Socialist Students conference

Building for a national student strike

Socialists Students will hold its online national conference on Sunday 28 February at 1pm. The conference will discuss what is needed to build a movement to transform education and the lives of young people and students. Below is an edited version of the document to be discussed at the conference.

Socialist Students bloc on the anti-Trump demo, 4.6.19, photo Naomi Byron

Socialist Students bloc on the anti-Trump demo, 4.6.19, photo Naomi Byron   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Ten years ago a student movement erupted, which saw thousands of university and college students mobilise in a struggle against the trebling of fees and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA, a weekly payment for 16-18 year-olds in education). In 2020, universities entered a new phase of crisis, ultimately thanks to the market funding model of higher education. A decade on, it is urgent that a national student movement to fight for the scrapping of the market model and for free education is built.

Students on university campuses across the country have taken the first steps towards getting organised against the symptoms of the market model of higher education. Socialist Students put out the call for campus protests at the beginning of the new academic year, organising them in many areas. During the first term, following the A-level victory in the summer, students organised protests demanding fee and rent refunds, as well as demanding that no cuts be made on campuses due to the coronavirus crisis.

Alongside these, students in some areas established rent strike campaigns. Since the announcement of new Covid lockdown measures preventing many students from being able to return to university, new rent strike groups have been created. Approximately 50 rent strike campaigns have been created since the start of the academic year.

Socialist Students has energetically participated in this movement, including putting forward the need to build a national student movement with a bold programme to kick profit out of higher education and student housing.

We fight for free education, the scrapping of tuition fees, the introduction of living grants for students, and the cancellation of all student debt. When Jeremy Corbyn raised the demand to scrap tuition fees in his 2017 manifesto, it enthused thousands of students and young people. While scrapping tuition fees was estimated in Labour’s 2017 manifesto to cost roughly £9.5 billion a year, the Tories have spent an eye-watering £280 billion on Covid-related measures in 2020, mainly to prop up the profits of their big business friends.

Rent strikes win concessions

In student housing we have been fighting for 100% rent refunds for students unable to move back into their halls, with the funding for those refunds made up for by the government. We also fight for the right of students in private accommodation to be released from their contracts early, with compensation paid to the landlords only on the basis of proven need, and for rent controls.

Concrete victories have been won by students at universities across the country. Some universities have paid out partial refunds on this term’s rent to students in halls, despite the fact that students have been scattered across the country because of the lockdown.

This movement has already won small gains from the government. On 18 January, the Welsh parliament announced that it was releasing £40 million of emergency funding to Welsh universities’ hardship funds. Two weeks later, on 2 February, the Tory government announced £50 million of additional funding to universities in England.

The level of additional funding won so far is inadequate, representing about £25 per student for those studying in England. But it shows that when we fight, government funding can be won.

The education secretary is, at the time of writing, expected to announce a phased return to campuses for students from 8 March onwards. Meanwhile, the announcement by Universities Wales that face-to-face teaching will not recommence in Wales until at least the Easter break, is an indication of what university managements may do in the rest of the UK.

Student anger

Anger amongst students will undoubtedly grow if the return to safe campuses is yet again delayed. This could mean further calls for not only rent refunds but tuition fee refunds as well.

The renewed crisis on campus has also meant a drive by university management to attack jobs and conditions of staff on campus. Staff on many campuses in the University and Colleges Union (UCU) have taken strike action since the start of the academic year against threatened cuts to jobs on campuses.

Socialist Students stands in solidarity with those strikes. We stand for uniting students and staff in a collective struggle for an education system run in our interests – against all cuts on campuses, for health and safety of students and staff, and for the government funding our universities need.

Go on the offensive for free education

Meanwhile, the capitalist class and the Tories are split over the question of how to resolve the crisis in higher education. This represents a big opportunity for the student movement to boldly go on the offensive and fight for free education.

While some students have taken the first steps towards getting organised, the key task of linking up these separate local movements into a national movement is yet to be achieved. This is a reflection of the crisis of student organisation and leadership nationally as well as locally. We desperately need democratic and fighting student organisations locally and nationally, to discuss the crisis facing students and the strategy and programme necessary to fight back.

National student strike

That is why Socialist Students is launching its campaign for a national student strike. We are writing to the leadership of the rent strike network, as well as the NUS and others, to propose a ‘council of war’ – to bring together students in struggle across the country and discuss how we can build a national student movement to win free education.

This must also include a discussion on how we can build a political voice for students and young people. Currently, there is no party students can rely on to fight for our interests – only 20 MPs so far have signed a parliamentary petition supporting student rent strikers. Since Starmer took over leadership of the Labour Party, his priority has been to prove his loyalty to big business and that he is not prepared to fight for our interests. We need a new party that will fight for the interests of workers and students.

Our campaign for a national student strike is also happening on the ground locally. Although it is still unclear when exactly students will return to the campuses, Socialist Students has the opportunity to put out the call now for campus protests as soon as students return.

This means organising Socialist Students public meetings over Zoom, and writing to different campaigning organisations locally, not only rent strike groups but also UCU branches, local anti-cuts groups, liberation societies, and anyone who wants to fight for free education, to discuss campaigning alongside Socialist Students.

We are fighting to draw broader layers of students into the struggle for free education by using the many tools at the disposal of the student movement. Not only rent strikes but occupations, walkouts, and mass marches. Key to achieving this is raising a bold programme which takes up the many crises facing students, staff and post-graduate students.

Socialist Students’ programme includes demands for rent and fee refunds for students, for an end to all cuts on campuses, for democratic trade union and student oversight of health and safety on campuses, and for free education – all linked to a programme of public ownership to make the 1% pay for free education.

Build Socialist Students

We will continue to build Socialist Students as widely as possible on the campuses. We want to reach the best layer of campaigners and students who are interested in discussing and debating socialist ideas to change the world by holding regular Socialist Students meetings and campaigning activity on campus.

Socialist Students says that capitalism has failed our education system and offers no future for young people.

Despite the huge crisis facing working-class and young people, Britain is the fifth richest country on the planet. That’s why we fight for socialist policies – to take the banks and monopolies which dominate the economy into democratic public ownership in order to provide a decent future for young and working-class people, including affordable housing, decent jobs, and free and high quality education for all.