Hannah Webb, National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts activist and member of NUS National Executive Committee reports:
A Brief History
Following the defeats of 2010, the student movement found itself on the back foot, at the start of a slow process of rebuilding itself, and trying to continue demands for the abolition of tuition fees and a fairer education system. The last five years have seen significant progress – the formation of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) in 2010 – initially an organisation made up of anyone who turned up to meetings in 2010 to call for demonstrations, but later grew to become a membership organisation with democratic structures.
2011 and 2012 both saw national demonstrations – the former an anti-fees demonstration by NCAFC, the latter called by NUS with the ineffectual slogan ‘educate employ empower’, bringing about another low point in student struggle. The 2013-14 year was interesting, with several small (approx. 3000 people) but extremely militant #CopsOffCampus demonstrations in London, and several occupations, whilst the last academic year 2014-15 saw an autumn demonstration of 10,000 people, and in the spring significant gains for the left within the National Union of Students (NUS).
Current Political Context
The upcoming academic year looks as though it will be an exciting one; for the first time in a long time there is a left majority on the National Executive Committee of NUS, though it is facing fierce opposition from several NUS full time officers, taking it upon themselves to do everything possible to resist NUS, and the wider student movement, heading in a left wing trajectory.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party means it is the first time in around 30 years that a major party leadership believes in free education. At the same time as a possible widespread change in discourse around education funding, the Conservatives are mounting a growing attack on higher education (universities) and further education (colleges).
Announcements in the 2015 Budget would allow universities to increase fees in line with inflation, and impose estimated cuts of around 24% to adult education in colleges. English language classes (ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages) and some other courses are threatened with disappearance through the complete withdrawal of government funding. This is expected to affect about 16,000 learners.
Before winning the Labour leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn put forward the idea of a ‘National Education Service’, which he described as a ‘lifelong learning service’ running ‘from cradle to grave’, and sets out a vision of education being valued as a collective good for society, rather than for personal advancement, with the abolition of tuition fees, the replacement of loans with grants, and the reinstatement of Education Maintenance Allowance.
The phrase ‘National Education Service’ sounds quite strange – presumably it’s an attempt to tie universal education provision to universal healthcare provision – but this is by far the most progressive tertiary education policy put forward by a major party leader in years.
However, although these policies being enacted would be a huge step forward, we need to look carefully at the absences in this vision set. There is no mention of international students and their exorbitantly high tuition fees. Would their fees also be abolished? Would the replacement of loans with grants be universal, and would such grants be ‘living’ grants – that is enough to live off comfortably.
Even if universal living grants and abolition of tuition fees for all students (home and international) was explicitly part of a Labour party manifesto –very unlikely considering the internal right wing backlash – in a majority Labour government, such changes would be unlikely to take place without significant extra-parliamentary struggle and pressure.
Not only, therefore, do we need to organise and fight for a better and fairer education system, but we also find ourselves in a position where we must resist proposed changes by the Tory government which would push the current system further towards complete marketisation, and further cut out those from poorer backgrounds being able to access education.
There are six Conservative attacks on tertiary education that are crucial to know about ahead of the new academic year, which will likely be the focus of protest and resistance in the months ahead.
Cuts to maintenance grants:
The Tory government plans to cut maintenance grants and replace them with loans, to be introduced in the 2016/17 academic year. Currently only students with families with low incomes can receive maintenance grants, and it is certain that the promise of greater debt upon graduation will discourage even more students from poorer backgrounds away from studying.
The current system is far from ideal – full-time UK students from families with incomes of less than £25,000/year receive only £3,387 in grants (decreasing as family income increases), and some maintenance loan, which altogether is rarely enough to live on.
NUS is doing some low level and low impact campaigning against this, opposing it without successfully articulating a better vision of education, under the bizarre pro-austerity sounding slogan #CutTheCosts. NCAFC is also campaigning against it, calling for #GrantsNotDebt.
The government is also threatening cuts to Disabled Students Allowance, expecting universities instead to pay for support such as scribes and proofreaders.
Changes to the repayment threshold of student loans:
When post-2012 loans were introduced (loans for people paying £9000 fees), repayments were only to be taken from income over £21,000, to protect lower-waged graduates. In order to keep that threshold the same in real terms, from 2016 it was promised to rise in line with average incomes. Now the government proposes to freeze that threshold at £21,000 until at least 2021.
With inflation and growing living costs, the threshold will fall in real terms, meaning that graduates will have to pay more money back from their loans. It is possible, though less preferred by the government, that the repayment threshold would be only frozen for new borrowers, but this would still be a terrible outcome.
Around 2 million borrowers would be affected by these plans; not only university students, but also holders of 24+ Advanced Learning Loans, who in 2013/14 were disproportionately from the most deprived areas of the country, and 3/4 women. The government projects that graduates on starting salaries between £21,000 and £30,000 would pay on average £6,100 more (before the loan is written off after 30 years), whereas those on earnings of £50,000+ would instead pay less.
This is a deliberate attempt not only to force more money from graduates ,instead of publicly funding education, but to further shift the burden away from those who can afford to pay; the richest in society.
