Socialist Students national conference takes place in Birmingham on 26 February. The Socialist Students steering committee has put forward this motion to be debated and voted on.
The crisis on campuses for students and staff has reached a new stage in the last two years. Early in the Covid pandemic, stories of students brought back to campuses under the false pretences of face-to-face teaching were rife.
Students were then locked down on their campuses, due to the spread of the coronavirus, with rent payments and tuition fees taken from us for online-only teaching, which we could have participated in from home.
This crisis came on top of years of attacks to our education and campuses. Years of jobs cuts, cuts to support services, and outsourcing on campuses has damaged the quality of education students receive.
Since the lockdowns, cuts on campuses have continued unabated. The closure of entire courses has been posed, with those courses seen as ‘low value’ by big business in the sights of both the Tories and university managements, who rely on the Tories for funding.
The deep rot in higher education, which has been caused by years of underfunding and marketisation, has been brutally exposed by the pandemic. It has revealed the inability of the tuition fee funding model to deliver students a high-quality university education.
Instead of being run in the interests of students, staff and wider society, universities are increasingly run to satisfy the needs of the Tories and the capitalist system they represent, including by opening our campuses up to profiteering private companies. This has made the need for a fightback against marketisation and for free education clearer for many students.
The anti-austerity programme which Jeremy Corbyn advanced while he led the Labour Party, which included the demand to scrap tuition fees, popularised the idea of free education. For the first time in a generation, a leader of a major political party spoke about the possibility of scrapping tuition fees by taking the wealth off the 1%.
Despite the defeat of Corbynism by the forces of the Labour Party right within the boundaries of the Labour Party, the ideas of free education have remained popular among young people.
But the Covid crisis on campus has contributed even further to this process. Much more powerfully than by argument alone, the crisis has demonstrated in experience to a big layer of students why scrapping tuition fees entirely, and replacing them with full government funding, is a necessity to end the crises on our campuses.
Protesting on campus
Students have not simply tolerated what has been meted out to them by university managements and the Tories in the last period, however. The rent strike campaigns which were launched by students, the most widespread since the 1970s, were an important step up in the fight against marketisation, and significantly succeeded in winning partial rent refunds for students.
More recently, students on campuses across the country have been protesting against the pandemic of violence against women. And in 2020, the protests of A-level students forced the government to U-turn. At their base, these have been movements against marketisation and its effects on the university campuses.
Socialist Students has played an important role intervening into this process, attempting to link these initial struggles against the effects of marketisation to the need to build a national student movement to scrap tuition fees entirely. Socialist Students organised a national day of action on 21 April 2021 on 26 campuses, demanding rent and tuition fee refunds for the year, paid for by the Tory government, as a first step towards scrapping fees entirely.
National student strike
It is all of this which has culminated in the calling of a national student strike by the National Union of Students (NUS) on 2 March.
This has the potential to act as a sort of ‘lightning rod’, giving expression to the accumulated anger of students – anger not only at events relating to the campuses, but also at the wider issues affecting working-class youth, including the lack of decent jobs for young people and graduates, the housing crisis and austerity generally.
After years of the NUS failing to organise and lead students in struggle, however, it is not clear how many students will mobilise. If the turnout on 2 March is small, this will have nothing to do with the lack of willingness of students to struggle, but will be down to the failures of the leadership of the NUS. Nonetheless, among other things, the NUS has demanded “fully funded education, free at the point of use”, as part of its 2 March demands.
For Socialist Students, 2 March isn’t an end, but on the contrary, represents the first potential step towards relaunching and rebuilding the student movement nationally on a fighting footing, putting the demand for free education boldly to the fore.
It now seems likely that on 2 March, there will be a combination of a London demonstration with students turning out from some campuses around the country, as well as local actions on campuses.
The fact that the final day of the University and College Union (UCU) strike is on 2 March provides an opportunity to build links between students and staff in the fight against marketisation.
Relaunching a national student movement
There are clear obstacles which the student movement needs to overcome to ensure the best possible turnout on the 2 March demos, and the strongest possible relaunch of a national student movement fighting for free education.
The biggest and most significant of these obstacles is the crisis of both organisation and leadership which exists for young people and students today. Chiefly among these is the complete abdication of the NUS, and on the campuses the students’ unions, from their responsibility to help organise and lead students in struggle.
