Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/594/8169
Higher education - cuts cuts cuts!
Students must fight back
So Gordon Brown has finally said the word "cuts". For students and workers in higher education this is definitely old news. Over recent years, courses, contact time and facilities have been slashed - and that was when we were in a so-called economic boom.
Fees were introduced under the auspices of guaranteeing education for all. But that lie has been exposed. Now the government's neoliberal agenda in higher education is being stepped up.
Students and university workers are expected to pay the price for the funding crisis in higher education.
Matt Dobson, Socialist Students national organiser, looks at the situation students face and what is needed to defend the right to a free and decent education for all.
Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, is telling the millions who are losing their jobs or who can't find work to consider going to university. But if the government was serious about offering higher education as an alternative to mass unemployment why don't they use the wealth in society to remove the barriers blocking young people's right to learn?
Instead, students in England, who are already being charged up to £3,225 a year in tuition fees, could soon face a massive hike in fees. While over a trillion pounds has been found to bail out the banks, the government wants students to foot the bill for funding courses and tuition.
Universities UK, the vice chancellors' lobbying group, is urging the government to increase the cap on tuition fees to at least £5,000 a year. The government appears to be listening. Mandelson said that the cap could be raised if universities increase student support bursaries.
But that offers students no security. Universities set their own bursaries and there is huge variance depending on the wealth and decisions of the university. Oxford, which receives large donations, offers generous bursaries to a student body that is mostly from richer backgrounds. Meanwhile the poorest universities have the least money to share among the poorest students.
And is university, which already results in an average of £23,000 debt an attractive option for those worried about their financial future? How about scrapping fees, writing off student debt and introducing a grant that covers the living and study costs of all students?
University vice chancellors plead poverty, pointing to large budget deficits in higher education institutions. Their mismanagement has seen universities lose millions in collapsing banks and when private contractors pull out of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) investments.
They claim that public spending cuts mean they have to sack staff and that students will have to pay higher fees if universities are to continue to provide a high quality service.
In its recent report, Betraying a Generation, the UCU lecturers' union outlined the jobs massacre in universities. Overall government funding for higher education will be cut this year by 1.36%. This amounts to £65 million worth of cuts to 100 universities across England.
According to UCU at least 6,000 jobs will be lost. London universities will be the worst hit. London Metropolitan, one of the capital's largest institutions, is in dire financial straits after being fined millions for over-admission of students. Staff and students are campaigning to save 550 jobs at this university where the vice chancellor was paid £276,000 in 2006-7. London Met Socialist Students demand that the account books be opened. Hundreds of jobs are also at risk at the University of the Arts and University College London.
Wolverhampton University, with debts of over £8 million, plans to axe 250 jobs. Many universities are claiming their large debts and budget deficits mean they have no option but to make cuts.
Betraying a Generation exposes universities, such as Kings College London whose management publicly state that with 'increasing financial problems' cutbacks are inevitable. Kings has the money to employ the 390 staff it wants to sack. It has the lowest net debt of any London university with reserves of £185 million.
If a university genuinely doesn't have enough money to finance its staff and courses, it should demand adequate funding from the government rather than passing on government cuts to the staff and students.
The escalating funding crisis in higher education is widening the gap between the elite and lower ranked universities. The ex-polytechnics and new universities which have the highest numbers of students from poorer backgrounds have been run on the cheap and now suffer severe financial problems. London Met faces the prospect of bankruptcy. Other struggling institutions such as Swansea Institute look to merge with wealthier universities in their local area.
Private companies are making millions by profiteering out of services like catering, accommodation and research on campuses. New Labour, the Tories, vice chancellors and fat cat bosses dream of a US-style higher education system with elite institutions bankrolled and run by big business where students are at the mercy of private institutions and philanthropists for funding.
Apart from a handful of state school students from working and lower middle class backgrounds, the US Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Princeton are the preserve of the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful from private schools.
A recent UK parliamentary report found that only 29% of students - and just 16% of those at the top Russell group universities - come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
The merger of government departments, with the all powerful Lord Mandelson now being responsible for universities and business, highlights New Labour's intention to intensify the marketisation process in universities.
The Tories share this agenda. Shadow education minister David Willetts has stated that a Tory government would "encourage a range of providers of higher education at different prices, including private companies".
Trade Union Action
Industrial action has begun at further education colleges, such as at Tower Hamlets, and looks likely to spread to universities in the new term.
The trade unions UCU, Unite, EIS (teaching staff in Scotland) and the GMB have rejected the appalling offer of a 0.5% pay increase from UCEA, the university employers.
This basically amounts to a pay cut. The unions have come together in a 'Defend Higher Education Campaign'. This is a step forward but, for the campaign to be effective, it needs to be based on coordinated industrial action by all these unions.
University managements portray workers' pay demands as "greedy". The right wing of National Union of Students (NUS) and local student unions disgracefully claim that strikes are an attack on students.
To cut across these lies the campaign must explicitly link demands on pay with fighting against job cuts and opposition to higher student fees. Socialist Students will help to mobilise the active support of students for staff industrial action and calls on student unions to organise solidarity action.
The question is: can the opposition to fees, cuts and closures be mobilised? The UCU, in attacking the government, has suggested that raising tuition fees will be as unpopular as the poll tax was in the 1990s.
The student movement can draw important lessons from the magnificent anti-poll tax struggle. This campaign successfully forced the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher to abandon that hated anti-working class policy and, ultimately, to resign.
The poll tax was not overcome by its unpopularity alone. It was also the organisation of an 18 million-strong campaign of non-payment, defying the bailiffs and the courts in working-class communities across the country, combined with mass local and national demonstrations.
This was coordinated by the Anti Poll Tax Federation, which was present in every major town and city. It was organised on a democratic basis with mass participation of workers, trade unionists, the unemployed and youth. The backbone of this movement was the Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party.
To force a right-wing government to scrap tuition fees and stop its education cuts programme will require a campaign of similar national scale and strength among students, with support from the wider working class. Socialist Students views this as a key objective for the student movement.
Occupations can be successful if they have the aim of mobilising large numbers and if the tactic is combined with other action and mass support.
This was seen in the successful struggles at the Visteon car parts factory, where sacked workers, with support from the wider labour movement, forced concessions from the bosses.
Some on the student left, for example the Socialist Workers Student Society, suggest that occupations of whatever size and nature are the most effective tactic of resistance that can be used by students. However, occupations should not be seen as the only tactic.
In the Republic of Ireland the prospect of increased fees inspired mass blockades on any campus a government minister dared to visit. These successful actions were organised by Free Education for Everyone, a campaign involving the sister organisation of Socialist Students.
Occupations against jobs and cuts should be combined with big public demonstrations, student strikes and mass campaigns of non-payment of fees coordinated with action taken by university and other workers.
Successful mass action on a local basis could force universities to back down from cuts and other attacks and could spread nationally, as the idea of student occupations against the slaughter in Gaza did.
The student movement faces a significant obstacle in the lack of an organisation that is willing or able to mobilise students on a national basis.
Since the right-wing, pro-New Labour leadership removed its limited democratic structures, the NUS resembles a lobby group rather than a fighting student organisation.
The NUS leadership, a cabal of aspiring New Labour politicians, even welcomed pro-big business Mandelson taking on ministerial responsibility for higher education.
However, in the absence of a coherent alternative, the NUS is still seen as the 'voice of students'. It has a consistent profile in the mass media and is accepted by the majority of the trade union leaders. Its national structures, although rotten and hollow, link up student unions across the country.
Socialist Students aims to link up local campaigns and student unions that want to fight against attacks on education. We need to build a fighting democratic student organisation involving all who want to fight for free and good quality education.
What we stand for
Socialist Students is active in many of the local campaigns that have been set up to fight cuts.
Our Campaign to Defeat Fees has gained a reputation for organising effective protests on a local and national level with limited resources and, unfortunately, with the opposition of the National Union of Students leadership.
The scale of the attacks, at all levels of education, demands a national response. Socialist Students calls for a one-day national shutdown of universities, colleges and schools involving industrial action by the education trade unions and strikes and walkouts from students, coordinated by student unions and campaigning groups.
Local campaigns, often with the decisive influence of Socialist Students, have been able to score victories. At Exeter University Socialist Students ran a joint campaign with the local Unison branch that stopped the privatisation of childcare facilities in 2008.
There is an ongoing struggle at Sussex University to save the linguistics course. Using the position of a Socialist Students activist who was a full-time student union officer to put pressure on the university, Sussex Socialist Students mobilised a campaign of action by students.
Protests and threats of boycotts of lucrative academic surveys forced management to maintain linguistics as an option for students when they wanted to get rid of the course entirely. The campaign for the full reinstatement of linguistics continues.
Our strategy is to fight attacks on education in the universities and colleges with campaigning that aims to mobilise the mass of the student body and utilises the industrial power of campus workers.
This has to be done with or without the official backing of local student unions, and with democratic discussion and debate over tactics, and unity in action around common interests.
In the last few years, struggles of students, young people and workers against attacks on education have erupted across Europe.
University students and workers have joined forces in occupations and strikes against privatisation and other attacks in France, Italy and Ireland.
The December 2008 uprising in Greece mobilised school students and large school student strikes have taken place in Germany and Austria.
These movements have challenged the agenda of governments that share New Labour's neoliberal attitude towards education. They show the potential for building a fightback in higher education in Britain and the need to begin to mobilise college and school students, who will be most affected by attacks such as higher fees in the future.
Mass resistance can halt and disrupt attacks on education. Socialist Students fights for a free, high quality, fully publicly funded, democratically-run education system at all levels.
Under capitalism education will always be run in the ultimate interest of the profit of a minority, not for the benefit of all. That is why Socialist Students fights to overthrow this profit system and build a democratic socialist society.
'Unlocking the potential'?
Gordon Brown said that through education, his government wants to "unlock the potential of every young person". How many university students can say that this meets with their experiences at university? Education is now a 'product' rather than a service. Universities are being run on the basis of minimum cost and maximum student numbers and profit.
Personally, I have found my two years at university so far quite disheartening. The whole experience is based around the end result, in other words the exam and the qualification you finish with. It's not about what you've learned or what potential you've "unlocked" in yourself in the process.
I have a maximum of nine hours of lectures and seminars a week. We are told that university is about "independent learning" rather than being taught. I have no problem with going away and reading dozens of books, but surely this can only work when combined with an actual human discussing it with you.
It's not the fault of the lecturers and other staff. They are under constant pressure to meet targets and conduct research that brings in money for the university through research grants. This leaves little time to spend on students beyond what is allotted for lectures and seminars. The financial costs of university for students have additional impacts too.
A large number of students have to continue living with their parents in order to avoid pricey student accommodation. Many also have no choice but to work to help pay their way through university. These things can isolate you and hamper your experiences at university and your ability to work on your full-time degree.
Now, with the number of available jobs decreasing, students will be placed in an even more difficult financial situation having to compete for insecure, low-paid jobs.
The students unions, the places you might expect to be supporting and defending students at this time, are generally not up for a fight. Most of the students running the unions are bureaucrats in training, with their CV at the forefront of their mind more than the interests of other students. They focus on little more than organising drinking binges, and are deemed irrelevant for much beyond this by most students.
Stephen Burrell, Aston University Socialist Students
For real jobs
For free education
Saturday 28 November,London
Called by Youth Fight for Jobs and the Campaign to Defeat Fees
This will be a great opportunity to bring students, workers and the unemployed together to fight attacks on education, jobs and for our basic rights. Join us!
In The Socialist 23 September 2009:
War and occupation
Postal workers strike
Youth fight for jobs
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party reviews