SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 203 November 2016

Students on the move again

Students are gearing up for a national demo against the latest attacks on higher education by the Tory government. Anger is mounting at ever-rising tuition fees, education cuts, poverty pay and bad housing. CLAIRE LAKER-MANSFIELD looks at the student movement in Britain today and the potential for a new struggle to emerge.

‘Fees must fall!’ This was the rallying cry of the mass student movement that swept South Africa and scored a victory against the ANC government last year. The struggle for the right to education is an international one. On 26 October, students across Spain walked out of their classrooms to join protests and rallies against new neoliberal measures being introduced in education. Here in Britain, students are preparing to protest against a fresh round of attacks on education. For the first time in four years, the National Union of Students (NUS) has called for and organised a national demonstration, which will take place in London on 19 November.

In this context, it is worthwhile examining the state of the student movement in Britain today, assessing the possibilities for the development of mass struggles, similar to those taking place internationally, in the next period. Since the tripling of tuition fees in 2010, the onslaught on education has been unabated. Indeed, the higher education bill currently being prepared by the government will further unleash market forces across the sector. It will see tuition fees raised – probably to at least £10,000 by 2020 – and pave the way for a segregated ‘bronze, silver and gold’ style tiered system.

Most students leaving university this year will have accrued around £50,000 in debt. The abolition of the remnants of student support based on grants took place last year. Maintenance grants which had been available to the poorest students have now been replaced by loans, adding to the debt burden for the most disadvantaged students. Meanwhile, research done by NUS indicates that there has been an increase in students taking out private debt and even turning to the ‘legal loan sharks’ of Wonga and co in attempts to finance their studies. Even bursaries that are paid to student nurses and other health professionals during their training are set to be abolished. This means that nursing students and others will pay for the privilege of working long shifts caring for patients on wards or in the community.

The approach of the Tory government towards higher education is mirrored in its attacks on schools and colleges. Academisation and the planned reintroduction of grammar schools threaten to turn the clock back to a time when young people were deemed to have ‘failed’ at the age of eleven. Further education has been ravaged by cuts of more than 25% since 2010. A system of fees and loans now inhibits access to many courses, particularly for adult learners.

But student struggle has never been restricted to the question of education, central though that is. Indeed, over the last year in France, school students have participated in walkouts and protests against the government’s proposed changes to the labour law. Historically, students have taken part in movements ranging from opposition to the Vietnam war to participating in solidarity for the miners’ strike. However, while there have been flashes of struggle and protest, since the defeat of the student movement in 2010 against the tripling of tuition fees, there has yet to develop a new, generalised wave of student struggle in the UK.

Nevertheless, the raw ingredients for a new student movement to develop clearly exist, and have for some time. The conditions within education are one aspect of this. But perhaps even more explosive is the general situation facing young people in austerity Britain. Recent research indicated that those of us who were born in the 1980s are 50% less wealthy than those born ten years earlier at the same age. Despite advances in science and technique, not to mention the increase in the number of young people achieving degrees, we are getting poorer. This graphically demonstrates the profound failure of the capitalist system.

The 2010 eruption

It is this which has been the underlying cause of the massed youth movements that developed internationally over the last period. But it was in Britain, in the student movement that erupted in 2010, where the first major uprising of young people took place in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. This began with a 50,000-strong demonstration that had been called by NUS.

However, NUS was completely unprepared for the movement that was unleashed. The tripling of tuition fees and the abolition of the education maintenance allowance – a £30 a week grant available to 16-18 year-olds – were among the first austerity measures to be announced by the Con-Dem coalition government. As well as being serious attacks in and of themselves, they were also a signal of the slash-and-burn approach that the government would adopt.

The then ‘official leaders’ of students in Britain were wedded to the politics of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and New Labour. Many, including Wes Streeting, who was NUS president until 2009, have gone on to become some of the most virulent opponents of Jeremy Corbyn within the Labour Party – in Streeting’s case, as an MP. During the period leading up to the 2010 student movement, NUS had adopted a policy of opposing free education and instead called for the system of fees and loans to be replaced by a graduate tax. While pressure from below compelled them to call a demo – which they hoped would allow students to blow off steam – the strategy of the NUS leadership was to try and put a lid on it, and prevent things from going ‘too far’.

But if that was the strategy of the right-wing NUS leadership it was an abject failure. The demonstration that took place on 10 November ignited a wave of protest. Even before the demo had reached the finish point, it was already out of the control of those so-called leaders. They offered no strategy for what could come next. There was not even a closing rally. It was hardly surprising, then, that protestors took matters into their own hands. The route of the demonstration finished outside Tory HQ on Millbank, which was unguarded. Particularly in the absence of a rally, this became a natural focal point. Students took part in an occupation of the building. Meanwhile, NUS president Aaron Porter gave an interview to BBC news condemning those who took part.

From then on, the mass walkouts and protests which followed were organised outside of, and without even the support of, the official structures of NUS. In London and a few other towns and cities ad hoc student assemblies were called which co-ordinated action and called strikes and demonstrations. It was Socialist Students which first clearly raised the strategy of organising student strikes, something which was taken up by students, with over 100,000 taking part in walkouts and demonstrations in the weeks following.

Linking with organised workers

Despite the audacity of the protests, it would have taken an almighty movement which would, by necessity, have had to go beyond the realm of student struggle in order to defeat the attacks proposed by the government. While students can be a dynamic and energetic force, often among the first to enter the battlefield, they lack the economic power to ultimately transform society. It is workers who produce goods and provide societies’ services. So when workers are organised and prepared to take action, in particular strike action, they have enormous collective power.

