Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/742/15683
Student demonstration: Escalate the struggle to fight fees, cuts and privatisation
Claire Laker-Mansfield, Socialist Students national organiser
The government's higher education reforms will "put students at the heart of the system", claimed universities minister David Willetts in 2011. To anyone with half a brain, let alone Willetts' famous 'two', this statement is laughable. Not only are students nowhere near 'the heart of the system', thousands have been priced out of it altogether. Last year university applications dropped by 20%.
For working class, and increasingly for middle class, young people, growing up in austerity Britain is full of anxious fretting and impossible choices. One cruel choice is between a degree costing £50,000 and years flitting between the low-paid, insecure jobs that offer temporary 'relief' from the misery of unemployment.
Ironically, 'choice' is what the Con-Dems claim to be all about. It's 'choice' that they say is at the heart of their vision for our education, 'choice' and its supposed bedfellow: competition. It looks something like this: for students - pay more, get less; for university managements - slash, burn and privatise.
Lessons from the US
According to Willetts, Britain's universities should look towards the US for inspiration. But of the million students enrolled with the US's for-profit providers in 2008-9, more than 50% had dropped out by 2010. Studies found that within these institutions 23% of revenue was spent on marketing, 19% went on profit and a mere 17% was spent on teaching. All this rather undermines the idea that the market will improve standards and place students centre stage.
Central to the government's plan to marketise higher education is the tripling of tuition fees of £9,000. This transfers the cost of funding education from society as a whole to the individual. Up to 80% of the grant paid directly to universities for teaching has been cut. When the government first announced its plans on fees it estimated the average university would set the rate at £7,200. Most institutions opted for charging the full whack.
But even with students paying extortionate fees most universities still can't balance the books. The big drop in student numbers is now being used as the pretext for cuts and privatisation across the country. In the post-1992 universities the burden is felt most acutely. At the University of East London lecturers are fighting a proposal to double their already huge workload. If allowed to go through this will almost definitely be a prelude to job cuts.
If the government gets its way only elite institutions will be able to weather the storm. But even there, the Con-Dems' agenda will take its toll. Increasingly academic staff are forced to follow only the most lucrative lines of research, with teaching sacrificed in order to make way for this.
While the education system has always been grossly unfair, this is a generation that has grown up being told that university needn't be unattainable. This is a generation of people who grew up being told that if they just worked hard enough, they could get a good job, have a good life, that the world would be at their feet.
Moving the goalposts
Now the government want to smash expectations early. They want to convince young people that the fault lies with them, that they're just not bright enough, not sharp enough, not hard working enough to succeed. To this end the government is moving the goal posts, making sure that school qualifications are not there to encourage attainment or nourish learning but to sift and stifle.
Modular exams are out because students have the audacity to do well at them, or to re-attempt them and try to improve on previous performances. GCSEs are to undergo an overhaul and be replaced with an English Baccalaureate, where only Tory education minister Michael Gove's approved subjects will be counted as important and where safe numbers can be guaranteed to fail.
This year's college students are already being forced to struggle by without EMA student payments. But many didn't even make it that far. Some institutions have reported a 50% drop in applications since the loss of this grant - for thousands a college education has been placed out of reach.
On 21 November thousands of students will join the National Union of Students (NUS) demonstration and march through London against all of the Con-Dem attacks on education. Students will be marching because they have understood that, really, they are being offered only one 'choice': fight back or watch as they smash our future.
We'll be marching to demand they scrap fees, bring back EMA and stop the onslaught of cuts and privatisation. We'll be demanding decent jobs as well. With graduate unemployment hitting new records and 40% of us still un(der)employed after two years, we say that we deserve the right to use our skills and talents and contribute to society.
The demonstration has been called by NUS under pressure from their membership. But it must only be the start. In 2010, students were let down by the leadership of their 'official' structures. Then, after organising an initial demonstration, the leadership of NUS vacated the scene of struggle, and even went as far as condemning students who took part in the mass protests that followed.
What way forward?
Following the 21 November demonstration Socialist Students is arguing for mass public meetings and general assemblies to discuss where next for the movement on every campus. Student unions should host these meetings but where they refuse, Socialist Students will organise them with students who want to fight on.
We need to establish anti-cuts campaigns on every campus. On 5 December, chancellor George Osborne will announce another round of swingeing cuts in his autumn statement. Socialist Students supports a day of action on this date to make sure his announcement is met with protest. We need to demand that NUS follows this up with further national action in the spring term including walk-outs, occupations and protests.
And we need to discuss the strategy for taking our movement forward. Students have shown they can be an energetic and determined force in fighting cuts, but to maximise our effectiveness, we will need to unite with workers and trade unions. That's because, unlike students, workers have enormous economic power. For example, when tube workers go on strike, the city of London can be brought to a standstill.
For this reason Socialist Students supports the demand for a 24-hour general strike against austerity. And we argue that students should take part too - striking alongside workers in a united fight to end austerity.
Finally, students who want to fight for a future need to get political. The government's relentless refrain is that there is no alternative to cuts and privatisation across the board. They're allowed to get away with this because all the main political parties, including Labour, basically agree. They all agree that the 99% should pick up the tab for the crisis of the failed capitalist system - a system for the 1%.
They try to confuse us, blur the picture and muddy the water by talking about 'responsible capitalism' or trying to convince us that the deficit was caused by spending too much on public services. But all this is rubbish. There is an alternative.
The alternative is taking the wealth off the 1% - by nationalising the banks for a start - and using it to fund jobs, education, healthcare and public services for the 99%. It's this, a socialist alternative, that can provide a future for all. It's this that we have to fight for.
In The Socialist 14 November 2012: