SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 173 November 2013

The state of the student movement

Students were the first to react to the ConDems austerity onslaught, with mass protests erupting in November 2010. Three years on, CLAIRE LAKER-MANSFIELD examines the state of the student movement today.

On 12 October 2010, Lord Browne, commissioned by the previous Labour government to review higher education funding, gave his report. His ‘findings’ were to underpin the current government’s approach to universities. Neoliberal, free-market fundamentalism was the subtext to the review’s recommendations. Continuing down the road first embarked upon in 1999, it urged the complete transfer of studying costs from the state to the individual, demanding the removal of the cap on tuition fees.

The Browne review reported one week before the government’s first comprehensive spending review and austerity unleashed. Students were big casualties here too. Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) – a £30-a-week grant for 16-19 year-olds studying at college – was to be scrapped altogether. One week later and the government had announced that it would accept most of Lord Browne’s recommendations – tripling the fee cap to £9,000. By the end of October, students knew they were facing an onslaught.

What followed took not only the government but also the official leadership of the student movement by surprise. Over 50,000 filled the streets of London to demonstrate against these attacks. Tory headquarters were occupied, tens of thousands walked out of schools and colleges, and universities were hit by a wave of occupations. The month-long student movement was a whirlwind of protest. A new generation had a first taste of struggle. It opened up discussions and debates on how to organise, what programme to fight around, and the role students might play in changing society.

For freshers beginning university three years on, the excitement and energy of that short, but nevertheless significant, movement might seem very distant. The £9,000 fees are now a fact, and EMA a memory. Since 2010, austerity has continued to batter education. Young people have found themselves at the sharp end in what has been an almighty assault on the living standards of all working-class people.

But the 2010 protest movement, what it meant, why it failed to stop the government and how, three years on, a new battle to defend education might be waged, remains at the heart of all debate among student activists. While the last three years have been quieter on most campuses, the same has not been true of wider society. We have seen the huge public-sector strikes of June and November 2011. These gained wide spread support among young people, but were abruptly called to a halt by the right-wing majority of trade union leaders. Internationally, revolutionary explosions have taken place and mass movements have swept huge swathes of the globe. It’s only within this context of the development of the wider struggle against austerity and crisis-ridden capitalism that possibilities for a new student rebellion can be properly understood.

New attacks on higher education

The government is coming back for more when it comes to education. Its latest comprehensive spending review included a further £45 million cut to spending on universities, alongside a whopping £260 million to be snatched from further education. Incredibly, despite the on-going funding cuts, many universities are still operating with big surpluses, mainly down to sustained attacks on staffing levels, wages and workload.

The threatened privatisation of the student loan book, also announced in that review, could mean the cost of a degree spiralling way beyond the headline figures for tuition fees. As interest rates go up and debts accumulate faster, students will face paying far more than they were aware of when they signed up.

In a letter to the National Union of Students (NUS), universities minister David Willets has sought to reassure students that there will not be a retrospective revision of the terms and conditions applied to student loans in order to make the company attractive to private buyers. But leaks have shown that the government has been discussing just that.

Low-interest loans which people only pay back once they earn over a certain amount are not great money spinners. In fact, unless the government allows a potential buyer to change the terms and conditions on the loans, it will be impossible for it to sell off the company. The only way the government could do so would be with assurances that the taxpayer would directly subsidise the buyer’s profits – ultimately, at a far higher cost to the treasury.

At the moment, the government has only announced its intention to sell off the part of the student loan book which holds debts accumulated prior to 2012’s first £9,000-a-year cohort of students. But without a concerted movement to stop this happening, it is almost certain that what remains will be sold off in due course. With commercial loans companies allowed to be the main providers of student finance, the state will have almost completely stepped out of the funding of universities. Like in America, those who wish to study will either be reliant on trust funds set up by rich parents, or will be forced to take out high-interest loans that leave them crippled by debt and threatened with bailiffs if they fail to meet repayments.

While not posed as an immediate threat, the possibility of further tuition fees increases, or even the complete removal of the cap, cannot be ruled out, particularly following the next election. Oxford’s vice-chancellor wants to charge students £16,000 a year to study at his elite institution. In fact, the whole of the Russell group seem to be itching for the chance to charge students more. This £16,000-a-year figure was first raised by the group during the Browne review, now they seem to be embarking on a new campaign.

On top of this, the vast majority of vice-chancellors are thoroughly committed to a business model for the running of education, and are implementing programmes of cuts and privatisation. Outsourcing and privatisation of student housing, catering services, security and other vital support is well underway in different areas, and in some cases was completed long ago. The largest student campaign over the last year took place at Sussex University in opposition to the privatisation of services there.

No shortage of anger

Sussex’s campaign indicated that a willingness to fight is not in shortage when campaigns are conducted with clear aims, organised around demands which chime with students. Many student newspapers currently read like catalogues of things that could be campaigned on. The latest edition of Kingston Students Union paper, for example, contained articles about students being burned by scolding showers in poor-quality student housing, being forced to engage in sex work in order to afford to pay bills, and about racism faced by Muslim women on campus. But if you go to the campaigns section of the student union’s website you will find little in the way of a response.

In fact, despite a radicalisation that took place among students during the 2010 movement, the anger that manifested itself on the streets has yet to be fully reflected within student unions and NUS. Indeed, despite some small gains for the left within these structures (for example the election of Socialist Students member Edmund Schluessel to the NUS national executive), in general the right-wing Labour students leadership have been able to retain their dominance.

