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University freshers fairs
Students ready to fight back
This year's university freshers fairs take place against a background of proposals that would make education even more expensive for students and even less of a right for all. Despite the urgent need for a fightback, most student unions appear to be not only deserting the scene of struggle themselves, but making it increasingly difficult for students to set up societies, some insisting on up to £10 per student to join. Nonetheless, Socialist Students has held very successful stalls and meetings across the country as students realise the need to defend their rights and to fight to change the world. Here we report on some of the fairs that have taken place. Further reports next week.
We focused on the issue of tuition fees and unemployment. The majority of people showed an interest and were keen to go on the YFJ demonstration on 28 November.
All the students seemed very angry at having to pay for university. One student said: "Education should be free for everyone, it has been for so many years. Why should our generation have to pay?" Everyone was incredibly worried about the huge amount of debt that follows, and the threat of increasing fees and insufficient loans. Another student said: "I'm the first person in my family to go to university, but by the way they're talking, I'll also be the last!" We needed ten students to set up an official society, and we got 24 signed up - clearly a great success.
Days after the Liberal Democrats announced they would no longer call for the abolition of tuition fees, and with other attacks on students from the bosses' CBI, it was clear education funding would be central to freshers fair activity.
Homemade banners and people leafleting at the entrance maximised the impact of Socialist Students. Meanwhile those on the Labour Students stall admitted that most of the students who had signed up just felt sorry for them.
An extensive debate took place at our 25-strong meeting on how to fight the BNP, the possibility of reclaiming the Labour Party, the character of the Liberal Democrats, university investments in the arms industry, funding for higher education, the ideas of Marx, and the need for a socialist programme for change.
Solent University, So'ton
Students showed concern about student debt, and being unable to find a job after they graduate, whilst those describing themselves as socialists commented on issues such as Afghanistan, and the state of the economy. There was a good response from students, with few showing disagreement with our material. Some of those who were unable to stop and talk took a leaflet and came back later in the day to sign our petition and join our society.
Not being deemed 'acceptable' enough to be granted a stall at the freshers fair did not deter Socialist Students.
On Day One we distributed flyers, posters and petitions, but our lack of a stall meant our effect was limited. On Day Two our fortunes changed. Wandering through the various stalls I stumbled across an unused stall. I draped it in Socialist Students material and for the next two days this was 'our' stall.
While I could have sworn I'd seen Dominoes Pizza taking down people's addresses, university policy banned us from taking personal details. Nonetheless 40 people 'secretly' signed up to get involved. The Turkish Society put one of our 'Troops out of Afghanistan' posters up on their stall. Many said Socialist Students was 'just what they were looking for'.
Queen Mary, east London
A record 65 people signed up to join Socialist Students. Students were enthusiastic about the march on 28 November to scrap fees and for the right to work with a living wage, and were interested in discussing socialist ideas.
As we said, the best way to find out about socialist ideas is to talk to a socialist!
We are now organising meetings on subjects suggested by our new members, including one on how best to stop the far-right, racist BNP. This could be a very concrete issue, as the politics society told us they are considering inviting BNP leader Nick Griffin to speak at QM.
This year's freshers fair was like a breath of fresh air. Last year there was very little interest in campaigning against tuition fees, but now that the capitalist crisis has deepened, this has changed noticeably. Because more young people are now unemployed, and along with the recent surge in Afghanistan, more and more want to fight back.
Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge
"All my friends and me have grown up thinking of ourselves as socialists. I feel the time has come for me to get active in changing this society. I'm studying to be a carer, but bad pay and work conditions are putting people off going into caring. Under socialism I think that things would be totally different and people would see themselves as playing a role in bettering the lives of others instead of greedily filling their own pockets."
These comments from Kate at Anglia Ruskin reflected the way a number of students felt. She and others are very keen to get active in Socialist Students and the Socialist Party.
Cardiff University Medics
Nursing students, medical students and physios were pleased to see Socialist Students campaigning against NHS job and funding cuts, and opposing privatisation initiatives. We linked the problems these schemes cause with capitalism and the current crisis it has caused.
A lot of students were interested in our ideas, especially when they heard about the size of the funding and job cuts that are planned in the Cardiff area, that most were unaware of. We were able to explain the socialist solution to these problems, and hope to build an active campaigning society in the coming year.
We began freshers fortnight with a victory! Over 200 people signed the Socialist Students petition against a sexist advertisement for a student union club night and the ad was withdrawn.
Socialist Students also campaigned on issues such as the war in Afghanistan and combating the racist BNP. 50 people attended our public meeting on the crisis of capitalism and the socialist alternative.
Our well-placed table, decorated with Socialist Students and Youth Fight for Jobs posters, made it clear who we are. We had petitions on ending the war in Afghanistan, free education and youth unemployment. The front of Socialism Today, on how to fight the far-right, racist BNP attracted a lot of interest and our second meeting of the semester will be on this issue.
At our excellent meeting there was a lot of enthusiasm for putting ideas into practise and getting active on issues such as anti-racism and Youth Fight for Jobs. The meeting agreed to start collecting signatures on a petition against cuts to the opening hours of the law and art libraries. The day after the meeting 140 signatures were collected in just one hour of campaigning!
Students from all over the world showed interested in the Socialist Students society. They were well impressed by what Socialist Students had achieved locally, such as helping to lead the fight which defeated the far-right, racist BNP on campus and organising protests and gaining elected positions in the students union. The Youth Fight for Jobs campaign was welcomed by many. One student came up and said: "I'm so sick of just shouting at the telly and being angry. It's time for me to get organised" and signed up to join Socialist Students on the spot.
At the end of a tiring but very productive few days we managed to get well over 30 people signed up to the society who were eager to start fighting back against fees, cuts and privatisation.
Bureaucratic measures, such as having to ask students to pay extortionate amounts to join, having to already exist as a society before you can book a stall and other obstacles makes getting a stall quite difficult. Aren't university campuses supposed to be 'bastions of free speech, debate and learning'?
Once it was clear at BCU that exposure to our ideas failed to cause catastrophe, we appeared to be overlooked by university officials. Many students had not come across socialist ideas or groups before, but there was a great deal of informed anger at the BNP and at big business on campus.
At Birmingham University, entrance was more difficult. But, with a meeting held later on in a local café, it looks like an official Birmingham University Socialist Students may be set up in future.
At Manchester University a PhD student joined Socialist Students and the Socialist Party after watching us for some time and seeing that we are the most serious left force in student politics. Manchester Socialist Students has its first meeting on 'how can we bring the troops home?' This week, after signing up over 50 students to the society, we are building for the protest against the racist English Defence League's planned visit to Manchester on 10 October and for the YFJ demo on Saturday 28 November.
University of Winchester
Having missed an unpublicised deadline, Socialist Students members at Winchester were unable to book an official stall. The result of this was that within five minutes of setting up we had bouncers threatening to call the police if we didn't get off campus, with no NUS sabbatical officers on site to talk to.
However, we set up the stall just across the road and still managed to talk to students, as well as leafleting nearby halls, where the security was more reasonable. Having an official society at Southampton University we were allowed to put up posters and hand out leaflets to students arriving with their parents that afternoon.
Our determination meant intimidation couldn't stop us!
No sooner had we set up our stall at Plymouth University freshers fair when someone came up to join Socialist Students. We continued to get a good response throughout the day. There was a lot of anger among students about tuition fees. Our demand for free education went down well.
It showed how wrong the right-wing leadership of the National Union of Students are, who say that nothing can be done about fees. Plymouth didn't have a Socialist Student society last year but we collected enough names so that this year it will!
Youth Fight for Jobs
The YFJ demonstration on 28 November is attracting support from the best student activists. Sussex students union has agreed to finance a coach. Salford Left Forum, a broad coalition of young people in Salford who have a record of combating the BNP in their community and fighting cuts at the university, is helping Salford Socialist Students to mobilise for the YFJ protest. On this basis 45 students signed up to join Socialist Students at Salford.
Socialist Students will also have a new society at UCLAN in Preston after a lot of interest at the freshers fair.
University of Wales Institute, Cardiff
With no official stall we split up into two groups. One group distributed material inside the fair. The others spoke to students waiting in a bus queue. In this way we managed to get 14 contacts. There was a strong military presence at the fair, so many students welcomed our campaign against the war in Afghanistan.
University of Glamorgan
Our first meeting was informal about what Socialist Students does and getting to know what students are interested in. The second was on 'what is socialism?' Socialist Students intend to build campaigns such as anti racism and the BNP, anti war, free education and YFJ throughout the year.
Brunel University, London
The questions on many students' lips were 'is the recession over?' and 'what would a Tory government mean for young people?'
There was interest in both our upcoming London meeting which will tackle the issue of the current economic crisis and the YFJ march for real jobs and for free education.
In The Socialist 30 September 2009:
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace feature
Marxist analysis: history
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news