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On 19 November students can put free education back on the agenda

 

By KD Tait

The ritual central London march for free education, a staple of the student activist’s Autumn calendar for 15 years, has been called for 19 November by a coalition of student campaigns under the slogan ‘no to debt, no to fees – yes to free education’.

The defeat of the 2010 student revolt opened the road to a major attack on the principles of a universal education, quality and accessible to all. The 19 November protest will be followed up by nationwide protests on 6 December.

This article makes the case that this demonstration is the most important since 2010. In the run-up to an election period, students need to mobilise to put free education back on the agenda. 

 

Marketisation

The transformation of education into a commodity subject to market forces began under the last Labour government with the introduction of university ‘top-up fees’.

What Labour gave with one hand, they took away with the other. The Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a grant to help poor students remain in post-16 education was brought in alongside the ‘Academies’ programme.

Labour claimed Academies would turn around ‘failing’ schools by allowing private investors to pay for new buildings, equipment and alter the curriculum. In fact instead of tackling the root of the problem – schools in catchment areas with high levels of poverty, unemployment or students who didn’t have English as a first language – it opened the door to the outright privatisation scheme launched by the Coalition government in 2010.

The Tory-Liberal coalition came to power with one overriding ambition – freeing the bosses from the ‘burden’ of financing the welfare state.

The excuse was the need for ‘austerity’ to recover from the economic crisis. The result was to make the working class pay the cost of recovery by keeping wages down, unemployment high and allowing the millionaire backers of the Tories and Liberals to make a profit out of privatised education and healthcare.

Education was destined to be the first of the post-WW2 social gains to face the chopping block. Tuition fees were tripled, EMA was scrapped, and the Academies and ‘Free schools’ scheme were expanded to allow business, charities and ‘entrepreneurs’ to run schools of the basis of guaranteeing a profit, rather than guaranteeing a universal quality of education for all.

Students will now graduate with a debt burden that will cripple future generations. Thousands of school students are corralled into schools run by capitalists whose aim is to allow bosses to have more control over the training of the workforce they require. This means an inexorable move towards schools geared to the creation of a disciplined, low-skill workforce, with the reintroduction of ‘streams’, ‘sets’ and other forms of social and academic stratification to organise the training of professional and management strata.

Unemployment amongst 16-24 year olds has reached 20 per cent. Among Black youth the figure is 50 per cent. One million young people are not in work, education or training. Half of recent graduates work in non-graduate jobs and the unemployment rate for recent graduates is twice what it was before the recession. While sky-high unemployment rates have boosted university numbers, the future remains bleak. 40 per cent of graduates work in the civil service, health or education – but 600 public sector jobs have been cut every single day that the coalition has been in power.

For non-graduates the situation is a lot worse. The unemployment rate has doubled since the recession. Average wages have lost £50 a week. 5 million people are earning less than the Living Wage – £8.80 in London and £7.65 in the rest of the UK. Poverty pay has forced one million people to resort to handouts from food banks.

Action

All areas of education have come under sustained attack. The fabric of comprehensive, universal education is being shredded by the intrusion of market forces.

Despite the scale of the threat and widespread opposition to the government’s ‘reforms’, an organised defence of education has not materialised. Only the brief student revolt of winter 2010 came close to defeating the government.

Since then there has only been sporadic, localised resistance. Apart from a few high profile campaigns at Birmingham, Sussex and the London #copsoffcampus campaign, nothing has been able to stem the slide towards a defensive orientation in the student movement following the tuition fees defeat.

Can this be turned around? The continued existence of some kind of national coordination is largely due to the work of NCAFC which continues to provide important leadership for the militant wing of the student movement. However, the collapse of the campus based anticuts groups and the hollowing out of student union democracy means the student movement remains confined to small networks of activists.

The NUS, although it formally backs the free education demonstrations is incapable of using its influence and resources to launch a credible campaign either to resist the marketisation of Higher Education or to campaign for the reintroduction of the grant system to allow access to university for all who want it.

National demonstrations are important rallying points for those committed to free education, which allow us to judge the true scale and influence of our movement among students and we encourage every student to help organise participation from their own universitiy.

But we need to do more to break out of the cycle of annual protests and defensive actions.

The commodification and cost of education will create a trend amongst students to see the university solely as a place of competitive training for employment. But the university’s role as a training ground for the future professional and political strata means students benefit from a degree of autonomy to critique, organise and struggle against the dominant ideological trends in society.

To turn this potential into action means drawing in much larger numbers of students. This means fighting to democratise student unions by replacing the leadership of unions by bureaucrats and careerists with mass participation in student assemblies which democratically debate and vote on policy and campaigning priorities.

Students today can draw on the militant traditions of democracy and mass action from 2010 and the recent experience of direct action and solidarity between students and workers expressed in the UCL cleaners’ campaign for sick pay, holidays and pensions.

The struggle to defend education and fight for free education cannot be separated from the challenge to the system whose crises and domination by an economic and political elite guarantee that education will always be subordinated to the interests of the ruling class.

The class of 2010 has graduated. The class of 2014 has more reason than ever to take up the banner of resistance which puts students and youth on the frontlines of the struggle for a new, better society. After all, it’s our future – not theirs.

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