This, alongside the pause that has taken place within the workers’ movement following the retreat by the majority of the trade union leaders on pensions, has contributed to a general lull in student struggle. Campuses are full of students brimming with frustration about sky-high fees, a lack of teaching time, high-cost poor-quality housing, and a whole host of other issues. But so far that frustration has yet to be harnessed and built into a movement capable of changing things.

With NUS currently dominated by right-wing forces, content to wait for 2015 and hope salvation comes in the form of a Labour government, it is unlikely that any such movement will be led by them. It falls to anti-cuts students and those on the left to give a lead instead.

The 2010 movement first exploded onto the scene with a demonstration organised by NUS, which mobilised around 50,000 students. The resources that were able to go into that demonstration, as well as the authority of NUS as an ‘official’ leadership for students, certainly contributed to such a big demonstration and to sparking the movement that followed. But NUS quickly vacated the scene of struggle. When Millbank was occupied and the leadership felt it was losing control, it outrageously condemned those who had taken part, preferring to condemn those who smashed windows than lead a fight to stop the Tories smashing lives.

Following this betrayal, leadership of the movement fell to those willing to fight. Socialist Students played an important role in this movement. We were the first group to call for student strikes as the next step in escalating the campaign. This was taken up widely two weeks following the NUS demo when an estimated 100,000 students walked-out and participated in protests around the country. But Socialist Students was not the only group involved in leading the movement. Nationally, and particularly in London, a whole host of other student left groups were involved in organising and forming a political leadership for the movement.

Role of students

The energy and audacity of the student movement as it emerged led to big discussions on the role students could play in fighting austerity and changing society. ‘Student power’ was an idea that fitted in with the feverish excitement of a movement that represented the first real response to ConDem austerity. Young, left-wing commentators like Laurie Penny, inspired by the movement, expounded the idea of students as the key force capable of changing the world. Even supposedly socialist groups – for example the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – put forward this idea. They argued that workers should attend student assemblies to ‘learn’ how to fight from students.

Three years on, following the defeat of the student movement and big industrial battles waged by the working class, these mistakes seem quite clear. But at the height of the movement, at a time when workers had yet to flex their muscles against austerity, it is easy to see how these ideas were able to gain a certain currency.

Socialist Students maintained a clear position on the role of students. During the 2010 movement, we raised the need to escalate student struggle against fees and cuts, pointing to the clear ways in which it was possible to do this. We argued that students and young people represent a dynamic force, something like the ‘light cavalry’, often first to move into battle. But we always maintained that to be able to defeat tuition fees and win the fight to defend education decisively, it would be necessary for students to unite and fight alongside workers.

We pointed to that economic might of the working class – its ability to collectively down tools and stop work through strike action – which makes it the key force capable of defeating austerity and changing society. In 2011, as workers displayed some of that power in the massive strikes that took place, young people and students flocked to support them. Polls showed that sympathy with strikers was extremely high among 16-24 year-olds in particular.

As we move into a new academic year the need for unity with workers fighting back is as clear as ever. University trade unions are taking strike action on 31 October. The strike follows a real terms 13.8% decline in wages for academic staff since 2009. That has been combined with rapidly increasing workloads, the rise of zero-hour contracts on campuses, and thousands of low-paid support staff earning less than a living wage. This strike represents an enormously important battleground in the fight to defend education.

These issues affect students directly. The proportion of university income spent on staffing our universities has been in rapid decline. The things that make the biggest difference to a student’s experience of studying – the teaching and support they receive – are what university managements value least. Socialist Students is calling for mass mobilisations of students to support workers on picket lines, rallies and demonstrations and to make sure students do not take part in lessons taught by those undermining the action.

In addition, there is a clear need for national action on the questions of student loan privatisation, cuts and tuition fees. Socialist Students has been attempting to put pressure on the NUS to call such action but, given its right-wing leadership, it would be a mistake to wait for a lead to descend from on high. That’s why Socialist Students wrote to other groups on the student left, including the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, to attempt to pull together a coalition to build for direct action in the autumn term. Due to a sectarian approach on their part, they have failed to respond, preferring to ‘go it alone’ calling small actions and conferences and failing to reach new and wider layers of students. The fight now is for national action in the spring.

But it is not just national action that needs to be built. There is clear potential for big campaigns on a whole range of issues locally. With NUS attempting to block action on a national scale, it makes it all the more likely that the enormous frustration and anger currently simmering away will boil over in the form of local protests and movements on campus issues. Sussex’s campaign last year was an example of this. On a smaller scale campaigns on issues like an unfair attendance policy at the University of East London, led by Socialist Students, have shown that when a problem is creating anger and a lead is given, students are willing to fight. And it’s possible to win. The UEL attendance policy campaign scored a victory – the policy has been scrapped.

The fate of the student movement is inextricably bound up with that of the anti-austerity movement as a whole. As strike action by different groups of workers takes place throughout the autumn, the demand of rank-and-file trade unionists for a 24-hour general strike is likely to gain even wider support. Such an action could act as a call to arms for students, too, inspiring them with the possibility of beating back austerity.

Even without that development, there is the potential for new explosions in the form of student and youth movements. This deep crisis of capitalism is having profound effects, not only in terms of inspiring struggle among youth but also in a changing political and ideological outlook. A renewed interest in socialist and Marxist ideas is evident on campuses around the country.

For socialists studying at university our tasks are two-fold. We must provide a lead in the fight to defend education, organising on our campuses and attempting to pull things together nationally. But we must also seek to provide answers to the questions students are asking: what alternative is there to capitalist austerity? How do we change things? Are Marxist ideas relevant today? As the crisis deepens, there is potential for an enormous radicalisation of students and for socialist ideas to reassert themselves spectacularly among a new generation, one determined to change the world.

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