Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/432/5085
Fight privatisation in universities and colleges
NUS CONFERENCE is taking place from 28-30 March.
Socialist Students are campaigning for a fighting and democratic NUS.
Rob McDonald (student union president Lambeth College) and Jim Thomson (Exeter university), who are both standing for the NUS Block of 12, report on Socialist Students' campaign to lower prices and improve quality in their privatised canteens and call on NUS to launch a national campaign. Reports on the AUT/Natfhe strike follow.
Most students at FE colleges are hard up. They are either young and have no spending power or get the tiny EMA allowance. Many others are trying to improve their work chances by gaining education while claiming benefits and many are balancing a low-paid job while studying.
Rob McDonald, student union president Lambeth College
Students at Lambeth college were angry at the price and quality of the food in the college canteen - a full meal with a drink cost around £4 - and demanded action.
The students' union launched a petition calling on the parent company, Compass (the world's biggest catering company), to bridge the subsidy gap with some of the massive profits that they have made over the years and bring down prices so a full meal only costs £2.
1,400 students signed the petition. Scolarest promised a review but the union executive didn't feel this was enough and decided to escalate the protest starting with a boycott of the canteens on 26 January. The boycott was successful with 90% support from students. (See the socialist issues 425 and 427).
Some prices were lowered immediately and college management have now agreed to look at the prices and investigate what kind of canteen the students want. The union is now going to ballot students calling for a vote for a not-for-profit canteen democratically run by students and the college.
NUS needs to mobilise the whole student movement to rid colleges and universities of these profiteers. We need to pass the amendment in the health debate resolution proposed by Lambeth student union calling for not-for-profit canteens. Resources need to be put into the Quality food at prices students can afford campaign and the protest needs to be spread, as it has already begun to do.
We need to link the fight to take back the ownership of our canteens with the canteen workers' rights and other battles in the colleges. This could bring thousand of students into activity and turn the NUS into the fighting union we desperately need.
That's why I'm standing for the NUS Block of 12 - vote Rob McDonald.
Vote Jim Thomson - Block of 12
My name is Jim Thomson and I am standing for the NUS Block of 12. I am a third year history student at Exeter University, an anti-war and socialist activist and the president of Exeter Socialist Students.
I am standing for the NUS Block of 12 because students are under attack on all fronts - from the New Labour government to big business which is creeping its way into our universities.
From top-up fees to privatisation of our services and facilities - many students throughout the country have decided that enough is enough but do not have an effective union to help them in their fight.
The NUS has to be transformed into a fighting democratic union - as an activist in Exeter I have seen that it is student organisations, like Socialist Students, that are leading the fight and not the NUS.
In Exeter last year we faced the closure of the music and chemistry departments. Despite a massive student demonstration and well-organised campaign led by our student union, the university still implemented these crippling and unfair attacks. We needed a fighting NUS that can take up the fight nationally. Instead we got nothing.
A vote for me would mean a vote for a union in touch with students on the ground, it would mean a vote for a fighting union that is not too scared to stand up to Blair and his cronies in the universities and it would mean a vote against fees, cuts and closures.
Vote Jim Thomson - Block of 12.
Fight Lambeth College cuts
The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) is imposing over £2 million in cuts on Lambeth college. 70 posts are being 'deleted' including 14 teaching positions and 48 support staff, with the possibility of more redundancies to follow.
Rob MacDonald, student union president Lambeth College
Many courses will close, decimating the adult provision for the most vulnerable sections of the community that the college says it aims to serve. Other adult education provision franchised to Lambeth College will also be very significantly affected, further reducing adult learning provision in Lambeth.
The college is also severing its partnerships with its franchises which may not be able to survive without the partnership arrangement. The knock on affect across Lambeth social services will be clearly felt.
Lambeth College UNISON, Natfhe and NUS have launched a campaign to stop the cuts, including strike action, and are calling for a huge community campaign to defend education in Lambeth. Strike action.
The campaign also opposes Lambeth College's 'accommodation strategy'. Clapham is set to become a 16-19 centre, while adult provision is to be moved to the Brixton and Vauxhall centres. This will create a two-tier system within the college which will reduce the effectiveness of our service to the local community.
Following a large protest at the Clapham centre there will be another protest at the governors' meeting on 3 April at the Clapham site.
For messages of support or more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Decent food, decent price
The Socialist Students-led Decent food, decent price campaign in Exeter has reached a new height. After meeting with the manager of Scolarest on campus it was apparent that Scolarest wanted to milk all the profits it could out of the students.
It is now clear that those workers who are employed under Scolarest will face less pay and a worse pension than their colleagues who work for the university, often doing the same jobs and often in the same building.
We have now collected over 2,000 signatures and have handed them in to Scolarest, giving them an ultimatum. Either lower prices, improve quality and increase the workers' pay and conditions or we will launch a boycott. They have the Easter holidays to act upon our demands.
We need to make sure that education is run for the acquisition of knowledge and not profits!
