a national demonstration. This will take place on 21 November. Following the 20 October TUC march against austerity, it could give confidence to students again that they can fight back and win.

Unfortunately, the NUS leadership have given the demo the vague slogan: ‘Educate, Employ, Empower’. The demo should be properly built for on the clear demands for free education and decent housing, and against cuts, privatisation, and graduate and youth unemployment.

There is real potential for the student movement to be rebuilt. Socialist Students’ programme of action got a fantastic response at freshers’ fairs up and down the country this year. The Occupy movement also put anti-capitalism in the minds of a wide layer of young people in particular. The possibility of linking students with trade union activists engaged in building for a one-day general strike could see a massive united campaign against all the cuts and the Con-Dem coalition.

Ian Pattison, Socialist Students national chair


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