Will students join the fightback?

The current strike wave has come off the back of a historic cost-of-living crisis facing workers and their families, with real household income set to shrink by 7% in the next two years, the largest fall since records began.

For university students, this historic collapse in living standards has come at twice the pace. While inflation soared towards a 41-year high of 14% in the autumn, student maintenance loans for 2022/23 increased by just 2.3%. This amounts to a 7% cut in the value of maintenance support over one year. As a result, the average monthly shortfall between students’ loans and living costs has risen to £439 this year, up from £340 in 2021/22, and £223 in 2020/21.

With pay from part-time jobs and parents’ income also squeezed, an unprecedented number of students this year have been pushed to extremes to compensate for a record gap between government maintenance support and living costs. Sixty-two percent of students are now cutting back on essentials, while 52% are using their savings, and a staggering 25% have reported taking on new debt to finance their living costs. Polls have also consistently reported around 10% of students using food banks this year.

The stats suggest that, at this stage, the overwhelming mood of students is to ‘grin and bear it’, absorbing at least part of the increased cost of living through personal savings, debt and stripped-back spending. However, there are limits to how far students will be willing, or able, to sacrifice their current and future living standards in order to continue their studies, especially those from working-class families.

The student cost-of-living crisis therefore poses a sharp increase in university dropout rates. Indeed, the University of South Wales has already identified a “significant rise in non-returning students” this year, while the University of East Anglia has reported “a higher-than-average dropout rate”. By choosing not to raise student maintenance support at least in line with inflation, the government has effectively attacked working-class students’ ability to continue their education beyond the age of 18.

And these attacks are set to continue. The government announced in January that maintenance loans for over a million students in England will rise by just 2.8% next year. Following successive years of below-inflation rises to the loan allowance, this will leave the poorest university students with over £1,500 less than if they had applied for student finance three years ago. In fact, the Department for Education has admitted that maintenance support would need to go up by almost 14% to keep pace with the increased cost of living, and that a 2.8% rise “is unlikely to prevent a further erosion in purchasing power” for students next year. In other words, the collapse in students’ living conditions is set to go even further next year.

Despite the objective crisis facing students, however, this academic year has seen a virtual absence of student-led struggle in the universities. This is ultimately down to a lack of authoritative organisations giving any alternative to students, both on and off campus. The tendency for students at this stage to endure government attacks, as opposed to fighting back, is because the vast majority are not being given a lead to do otherwise.

The pivotal question of leadership was shown in the university walkouts that took place in Ireland last year against the cost-of-living crisis there. While those walkouts of 20,000 students were a display of the huge anger among students in Ireland generally, the national Union of Students in Ireland (USI), together with students’ unions on the ground, played the key role of publicising a date, time and set of demands for students to get organised around.

In contrast, the USI’s sister organisation in the UK, the National Union of Students (NUS), has limited its public campaigning this year to online petitions and social media propaganda. And yet UK students face the same crisis as students in Ireland. If the NUS called for a day of protest against the student cost-of-living crisis in cities around the country, using its links to hundreds of students’ unions to build for it, thousands of students would turn out. Publicising a date, time and place would allow groups of students to put pressure on their students’ unions to organise transport. The protests could be held jointly with striking workers, raising the idea of students and workers fighting together to win the money we need to live from this weak Tory government. And they would allow hundreds of angry students to link up and discuss forming new campaigns and organisations to tackle the crisis they face.

And what about university Labour clubs, at a time when the Tories are so hated on the campuses? In 2017, hundreds of thousands of young people queued at ballot boxes around the country to vote for Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-austerity programme, including his demand for free education. However, this massive enthusiasm found no organisational expression on the campuses, one of the many mistakes made under Corbyn’s Labour leadership. The situation now is shown by the fact that in last year’s Labour Students National Committee elections, only 504 votes were cast to elect a national chair. The candidates for the Scotland seat managed 36 votes between them. Sir Keir Starmer’s Tony Blair-style New Labour party is not attracting students to its banner.

So, while the Corbyn era showed the potential for an anti-austerity political voice to electrify students, it also underlined the need to establish broad and democratic campus organisations to mobilise students in support of those ideas. Such organisations would also have to answer how ideas like free education can be won. Corbyn costed the scrapping of tuition fees and the restoration of maintenance grants at £12 billion. For comparison, the University and College Union’s (UCU) demand of a 13.6% pay increase for university staff would cost around £1.5 billion. This indicates the scale of what would be required to win a higher education system that actually meets the needs of students. It would mean students linking up with workers in struggle – a task that is not solely the responsibility of students, but also of the workers’ movement as a whole. And the unions also have a responsibility to politically re-energise students in the way Corbyn’s programme did, by taking steps to build a new political voice that can represent workers, students and young people generally at the ballot box against the big business politics of the Tories and Starmer’s Labour.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that no authoritative force has yet emerged to lead students against Tory attacks on their living standards. The University of Manchester rent strike, which re-emerged at the start of this term, indicates how struggle will be thrown up by the crisis facing students. However, the rent strike groups in Manchester and elsewhere developed originally around a sudden spike in anger that spread among students over the Covid lockdowns, when students were lured back en masse to universities under false promises of in-person teaching. For many students, this year’s cost-of-living crisis might feel like less of a sudden collapse, and more like a gradual, albeit still painful, decline. It is therefore not automatic that a 2.8% ‘increase’ in maintenance loans would spark a new wave of student struggle, although it is adding to the tinderbox conditions on the campuses.

The money exists for a fully publicly funded higher education system, available to all in society. The richest 250 individuals alone in Britain now own £710 billion, up from £658 billion in 2021. However, in the absence of a political voice that will fight for free education, and given the current historically low level of student organisation, local student campaigns that fight even for limited concessions from university managements – such as emergency cost-of-living grants, or subsidised canteen meals – would be a step forward. At each stage though, such campaigns should raise the idea of a national student movement, linked to the fight for free education funded by taking the wealth and resources off the super-rich, and the building of a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme to fight for that.

Adam Powell-Davies