The NUS still has not learned the lessons of the defeat of the 2010 student movement. At the time, we called for an appeal by the leaders of the student movement to the trade unions to link up in order to escalate the struggle against the trebling of tuition fees.
The last two years have seen students in effect struggling on their own. The NUS, save for one or two public statements, did absolutely nothing to advance the struggle and help link the separate struggles of students into a national movement for free education.
And in the overwhelming majority of cases, students’ unions on the ground – where they did engage leaders of the rent strikes – acted to try and put a brake on the movement, rein in their demands and conciliate students with university management.
This is in sharp contrast with the role Socialist Students attempted to play on the ground.
The dismantling of the NUS’s democratic structures is part of a drawn-out historical process, with successive right-wing leaderships gutting the NUS and transforming it into more of a lobbying organisation, with a secondary campaigning ‘arm’ added on. This process has been mirrored on the campuses, with students’ unions acting to manage students’ expectations, instead of acting as fighting and democratically organised student organisations.
Despite being forced to call a demo on 2 March, at the time of writing, the NUS has done virtually nothing to build for it, not even announcing a march route or rally point!
A fighting programme
However, Socialist Students is not a passive observer of these events. On the contrary, with a clear programme, method and strategy, we can act as a lever on events, mobilising students for free education and putting demands on both students’ unions locally and the NUS nationally – and in the process pointing the way forward politically for students who we are able to reach with our campaigning work.
Crucial in the next period is the discussion on the programme that the student movement rebuilds around and fights for. The NUS has put forward the demands for “fully funded education, free at the point of use” 2 for March.
It is welcome that the NUS has called for this. But in the view of Socialist Students, it is necessary both to put flesh on the bone of this demand – by demanding the scrapping of tuition fees, cancellation of all student debt, and the replacement of student loans with grants – as well as linking the struggle for free education nationally to the day-to-day problems and concerns of students on the campuses.
The best way to do this would be to link the various attacks to campuses over the last decade – including cuts to support services, job and course cuts, rising rents – to the need for a struggle for funding for the campuses from the Tory government, linked to the question of fighting for free education. It is this approach and programme that Socialist Students has consistently fought for and defended over the years.
We call not only for free education, but for the democratic control and oversight of our university campuses by democratically elected bodies of staff, students and the campus trade unions. Management have proven time and time again – from the cuts, to coronavirus, to the pandemic of sexual assault – that they cannot be trusted to run the campuses in the interests of students and staff.
Socialist Students has raised on campuses what concrete action students’ unions need to take in order to mobilise students on 2 March, and for future actions as well. Primarily, this means demanding students’ unions organise free or cheap transport to and from London for the day. Other demands on students’ unions will be necessary, including the use of students’ union resources to advertise the demo – posters on campus, leaflets distributed on campus and in every halls of residence letterbox, speeches in lectures etc.
If students’ unions had called and organised mass, joint student and staff assemblies in the run up to 2 March national demonstration, students could have been emboldened to turn out nationally.
Such assemblies could have discussed out not only the importance of building for 2 March, but also begun to chart out a strategy to build the struggle beyond that date. And by arguing for democratic student assemblies after 2 March, Socialist Students can continue to raise the need for building fighting and democratic student organisations in the fight for free education.
Alongside this, the NUS should use its position to call a national meeting after 2 March of all student campaigning organisations, free education campaigners, students’ unions etc to discuss the way forward.
By campaigning for these demands, not only do we outline the kind of organisation and programme students need to fight for free education and their futures, but we also open the door for Socialist Students to call and lead such actions ourselves. These demands will be vital in the period after 2 March to continue the fight for free education.
Socialist Students resolves:
- For Socialist Students to mobilise and support protests nationally on 2 March, wherever they take place and where we can intervene
- To call on the NUS to set a date now for a national meeting, bringing together all organisations, societies and students’ unions fighting against the cuts and for free education, including the campus trade unions, to discuss what next steps need to be taken to build a national movement for free education
- To campaign locally after 2 March for mass assemblies of students and staff on campus to discuss a campaign to win back funding for our universities stolen from central government, linked to the building of fighting student organisations organised openly and democratically