Cuts to further education:
Huge cuts to further education will continue to tear apart the sector. If the cuts continue at the current rate, then adult education and training in England may no longer exist by 2020. This is not a problem restricted to England – in Scotland student numbers in colleges fell by 12% between 2010 and 2011, and real term cuts to further education in Scotland in over the last four years amounts to about 36%.Wales is facing a proposed 50% cut to adult education.
Further Education colleges rarely have well-funded students’ unions, if they have a student union at all, meaning that they are often easier targets for the government, but even where this is not the case (Scotland) cuts have not been avoided. However, the level of cuts now likely means that it would be unsurprising to see resistance focused on this area.
The ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’:
The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is the next step in accelerating marketisation of higher education. It has been suggested that the TEF will parallel the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a system already in place which assesses the standard of research coming from universities, and allocates funding based on the results.
Such a system would inevitably impose arbitrary assessment methods of teaching, and an attempt to instill the rhetoric of education being about ‘value for money’ and an individual investment. Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities and Science has already made it clear that the outcome-focused metrics are likely to be based on graduate earnings and employment. A ‘good teacher’ would be seen as one who teaches for employability, dictated by big business, rather than what is of benefit to society.
The metrics would also be used to hurt education workers; using them to justify funding cuts, outsourcing and low-paid precarious contracts and courses rated by ‘value for money’ could be used as justification to withdraw funding, particularly in places that desperately need increased funding.
Tuition fee rises:
George Osborne announced in the summer budget that Universities with “high-quality teaching” can raise tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017/18. Fees have remained capped at £9,000 since 2012, and whilst inflationary increases may not make a huge difference initially, it’ll be used as a stepping stone to raise them further, as university Vice-Chancellors have been demanding. These increases will be based on the TEF and would work to create a system where students are seen entirely as consumers, with the idea that they can reliably invest money in a course, and the amount of money ‘invested’ is directly linked to the job they will receive at the end.
As part of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, due to be ratified by parliament in early October, guidance on the ‘Prevent’ duty will obligate schools, colleges and universities to monitor and report on students who may be at risk of ‘violent extremism’. ‘Prevent’ – a scheme for monitoring for ‘extremism’ on campus, largely focuses on monitoring islamic groups and racial profiling, as well as monitoring those involved in political activity. Students being forced by police to spy on campus islamic groups and activist groups is not uncommon, and Prevent Officers involvement on campuses has, amongst other things seen a conference on islamophobia stopped from taking place, a schoolboy questioned for distributing pro BDS literature, 3 students suspended from New Vic College for speaking out against Prevent, and the monitoring of a student campaigning for his university to pay the living-wage, along with police contacting his parents to ‘discuss his behaviour’.
What are we doing about it?
There is a huge appetite amongst students for resistance to the destruction of education, and for fighting for a truly free education; free from tuition fees, free from ideas of education being just to prepare oneself for the world of work, free from business influences, and free from the exploitation of workers.
This is extremely unlikely to be achieved in a decade, let alone a year, but it is important to articulate a vision of what both a better education system and a better world would look like, and to fight for it on the offensive, rather than on the defensive, simply responding to planned government policy.
The National Union of Students, like every year before this one, has been lagging behind.
Free Education policy was won at the 2013 national conference, and reaffirmed at the 2014 national conference, which also elected a majority left wing (a combination of revolutionary left, and soft left) National Executive Committee (NEC).
Though the new NEC has been largely supportive of efforts to fight for a better education system, more reactionary elements within the NUS, in particular the president, Megan Dunn, have been actively hostile to students doing more than politely lobbying MPs, and ignoring democratically made decisions from the NEC to do otherwise.
The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts have called a national demonstration on the 4 November under the slogan ‘Free Education & Living Grants for All: No Barriers // No Borders // No Business!’
Additionally, the NUS NEC recently passed a motion, submitted by NCAFC, to actively investigate the possibility of a student strike, and to recommend a yes vote. A minimum of 5% of student unions affiliated to NUS (30 student unions out of approximately 600) are required to call a ballot.
Student strikes are different to, and less prevalent than workers strikes, as they do not immediately disrupt profit. But the legitimacy of the university system relies on students attending classes, to show that students are receiving a good level of education. Organising for a student strike is an escalation of resistance from one day demonstrations, bringing the fight for a better education system to the centre of students’ focus.
It is a tactic that is used across the world, often successfully. In Quebec in 2012 students went on strike for five months, beating off a rise in tuition fees (and ousting the Liberal Party from government). In Bangladesh students struck against the introduction of 10% VAT on private universities, which was fought it down to 7.5%, and were, after four days of strikes and protests, blocking traffic in cities, defeated on 14 September 2015.
The UK also had a successful student strike in 1971 when Thatcher tried to make membership of the NUS voluntary – a huge attack on its power, and after a five week strike forced the withdrawal of the motion. Many student unions in the UK will be passing motions to call for a strike ballot, with many working to ensure it is not a top down call, but that a mass grassroots movement is built around it.