SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 175 February 2014

Students: gearing up for new battles

Towards the end of last term, a peaceful student occupation by anti-cuts activists at the University of London (UoL) was violently evicted by the police. Five students were arrested, including Queen Mary Socialist Students member, Kris Statham. A video showing a police officer punching a protester in the face went viral that evening.

A Cops Off Campus protest was already planned for the following day in response to a steep increase in police harassment at the University of London Union (ULU). Both the president and vice-president at ULU had been arrested over the previous few weeks. Of the 200 protesters, 50 were arrested, sparking national outrage among students.

More and more came onto the streets in anger and disgust. Socialist Students and others called a national day of action, with protests across the country. Three thousand joined the march in London where police violence was the hardest, in the biggest student protests in the capital since the 2010 movement against the trebling of tuition fees. Socialist Students met a lot of students protesting for the first time, angered by what they had seen.

However, the attacks on the democratic right to protest are not isolated to UoL. Two students at Birmingham Uni were singled out and management attempted to surcharge them thousands of pounds each for their supposed role in a university occupation. The ‘Sussex Five’ were suspended from their university on 4 December, the day after Sussex Against Privatisation ended one of their occupations, joining striking higher education workers on the picket line.

Yet many students on the ULU Cops Off Campus demo were frustrated by its lack of purpose and direction. The indiscriminate arrest of protesters showed up the need for democratically organised stewarding and legal observers, to protect students from attacks by the police. Students do not want to lose control of their own protest movement, and are suspicious of organisations that have been absent from the Cops Off Campus protests, like the National Union of Students (NUS).

It is to be seen whether the Cops Off Campus protests will continue in the new semester. But students have shown that they are willing to fight. Unfortunately, it is no surprise that we have been forced to witness a clampdown on student democracy and the right to protest. Socialist Students, every step of the way, linked Cops Off Campus with the need to build a mass national movement against fees, cuts and privatisation.

Overall, universities are running a £1 billion surplus, but managements are determined to make draconian cuts and force through privatisation. University workers are striking against a measly 1% pay offer, a real terms pay cut. The Con-Dem coalition government intends to hit students with desperately unfair cuts. In 2010, it introduced £9,000 tuition fees, with the hollow promise that new bursaries would be available to help the poorest students. The NUS leadership claimed this was an important concession that it had won. But the Con-Dems hope to get rid of £100 million worth of bursaries (the vast majority) by the new academic year.

The Student Loan Company (SLC) is up for sale. In public, the government claims privatisation will not affect students. But leaked documents have revealed plans to allow potential new owners to charge graduates whatever they like, regardless of our original loan agreement. Currently, interest on student loans is capped at a rate much lower than that on normal commercial loans. But banks and lenders will not make the big profits they are hungry for through charging ‘fair’ rates. If they buy the loan book they will want to ratchet them up. They will want new powers to make people pay loans back faster, too, so the limited protection we thought we had when the loans were taken out could end up counting for nothing.

Selling off and privatising student loans represents a final nail in the coffin for public education. If privatisation is completed, the government will play almost no role in the funding and provision of higher education. Instead, students will have to rely on unscrupulous loan sharks, rich parents or philanthropy if they want to access higher education.

This transformation of universities from public institutions of learning to business-style bodies, competing in a market for ‘customers’, is already having a profound impact on the nature of the education they provide. Democracy and protest have no role in this new marketised education system. Critical thinking and academic freedom are inconvenient luxuries a profit-driven system can ill afford.

At Sussex Uni we argued that the struggle against privatisation should not be abandoned while we fight to reinstate the Sussex Five. In fact, the overwhelming support at Sussex Uni to reinstate the suspended students should have been used to reinvigorate the long-running anti-privatisation campaign. Unfortunately, Socialist Students were unsuccessful in winning the argument that time. As student battles develop, however, a strong Socialist Students will be essential to campaigns against police violence, privatisation and cuts. These ideas will be tested out in the course of struggle.

Nevertheless, on 9 December, a mass meeting of 600 Sussex students voted to reaffirm their no-confidence in out-of-touch vice-chancellor Michael Farthing. Almost 10,000 signed the petition demanding the reinstatement of the Sussex Five. The meeting also voted to call a student strike for the next day, which very quickly forced Sussex University management to reinstate the suspended students.

Socialist Students is now the biggest left group on the campuses across Britain, with groups at 40 universities. Our conference on 2 February is launching a national campaign to stop the student debt spiral. We want to unite students affected by student loan privatisation (all of us) and all the other attacks (like bursary cuts) taking place.

Under enormous pressure, the NUS leadership were put in a position where they were unable to refuse to give the Cops Off Campus protests verbal backing. But, despite this, NUS gave no real support to the struggle against police violence. It should have used its resources as a national union representing millions of students to give genuine support to ensure all charges against the arrested protesters were dropped, as members of any union would expect to receive. In place of the demand for a student and trade union led inquiry into police violence at UoL, NUS called on Tory bully-boy and London mayor, Boris Johnson, to take it on. Johnson never responded. We must assume he is too busy attempting to remove London Underground workers’ right to strike.

The injection of Cops Off Campus to reinvigorate the student movement is a renewed opportunity to demand that NUS calls a national demonstration to defend the democratic right to protest. Socialist Students stood out on the Cops Off Campus protests putting this forward. Many students thought it was important to drag NUS kicking and screaming. Others were rightly sceptical that it would happen.

In 2015, many in the leadership of the student movement will call for a vote for the Labour Party in the general election. Officially, the NUS backs no political party, but many of its leaders hope to make the Labour Party a career. The NUS should stop giving tacit support to Labour leaders, and instead put clear demands on them. NUS should call on Labour to pledge to renationalise the SLC and cancel student debt. We cannot forget that it was Labour that first introduced tuition fees, and then trebled them to £3,000, when it was in government. Socialist Students will continue to build a political alternative, and fight for a party that stands up for students and workers.

Ian Pattison, Socialist Students national chair

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