The Socialist Students contingent on the 19 November 2014 free education march in London, photo Jonny Dickens

The Socialist Students contingent on the 19 November 2014 free education march in London, photo Jonny Dickens   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Students under siege

How students can fight debt, cuts and sell-offs

Students face massive attacks: on our wallets, on our courses and on our future. Mary Finch, Socialist Students member and Leeds for Free Education organiser, looks at how we can fight back.

In five years, the ‘Con-Dem’ coalition government trebled tuition fees, tried to privatise student debt, and scrapped college EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) grants. So when the Tories narrowly scraped a solo election victory this year, students knew it didn’t bode well for us.

Only two days after the Tories won, around 4,000 students and young people were protesting in Westminster against plans for more brutal austerity. Thousands more protested on the day of the state opening of parliament.

The 2015 budget has been an absolute vindication of those fears.

It included a stealth rise in tuition fees. Universities deemed ‘good’ will be allowed to hike prices with inflation, which could lead to annual fees of £10,000 or more.

Means-tested maintenance gra-nts, created primarily for the poorest, are being scrapped and replaced with loans. Even the grant and loan system as it existed before was nowhere near sufficient.

Many students are forced to take on long hours of work alongside their degree.

Student poverty is a growing problem. A Guardian study recently found students are left – on average – £265 short every month. Further increasing the sky-high debt students leave university with could have a catastrophic effect on higher education.

This will only be exacerbated by freezing the income threshold for starting to repay student loans at £21,000. Graduates will pay back more each year in real terms.

And if revived plans to privatise student loans go ahead, a private company will be the debt collector. The Tories have no regard for whether students can afford to pay their debt back. A profit-driven business will have even less.


The further education budget is being cut by 24%, meaning redundancies and course closures left, right and centre. When the cost of university education is going up and up, many working class students turn to vocational education. The billions of pounds of cuts being made to further education colleges will drastically limit our access.

Housing benefit has been scrapped for 18 to 21-year-olds, and the new ‘living’ (minimum) wage doesn’t apply if you’re under 25. As victims of the crisis in housing, employment, and education, the next five years under the Tories may seem bleak for students.

But we can defeat austerity if we prepare ourselves for struggle. The fact that the Tories are ramping up attacks on students means there’s renewed potential for a movement to develop.

Students have already shown we’re willing to organise. In Lewisham, secondary school students organised protests and walkouts against their school being turned into an academy (a step towards privatisation). By linking with their teachers in the local branch of teachers’ union NUT, they forced the governors back.

We can win similar victories nationwide – if we have the right leadership, with the right strategy.


The National Union of Students (NUS) is the biggest national student organisation. It’s gained a justified reputation for selling out student struggle.

But this year, four out of the five new vice-presidents – who run the NUS day to day alongside the president – stood for election as left-wingers.

Socialist Students argued the NUS should have called a national demonstration to defend education. It could have used the huge resources, organisational weight and mass platform of the NUS to make it big and bold.

Disappointingly, the outgoing national executive council, the 30-member leadership of the NUS, decided against this. It voted only to support a demonstration called by others.

Nonetheless, the national demonstration in the autumn term is a positive starting point for bringing the movement together nationally. Especially if combined with robust local action from individual student unions and campaign groups. Socialist Students in Leeds helped organise a well-attended free education demo this year through the Leeds for Free Education campaign.

But this starting point has to be just that. Demonstrations alone aren’t going to defeat the attacks.

In Quebec, in 2012, a mass movement of students defeated tuition fee rises. They went further than student demonstrations, organising occupations and student strikes, with tens of thousands of workers marching alongside them.


In 2010, when 50,000 students marched on parliament on the issue of tuition fees, Socialist Students raised the need for student strikes to take the movement forward.

With mass involvement, those tactics can be hugely successful. If a mass movement of students develops, we would argue for them again.

Our future is at stake here, so the question remains: how are we going to defend it? Whatever reforms we can win under capitalism will always be clawed back by the 1% that rules society. As long as they exist, they will continue to use society’s resources for their private profit, not for everyone’s needs.

A fundamental break with capitalism is necessary. That means socialism: democratic public ownership of the economy. That would allow us to collectively decide what direction we want society and the economy to take, in the interests of everyone.

We would be putting power in the hands of the ordinary people who make society run.

To achieve that, we need to unite with the workers’ movement. The organised working class has immense potential power. As the ones who keep society running, turning out profits for the capitalist class, workers are in the unique position of being able to shut it down.

By linking up with the trade unions, we can build a united mass movement of students and workers. We can win the fight against austerity, privatisation and capitalism.

  • Fight for free education: Scrap fees – for education that is fully funded, publicly owned, democratically run and universally free at all levels
  • Defend and extend student grants: Fight to stop the abolition of maintenance grants. No to privatisation of the student loan book. Replace student loans with grants which genuinely reflect the cost of living.
  • Stop all cuts and privatisation: Support trade unions taking action
  • Slash rents: For genuinely affordable university accommodation. Bring privatised halls back ‘in-house’. Local authority rent controls to stop spiralling housing costs for all
  • A socialist society for the 99%: free from all exploitation, war and oppression

Join Socialist Students

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On most campuses we hold weekly meetings to discuss the politics of changing the world. Join us and get involved!

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