Brighton students support the strikes
Brighton students support the strikes

Theo Sharieff, Socialist Students national organiser

The cost-of-living crisis is set to hit students incredibly hard this term. Inflation is affecting all the basic necessities of everyday living, with food, energy bills, and rent all on the increase.

Pay for the bosses of the top FTSE 100 companies jumped up by 39% in 2021, but wages for the majority of us stagnated as we face the biggest cost-of-living squeeze since the 1950s.

Students will not be isolated from this. With inflation now running well into double digits, the maintenance loan increase of just 2.3% will leave thousands of students facing hardship and crisis this term.

Even during the summer, one-in-three students were left with just £50 a month to live on after paying rent and bills – to cover food, travel, and all the educational resources students are made to buy at the start of term, including textbooks. 11% of students use food banks, up from 5% at the start of the year.

As the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, against the background of looming recession, the prospect of students running out of money altogether midway through term and going hungry is very real. The average student maintenance loan falls £439 short every month. The gap was £340 last year.

Student housing failure

Before even paying the first month’s rent, however, students will have already encountered the myriad of failures in student housing. With shortages, students at numerous universities have been forced to take accommodation in different cities, after being promised a place would be available for them. Some universities have outrageously written to students to request that they defer their studies for a year.

Even for students who have somewhere to live, there are extortionate rent rises and dodgy landlords offloading bill increases onto their shoulders. Socialist Students says that third-party student accommodation providers should immediately be taken into the ownership and control of the universities, as a step towards introducing rent control, decided on by democratically elected committees involving students.

After years of cuts, unis can’t provide basics

All of these issues are a continuation of what students experienced during the Covid pandemic. Then, university managements found themselves unable to provide the very basic necessities for students – including spaces to sit in lecture theatres – after years of doing the bidding of successive Tory and Labour governments in overseeing various cuts, and failing to invest properly in our education.

Last year, the Tories announced cuts to funding for arts and humanities courses. This was the latest in a string of moves towards running the sector on a capitalist market model, starting with the introduction of tuition fees by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998.

Workers are striking back

Despite the myriad of attacks we are facing, the new Liz Truss government is not strong. With the backing of just a third of her own MPs in the Tory leadership race, a record-breaking low, Truss faces a perfect storm of challenges – the cost-of-living crisis, incoming economic recession and above all else, the challenge thrown down by workers taking strike action to fight back against her government’s agenda of inflation austerity.

Socialist Students stands in solidarity with unions representing university workers, like the University and College Union (UCU), which are balloting for strike action to fight back against further attacks to courses, jobs, wages and working conditions. Uni support staff in the union Unison are also striking over an insulting pay offer.

This presents a massive opportunity for students to go on the offensive at the same time, and launch a struggle for what we need. Socialist Students demands that university managements pledge to make access to student hardship funds readily available, ensure no price increases on campus canteens and restaurants, keep university spaces such as 24-hour libraries open, do not limit campus lighting or heating, and make no more cuts to jobs or courses.

Representing university management, vice-chancellors have been resolute in carrying through vicious attacks on university workers’ wages and conditions, and overseeing the marketisation of higher education. Now, even UUK – the body bringing together vice-chancellors – has called for the replacing of maintenance loans with grants, revealing the extent of the crisis.

What UUK doesn’t address is how replacing loans with grants could be won. Socialist Students says that building a mass national student movement, and linking up with workers struggling against attacks to their living standards, could force the Tories to concede.

The money exists in Britain – the sixth richest country on the planet – to fund universities properly, and to provide students with living grants, to cancel all student debt and scrap tuition fees.

Just look at the £170 billion Truss has borrowed to subsidise the profits of the major energy companies. This measure, however, hasn’t stopped energy bills doubling on average.

It would have cost a fraction of £170 billion to take the energy companies into democratic public ownership with compensation paid to shareholders only on the basis of proven need, and not to the fat cats. On that basis – running production and distribution of energy on the basis of need instead of profit – our bills could be slashed.

The strike wave has demonstrated to millions of students and young people the potential power of the working class when organised. Many students watching the strike wave could draw confidence from the fightback being waged by workers against the cost-of-living squeeze to launch a fightback of their own.

The industrial fightback is still only in its early stages. The coming weeks could see many more workers joining the strike wave, with civil servants, teachers, lecturers, healthcare and council workers all currently being balloted. Rail, Royal Mail, BT and dock workers are already on strike.

Students need to get organised

But in order to fully capitalise on these opportunities students need to get organised ourselves. This means building democratic and open student organisations, which could provide a mass forum for students to discuss and debate. Discussions could involve trade unions and workers to draw up a list of demands, outline what funding is needed during the current crisis, and launch a campaign to win back that money from central government.

Student organisations could link up nationally to rebuild a movement to fight for free education. And together with workers on strike, we can build a united struggle for our demands, in addition to the battle against the cost-of-living squeeze.

The absence of student organisations, however, will not prevent struggles among students breaking out, over the cost-of-living crisis and other stark failures of the capitalist system to deliver for young people. Just look in recent years at the explosions of anger around Black Lives Matter, the climate, and sexual harassment and violence on the campuses.

During the pandemic, thousands of students at the University of Manchester marched and protested over the issue of the university’s handling of Covid. They succeeded in removing metal fences put up around student accommodation.

We need a new party

But what mass political force exists which would fight for students and young people? Keir Starmer has: “Wiped the slate clean” of Jeremy Corbyn’s pledges at the 2017 and 2019 general elections – which included the pledge to scrap tuition fees.

That’s why Socialist Students says students and young people need a new political party. A party which would be able to raise the struggle for free education in parliament, and raise demands for the rights of students, young people, and workers in the council chamber as well. This could include licensing powers councils have to register landlords and force them to take action on the rundown and unsafe living conditions many second and third-year students face.

Young people’s experience of capitalism – poverty, crisis and austerity – has led many to search for a socialist alternative to what is happening. Join Socialist Students to help build a movement against the student cost-of-living crisis, for free education, to campaign on campuses, and fight for socialism.

See ‘Socialist Students at freshers – Students feel rising cost of living’