This was, in many ways, the first major test the Con-Dem government faced. Defeating this attack on education would really have required a movement capable of bringing down the government itself. Had the trade union movement stepped in, coming to the aid of students and drawing the link between the attacks on workers, public-sector job losses and the destruction of education, it would have been a declaration of war by the labour movement on the Con-Dems. Indeed, had the Trades Union Congress (TUC) brought forward its planned spring demonstration, building on the confidence and momentum that had been gained through the student protests, it could have acted as a lightning conductor for the seething discontent across society.

Instead, the leadership of the TUC stood back from the unfolding struggle. The government attempted to rush the fee rise through parliament as quickly as possible in order to try and place a time limit on the student movement. By mid-December the tripling of tuition fees had passed into law. In many ways this defeat has cast its shadow over the student movement ever since. While there have been important pockets of resistance to attacks within the student field, there has yet to be a generalised fightback on the same scale of 2010.

This is organically related to the fortunes of the trade union and workers’ movement over the same period. The potential might of the labour movement was graphically displayed in 2011. The spring TUC ‘March Against Austerity’ was from 750,000 to a million strong. In June and November of that year, mass co-ordinated strike action was organised by public-sector unions against attacks on pensions. But, rather than escalating the action in a fight to the finish, the trade union tops instead took the road of capitulation.

The disorientation which followed that defeat took its toll on the anti-austerity movement in general and on students in particular. But that does not mean that students have not taken part in struggle since, or that there have not been opportunities for a more generalised fightback to take place. Since 2010 there have been student demonstrations every year in November. Other than in 2012, these were all organised outside of the official structures of NUS.

National coordination

One of the limitations of the student movement in 2010 was its failure to develop an organisation capable of co-ordinating student struggle and developing broad-based democratic campaigns in defence of education. This has meant that the struggles have often been localised and have not been easily spread beyond a few campuses. An example of this was the huge campaign waged at Sussex University in 2012-13 against the privatisation of student services. While this was based around a specific attack, the drive towards the privatisation and outsourcing of campus jobs and services is a national one. Had a genuinely national organisation with democratic structures and a real base on campuses existed, a movement like that could have spread rapidly.

More recently, students at University College London have scored a fantastic victory through organising rent strikes against the high costs and poor quality of student housing. This campaign has the potential to spread throughout the capital and beyond and to take on a more general character. But so far the lack of a nationally co-ordinated campaign has placed a limit on this.

Nevertheless, over the last year, as the deep dissatisfaction with the politics of the 1% has begun to develop an expression in the mainstream, this has also been reflected in the student movement and even within the NUS. Among Jeremy Corbyn’s most popular pledges is his support for free education. This offers a clear break with the approach of Blairism. After all, it was the New Labour government which first introduced university fees. But Labour Students, which until recently has been the dominant force within the NUS, retains a leadership which is deeply hostile to Corbyn and the politics he represents.

The election of a new, more left-wing leadership within NUS, particularly the victory of the new president Malia Bouattia against last year’s Labour Students backed incumbent, was therefore significant. The bureaucratic and stale structures of this organisation have been significantly behind the majority of students in terms of willingness to fight and dissatisfaction with the politics of austerity. However, the anger that exists among ordinary students has begun to find some reflection in the national union.

Springboard for mass action

It is for this reason that this year’s student demonstration will be the first to be backed by NUS since 2012. It is positive that the protest will be organised jointly with the lecturers’ University and College Union (UCU). Ideally, the scope of the demonstration would be widened to include all unions representing education workers, with a call put out to the whole of the trade union and labour movement to organise in support of it. But while calling a demonstration is an important step forward, it must not simply be another daylong venting of frustration, only to be followed by another year of inaction. Instead, it must be used as a springboard for developing a mass campaign in opposition to the higher education bill and attacks on schools and colleges, as well as supporting the demand – backed by Jeremy Corbyn in his recent re-election campaign – for free education and the restoration of grants.

This means student unions at local, as well as national level, acting to organise struggle on campuses. As a first step mass meetings should be organised in the lead up to the November demonstration to launch local campaigns, discuss the political demands and plan the mobilisation. What is more, plans should be developed for harnessing the momentum that could be built through the demonstration, by organising actions including further protests, occupations and walkouts in its aftermath.

Moreover, it is necessary to discuss and learn the lessons of 2010 and of all the past experiences of student struggle. Central to this is the necessity of students not standing alone. Building links with workers in struggle is crucial if the potentially mighty economic power they hold is to be brought to bear in the fight for education.

Equally important is the need for students to engage in the political struggle. While Jeremy Corbyn backs free education, the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party is cut from the same right-wing cloth as Blair and Brown. Their aim, if they are not able to remove Jeremy Corbyn in the immediate term, is to paralyse him politically. They will fight to prevent policies like free education from being put forward. That is why students need to fight to keep up the pressure for there to be no retreat on free education, and to link fighting the blue Tories in government and the ‘red Tories’ on Labour’s right-wing.

Ultimately, fighting for free education – publicly provided, democratically run and accessible to all – brings you into conflict with the austerity agenda and with capitalism itself. That is why, as well as organising the fightback on campuses, building and developing a socialist organisation which can act as a forum for discussing and debating how you change society is also crucial. Building Socialist Students so that it can act decisively within the student movement, as well as fighting for socialist ideas on campus, remains a central task for all those who want to end austerity and win an education system that works for all.

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