Big business rips off students
The Compass group run 3,000 catering contracts in schools, colleges and universities across the UK. Often these trade under the name Scolarest. Compass has a £12.7 billion turnover, trades in over 90 countries, has a huge infrastructure and a lot of buying power. Many of the 85,000 Compass workers are very low paid and staff turn over is high.
Rob McDonald, student union president Lambeth College
Investigator Mike Murphy, for brokers Panmure Gordens, reports that Compass has a bad reputation for squeezing its suppliers, so much so that they are forced to drastically cut corners on quality. Compass' chefs and catering managers have complained, amongst other things, that fresh ingredients have been replaced by frozen products.
Murphy says, "Compass has an exceedingly poor reputation amongst its suppliers. One recently told me the company was evil...Compass is worried about price, not quality".
Their practices are suspect too. They are currently being investigated by the U.S federal authorities and UN for illegal activity in tendering for peace keeping forces in Liberia and they have also been accused of bugging suppliers to gain information to get better contract terms.
The privatised canteens also take a management fee from contracts - at Lambeth this is £29,000 per year. They argue this is for necessary catering certificates but effectively it is profit.
Chairman Peter Mackay and chief executive Mike Bailey have both retired, taking £16.1 and £15 million in pay-offs, on top of wages last year of £1.1m and £550, 000 respectively. There is a shortfall of £532m in the companies' retirement schemes.
For a properly funded education system and a fighting NUS
THE RECENT AUT/Natfhe strike highlighted the need for unity between students and lecturers. As the reports below show, Socialist Students' branches actively supported the striking lecturers.
However, although the NUS officially supported the action, in many areas student union officers, along with university management, frustrated any attempts to build solidarity action between lecturers and students.
The lecturers' strike was widely supported by students, Socialist Party members and Socialist Students who weathered the wind and rain to show solidarity with their cause.
However, the students' union took almost a week to pledge its full support for the action and on the day it was indifferent to the dispute. Essentially this meant the students' union sided with the university, temporarily leaving the lecturers and their unions to receive only the paper support of the NUS.
The Sheffield AUT branch, although striking primarily over the pay dispute, also recognised that this was part of a wider problem within higher education which has not only left lecturers underpaid but has also meant students are paying more for less, with the government showing no sign of easing either burden.
We need more than just paper-promises from the NUS. We need active students' unions and students linking up with the struggles of lecturers, tutors and university workers to fight for a properly funded higher education open to all who need it.
Leicester Socialist Students supported the AUT strike, visiting the picket lines and giving a letter of support to the strikers, and leafleting the students.
However, although the students union nominally supported the strike, the president and vice-president (VP) Education then opposed a marking boycott. Scaremongering posters were put up around the university warning students that there was a strong likelihood that their work wouldn't be marked because of the AUT.
Socialist Student members argued in the debate at union council that every time marking boycotts had been threatened over the last ten years the dispute had been resolved before they heavily impacted students and that part of the reason for this was because of the extra weight given to the demands by the support of student unions. However, our amendment calling for support for the marking boycott was lost.
So the VP Education wants to hold joint meetings with the AUT and organise rallies and protests in favour of their pay claim, while actively undermining support for the AUT among students and bringing in non-unionised workers to do marking!
Socialist Students cam-paigned against tuition fees and called for support for the NATFHE/AUT strike over pay in the Nottingham Trent university student union elections.
Many students said that they were not going to bother voting, as they felt that none of the candidates represented their interests. We encouraged them to vote and select the 'no suitable candidate' option on the ballot form.
During the campaign, it came to light that the students' union was also refusing to provide a room for NATFHE to hold a public meeting to explain to students their reasons for taking industrial action. A member of the executive committee said that the leadership did not agree with the lecturers taking action, despite the NUS supporting NATFHE.
Socialist Students have consistently campaigned for solidarity between staff and students against the Blairite vice-chancellor's attacks on working conditions. We petitioned in support of the lecturers and visited the picket lines on the day to offer solidarity.
Socialist Students helped build support for the AUT/NATFHE strike at Durham University, despite attempts by the university administration to sabotage a pre-strike meeting and force students to attend lectures.
Hannah Walter and Gareth Chester
The president of the students' union and some of the college presidents provided no information to students on the strike action and didn't participate in any solidarity action. This was despite repeated requests from Socialist Students and the NUS officially supporting the strike.
So it was up to a few individuals and a small Socialist Students' group in Durham to raise awareness of the strike and to ensure a student presence on the picket lines. The president of AUT in Durham spoke at the Socialist Students' pre-strike meeting.
Three picket lines were held on the day of the strike with a good turn out on each. Students provided tea, coffee and biscuits for staff on the picket lines and this was greatly appreciated given the freezing temperatures and morning snow! Over 80 students and lecturers, including lecturers from Newcastle University, protested outside a meeting of the university senate on the same day.
We have now formed a student contact list for Durham AUT to establish closer links between the students and the unions and make it easier to build support for future action.
In The Socialist 23 March 2006: