The comrades of Socialist Appeal in Britain produced the following pamphlet. It is a compilation of different articles written by comrades on tuition fees, cuts in university funding and the students' union, and tries to elaborate some demands for the student movement. We encourage our readers to acquaint themselves with our basic positions on the state of the education system in order to intervene in the movements against cuts and fees which have already begun in a lot of colleges and universities in Britain, but also all around the world.
No Cuts! No Fees! Big Business out of Education!
The measure of any civilised society can be seen in the way it is able to nurture and prepare the next generation. A society that cannot hand over the same living standards and opportunities it has enjoyed is fundamentally flawed.
In equal measure securing a prosperous future for the youth is the guarantee of a dignified retirement for the older generation. Yet the crisis of capitalism threatens all of this. Rising unemployment and attacks on infrastructure, housing, social services and education means increased exposure and lost opportunities for the most vulnerable in society. A whole layer of young people risk being lost in a vicious circle of unemployment and temporary work, of cuts in welfare and declining living standards.
The education system in particular is by no means immune from the effects of the capitalist crisis. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century the idea of well-funded schools, colleges and universities accessible and free to all should not seem like an increasingly distant pipe-dream. Employment upon graduation, without the saddle of massive debt, should be a basic right in any decent society.
Yet in the past few months the economic crisis has begun to undermine an education system already in serious disrepair. Course closures and staff redundancies are being threatened at London Metropolitan, London College of Communication, Sussex, the University of Leeds, Reading and Sheffield, to name but a few. The main areas facing cuts at present are London and Yorkshire, accounting for half of all cuts estimated by the University and College Union (UCU). Yet the depth of the economic crisis – equivalent to the combined debt of the country from the Glorious Revolution until the election of Blair in 1997 – casts a threatening shadow over schools, colleges and universities across the country.
At the end of December 2009 Lord Mandelson, Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, announced a further cut of £135m to higher education, which will add to the estimated 6,000 job losses in universities and colleges nationwide. Included in this figure are 1,300 job losses in FE colleges. In total over 100 HE and FE institutes are in the process of making serious cuts potentially effecting over 100,000 students.
Education in whose interest?
Traditionally capitalism saw education as a means of training a new labour force. The system determined who were going to be the managers and who were to be the skilled and unskilled workers. In the past, would-be social reformers believed that educating working people was the key to general prosperity, narrowing inequality and even paving the way toward an egalitarian society. However they failed to take into account the class society that exists beyond the four walls of the class room.
The 1944 Education Act ensured that every child would be guaranteed an education up until the age of 15, raised to 16 in 1973. This was introduced because of the pressure of the labour movement and resulted in gains for working people and gave new opportunities to working class youth. This reform preceded the election of a Labour government in 1945 and a series of concessions wrung from the hands of the ruling class, including the nationalisation of coal, steel and the railways and in particular the introduction of the NHS.
At this time the new education act making law every child’s attendance at school freed up a new female workforce from 24-hour childcare. This suited the demands of British business; the bosses needed as large a pool of workers as they could get to meet the growing needs of industry. As Marx noted, the wages of the worker are not determined so much by those working in the factory but by the number of unemployed at the factory gate. The task of post-war recovery together with the massive economic upswing meant practically full employment for the best part of 2 decades, up until the crisis of 1974.
The education system that was introduced served the interest of capitalism. The tripartite system divided children into separate schools after an examination at the age of 11 (the 11-plus). Children who passed went on to grammar school and the possibility of university, while those who failed went to secondary moderns and then Furth Education colleges (and later polytechnics) to be furnished with the necessary skills that were needed for British business to compete in the new technology industries that developed in the 1950s and 60s.
This system was campaigned against by the labour movement as a humiliating and unfair practice for children whose life was effectively mapped out by a single exam at the age of 11. Although from 1973 the tripartite system was largely replaced with the secondary comprehensive system we have today, selection still exists in league tables and Ofsted inspection.
The principle of a meritocratic education system, however sincere, will always be distorted within the context of a class-based society. Well-off parents use Ofsted league tables to select the best schools for their children, even going to the extent of buying houses in areas with better schools in order to bypass catchment areas. The latest example is of parents seeking legal advice to secure their child’s placement, with reports of solicitors charging up to £2,000 for consultations! At the same time the principle of the pursuit of knowledge and education for its own sake, and as a means of producing more fully developed and educated members of society is being whittled away. Passing exams and thus achieving a good Ofsted report is linked to funding and thus the future survival of the school.
Teachers are pressured daily to churn out results and so resort to teaching children how to pass exams, how to regurgitate facts, rather than develop their education. For good reason the teaching profession is now seen as one of the most stressful of vocations. The culture of incentives has had an adverse effect on many branches of the public sector, from the NHS to the Civil Service. Yet nowhere is it more pernicious than in the education system. It is the continuation by New Labour of basic Tory principles of the market, where instead of society – which apparently does not exist – there are individual competitors and consumers. Rather than producing enlightened, well-educated young adults with independent opinions and beliefs, the system encourages a culture of jumping through the hoops of the examination board and intellectual prostration to the lecturer, ultimately preparing subservient young workers in the marketplace.
There is the example from the University of Hertfordshire of a post doc researcher required to give lectures. His duties involved some marking. After marking his students and giving appropriate feedback, the module leader edited his marking to fit what is termed ‘normal distribution’. This is what he says:
“I rebelled and continued to give useful and accurate marks. The module leader decided to change the mark allocation guidelines again. I continued to mark the reports 'properly’, in the same manner as I did for the first one. Every time I did, the module leader created a new mark allocations sheet, which showed an artificially created normal distribution of marks for each lab report. At the end of the year he showed this to the department as evidence for successful teaching.” Socialist Appeal, September 2007.
Over a period of time some students saw an increase in the marks they received, yet a lowering of their grade as the module leader fiddled the grade-boundary in order to achieve ‘normal distribution’. In terms of marketability from the universities’ point of view, too many high grades would make the course look too easy. Whereas too many low grades makes the university look incompetent. A few good grades, a few bad, and a majority of average marks is the best condition for making sure the university has enough ‘bums on seats’ the following year.
Normal distributions are an abstract mean average, meaning that in reality we will have excellent students who are denied the best grade through no fault of their own, and also less competent students who have nevertheless been awarded a degree that does not match their ability. The post doc researcher concluded:
“Just recently I heard a speech of our vice-chancellor in which he said that he doesn't call all the departments’ academic schools anymore but rather business units, that students are not students anymore, but customers. And then it dawned on me. Each student has to pay the university fee. Therefore, they expect a good service and, in terms of a university, this service should be an education.
“Unfortunately, we have nowadays a slight misconception of a good education and think that a high mark in an exams or the degree is an index for a good education. But experiencing how marks are actually made up, only for the university to look good and therefore acquire more students for the next year, this seems to me not the best indication if someone learnt something or not.”
Like the best secondary schools, the universities most in demand are able to choose the most able pupils, which reinforce their standing in the nationally published rankings. This has traditionally been the case when it comes to Oxford and Cambridge, who now insist on additional in-house examinations when selecting candidates for certain courses. Rather than serving as a means to overcome inequality, the current system reinforces it. Under capitalism the education system mirrors the society it serves.
Universities are being sold to the highest bidder in terms of corporate sponsorship. Thus in Cambridge they have a Shell chair in Chemical Engineering; an ICI chair in Applied Thermodynamics; BP professorships in Organic Chemistry and Petroleum Science; a Glaxo chair of Molecular Parasitology; a Unilever chair of Molecular Science; a PriceWaterhouse chair of Financial Accounting and a Marks and Spencer chair of Farm Animal Health and Food Science. In this situation the objectivity of the scientist becomes dependent on the interests of capitalism, and his findings the corporation’s property. Research is directed at where profits are anticipated, not for social need. As the government makes cuts in education in order to finance the deficit created to bail out the banks, so the universities will become more dependent on private funding to survive.
What we demand:
- Oppose the internal market and selection in education. Abolish Ofsted and league tables that distort education.
- Provide investment for existing state schools to increase educational standards. Bring all private schools into the public sector.
- Big business out of education! Break the control of big business over education. Replace it with representatives of students, teachers and the labour movement.
Throughout the country there is a general attack taking place against education in the form of course cuts, cuts in student service and staff redundancies. This is part of the broader picture of deficits running across the whole of the public sector. The question must be asked: why should students and staff pay for the economic crisis not of their making with job losses and education cuts?
This is a crisis of capitalism – a classic capitalist crisis of overproduction as described by Marx more than 100 years ago. The crisis has been worsened by an over-extension of credit over the last period. This gave capitalism a temporary breathing space after the crises of the 1970s and 80s, at the cost of eventually a deeper and more severe crisis. Today we have entered a new period of austerity and crisis. This is the type of crisis described by Marx over 150 years ago.
The New Labour government has been forced to nationalise certain banks which were on the verge of collapse, but has fallen over itself to say it will not interfere with their running. Given the vast sums of public money that have been given to the banks, this makes no sense. Rather than take over the big banks, writing off the debts at the shareholders expense and sacking all bank management responsible, the government recompensed the shareholders and kept most of the managers in place. The noise about limiting salaries and bonuses has been show for what it is - merely window dressing. The bonuses for top bankers this year increased 40% on Xmas 2008. As the Guardian stated:
“Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street bank that makes rivals green with envy, is gearing up for the end-of-year bonus season. Its giveaway fund is £10bn and rising, meaning that bankers will score an average £323,000 (emphasis on average; plenty of the traders will walk if they do not pocket far more). Just a year after the crisis that nearly toppled Wall Street, this is set to be the bank's biggest bonus season ever. Those green shoots in the wider economy may still be hard to spot, but the greenbacks are certainly raining down on a chosen few.” Editorial, The Guardian, 16th October, 2009
While this type of obscenity goes unchallenged by the New Labour government (apart from their pitiful tax on bankers’ bonuses) all parties have come forward with demands to cut public spending. Therefore local councils are preparing a massacre in their new budgets of cuts between 20 and 40%. The rise in unemployment meant a record university intake in September 2009. Young people decided that finding work would be a fruitless waste of time, even if it was just for a year’s break between A-levels and Higher Education.
Of the 600,000 school leavers that applied to university, 170,000 were turned down after the government placed a cap on the expansion of places because of ‘budget restraints’. These are the same budget restraints that bail-out the banks and big business and let jobs in Corus Steel, Woolworths, Visteon and many others go to the wall, resulting in tens of thousands ending up on the scrap heap. These young people will join the 1 in 8 of all 16-18 year-olds that are not in education, employment or training.
At the University of Sussex the top 20 directors earn £2.6m and the Vice-Chancellor has just had a pay rise to £277,000. Yet in December management announced 115 redundancies, including cuts to student services. They are targeting the cuts at courses perceived as adding little value to the real economy such as life Sciences, Human Sciences, History, English and undergraduate foreign language programmes. This is akin to Thatcher’s dream of closing down Sociology and Philosophy courses nationwide in the 1980s - seeing them as the breeding ground of left-wing politics - in favour of ‘economically useful’ education.
The pressure on Further and Higher Education comes from the cuts instigated by the government that must make savings to finance the unprecedented deficit left behind by the crisis of capitalism. At the same time the decimation of British industry over a period of 40 years has left its scar upon society, and consequently in education. The conversion of the Polytechnics into Universities at the beginning of the 1990s was designed as a response to Britain’s decline from an industrial power to a service and renter economy. Rather than producing our wealth from the surplus created in production, we were supposed to maintain ourselves by ‘opening doors for each other’. This shift was the inevitable result of the de-industrialisation that took place under the Thatcher government. The virtual disappearance of apprenticeships is the legacy of this destruction of industry.
As a result the amount of young people going on to do A-levels, and afterwards to university, has never been higher. While it must be welcomed that young people are staying longer in education, it is clear that for many this is because of the lack of any other alternative. In Britain you only receive full minimum wage at 22 years old. This is supposedly in order to give young people with little experience a ‘competitive edge’ in the workplace. However it is clear that having a staggered wage system only benefits the boss who can pit young workers against old. Many who leave education at 16 end up working in low-paid jobs with unsociable hours and little opportunity to develop their skills. In these workplaces, such as Tesco, McDonalds and J.D. Wetherspoon, trade union presence is virtually non-existent.
Corresponding investment in Higher Education has not followed the rise in university applicants. This means that the ratio of lecturers to undergraduates has doubled in the past 30 years from 1:9 to 1:18. As with any part of the education system, the more a teacher or lecturer has to divide their time between students, the less attention can be given to each individual student. When it comes to secondary education the result has been that teachers have had to devote much of their classroom time to ‘policing’ a class. At university level this may not be the case, yet it has been clearly shown time and again that smaller classrooms yield better performances from both teachers and students.
The total cuts to Further and Higher education stand at the beginning of 2010 at over £1billion. The UCU has stated that within 2 to 3 years this could result in some of the biggest university classes in the world. With the Institute of Fiscal studies predicting this figure may top £2.5billion, the UCU says this could wipe out 30 universities, send 14,000 academic staff to the back of the dole queue and effectively bring ‘education to its knees’. This is in order for the government to meet its target of halving the budget deficit by 2013.
Rather than staff redundancies, investment in more university staff is clearly required in order to boost standards. Yet this does not fall under the logic of capitalism.
Recent struggles at the London College of Communication, where students have gone into occupation as part of a campaign to oppose planned cuts, show that students are already beginning to fight back against the increasing threat of funding cuts, whilst the strikes at the University of Westminster by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) indicate that students are not alone in their fight for free and improved education. This follows on from large student protests all over Europe, such as the mass demonstrations and occupations taking place in universities across Austria.
What we demand:
- No course closures. For a massive expansion of courses in FE and HE institutes.
- No redundancies. Reduce class sizes at schools and universities – invest in staff.
- No attacks on services – student support, nursery and day care facilities must be maintained and expanded.
Since New Labour came to power in 1997 it has abolished grants, introduced tuition fees and student loans, and from 2006 introduced top-up fees of £3,200 per year. Now they have launched a “higher education finance review” to look into raising the cap on tuition fees (possibly up to £7000 per year) and examine the way in which universities should be funded. The appointment of Lord Browne, a friend of Lord Mandelson and former chief of the multinational oil-giant BP, to chair the fees review has not done anything to encourage university students, who already face the prospect of an accumulated debt of over £23,000 upon graduation. This rise in top-up fees will hit most heavily those students who do not come from affluent homes and those who will not go into highly paid jobs. Again the logic is for students to avoid courses that do not have lucrative careers at the end of them. The logic of ‘supply and demand’ therefore creates more courses opening up in business and finance and less in humanities, teaching and the caring professions, for example.
The initial proposal for the board of the fees review did not include any representative voice for students. However after pressure from the National Union of Students (NUS), a solitary student representative was placed on the board. This token gesture will have no effect when face with review board that is whole-heartedly pro-business. Other members of the seven-strong panel including an executive of McKinsey (a management consultancy firm), the chief executive of Standard Chartered (the fourth biggest bank in the UK), and a former economics editor of The Independent and civil servant at the Treasury.
To compensate for lack of government funding in the face of pressures to meet targets on recruitment, university heads are increasingly treating their institutions as commercial businesses and their students as a source of profit. The LSE student magazine, ‘The Beaver’, reported how shocked students were when referred to as “loss-making” at a students’ union meeting by LSE director Howard Davies. A new breed of university heads look to students as part of their business plans, milking the lucrative overseas student market.
To see students as cost-effective only in terms of whether their fees cover the cost of their education is completely short-sighted. What about the contribution the student will make to the economy and society at large as a result of their qualifications? The Association of University Teachers (now UCU) leaflet from 2001 quoted a report that showed how £100 spent in Higher Education generated a further £73 in the economy as a whole. Society needs doctors, teachers, social workers, scientists, technicians and other qualified people.
Those from lower income groups who do enter higher education tend to go to the least prestigious institutions with the highest drop-out rates. So any increase in top-up fees must be opposed. In 2004 the government only got top-up fees passed by 5 votes – 316 to 311 – for a government that had a majority of 161, such was the scale of opposition within the Parliamentary Labour Party. There should be a return to public funding to ensure that all those who can benefit from higher education should be able to attend. Education should be seen as an investment for life not a profit making activity or something decided by the market place.
In the period before the economic crisis, 87% - almost 9 in 10 students – relied on a job to survive the academic year. With the rise in unemployment this figure seems to have dropped slightly. Yet this does not excuse the fact that students everywhere will be feeling the pinch and desperately looking for a job whilst studying, adding extra stress to their studies. According to a Nat West bank study in 2007 a third of students who also work to support themselves ended up skipping lectures.
The NUS leadership proposes a “graduate tax” as the solution to higher education funding. This position again implies that graduates are the only ones who benefit from their education and neglects the fact that business and industry rely on a stream of well-educated workers in order for the economy and the country to function.
What we demand:
- Opposition to the raising of the cap on top-up fees. Abolish top-up fees.
- Abolish all student debt, giving graduates a decent start to life.
- The immediate abolition of all student fees and the introduction of a living grant for all students who qualify for Higher Education.
As any recent graduate will tell you, even if education was free and university leavers were not left with a mountain of debt to pay, young people leaving university must still contend with the prospect of finding a job at a time when there is a near universal freeze on graduate recruitment. For every 1 graduate job being advertised today there an average of 48 graduates chasing it. The only apparent silver lining is that graduate starting salaries will marginally increase this year because employers will focus on cherry picking students from the “elite” Russell Group Universities. Which is great of course, unless you are one of the many equally qualified students with a degree from a “lesser” institution. For most graduates the prospect of temping or unemployment looms large.
Surveys show that the number of graduate vacancies in Britain have fallen by 25% this year, a statistic that is exacerbated by the fact that graduates are not only fighting for a smaller number of jobs, but are also competing with more experienced workers who have recently been made unemployed. The government’s response to youth unemployment (now at 17%) is through a number of measures that clearly do nothing more than paper over the cracks.
One of the main proposals is to create thousands of unpaid apprenticeships and internships, in order to give young people the experience of working that they lack. The unpaid nature of this work means that either it will only be available to those from wealthy backgrounds, who have the privilege of parental support, or it will require young people to amass yet more debt. Meanwhile, the companies that employ people in these unpaid, temporary jobs are still charging clients for the work done by interns. Business is able to get away with this as apparently the minimum wage does not apply to jobs that are for “training purposes”. Internships, therefore, amount to nothing more than a clever way for businesses to increase profits by using unpaid youth to do the work that would otherwise be done by a (minimally) paid worker. The temporary nature of this apprenticeship work, meanwhile, prevents workers from organising and unionising, thus further reducing their power to demand better pay or conditions.
It hardly needs to be said that capitalism has completely failed today’s youth, and the government – by defending the system - has done nothing to make matters better. The safety-net of the welfare state has been eroded through years of counter-reforms. Job-seekers allowance comes to about £50 a week for under-25’s who are then shifted onto the New Deal after 6 months (18 months for over-25s). So they come off the official unemployed statistics for training, and then onto “workfare” which can amount as little as £1.73 per hour full-time for 6 months.
The government has responded to the growing crisis in graduate unemployment in their characteristic way: by making headline grabbing proposals that sound good but do nothing to address their real needs. David Lammy, the higher education minister, has unveiled a plan to subsidise 500 Gap Years abroad for graduates – there’s nothing like exporting the problem! That is the traditional Tory solution to employment – force the jobless to emigrate. That means for those who can afford to stump up £1000 the government will throw in another £2000 for them to go off and have a year’s holiday abroad. And when the graduates return? The IMF believes that the economy will continue to shrink in 2010 by (0.4%), so unemployment will continue to increase and things will be even worse when they get back.
Another idea of the New Labour government is to pay business a subsidy of £1000 for every young person they employ. Whilst this may encourage companies to employ more youth, it does not prevent them from laying-off other workers. A company, therefore, could sack 100 higher-earning older workers; replace them with 100 lower-earning young workers, and net £100,000 of tax-payers money from the government in the process!
The government is looking to raise the compulsory age at which people can leave school, and to encourage more people to take up further training and education. This does nothing but delays the problem and dumps it on the next government, creating an even larger fight for jobs further down the line. Creating a more educated and well-trained pool of workers does nothing if there are no jobs for them to work in. Unless more jobs are created, all that will happen is an intensification of the current fight for a limited supply of jobs.
It would be a mistake, however, to blame the cause of all these problems on New Labour. The government, whether it is New Labour or Tory, is merely the representative of big-business and the ruling class. The real culprit behind unemployment (both of youth and of workers in general) is the capitalist system, which runs in the interest of profit and not people. Under capitalism, jobs will only be created if there is money to be made for the fat-cats, and education will only be run in the interest of big-business.
Despite the ineptitude of the New Labour government, Brown has accused the Tories of being a ‘do-nothing’ party. Very true, and there’s a reason they are keeping quiet about their plans if they return to power: they intend to take a hatchet to public spending and young people will be the first in the firing line. Cameron has already said he intends to do away with the ‘something for nothing’ culture which exists when it comes to Welfare. He is of course invited to try and live off £45 a week and keep his moat clean too. In the shadow of the expenses scandal last summer the cheek beggars belief!
The existence of millions of unemployed, who desperately want to work, is testament to the fact that capitalism has outlived its usefulness. The reason that millions are unemployed is that industry under capitalism cannot run at full capacity and remain profitable. In times of boom only 80% of productive capacity can be used, while in a slump it is a mere 65%. If all productive capacity was nationalised and planned in the interests of ordinary people then this would guarantee full employment and produce extra wealth that could finance decent services and better education.
What we demand:
- The right to work! For real employment or decent benefits upon graduation.
- No to temporary or unpaid “training” jobs – young people want paid, permanent work!
- A massive expansion of training schemes and apprenticeships under trade union control.
The Student Movement
In the past, those who looked to the NUS leadership for support would find very little other than a bureaucratic, right-wing layer of careerists. The most recent NUS policy was that it would oppose any removal of the cap on top-up fees, but would no longer solely argue for free education. At the 2008 NUS Conference, NUS President Wes Streeting claimed that, "Just shouting 'free education' will not work". The abandonment of any pretence of an opposition to student fees has been accompanied by a steady erosion of democracy within the union.
This situation has led many student activists to become disillusioned with the NUS and has resulted in various campaigns for a new, more democratic student union. This has arisen particularly in Sussex University, which is a place long known for a high levels of student activism. In so far as we think a more democratic, fighting national union is needed, we are sympathetic to such calls. However, it is not sufficient to merely recognise a symptom, or even the root of the problem itself. This is important, but it is only one side of the task and by itself such an attitude has been shown to be inadequate for solving the problems of students. If we are serious about this, we must understand why the NUS is like this and, in considering this, on what basis we may establish a fighting, democratic students union. Socialist Appeal supporters inside the NUS do not think that those student activists calling for a new NUS have not taken into account the history and conditions of the student movement and, as a result, are mistaken in their conclusions. The struggle for a democratic and fighting students union must take place.
The contradiction between the mood and conditions of students and the NUS leadership is great. In fact, it would be difficult for the chasm to be much greater. The leadership is living in the past. If they do not respond to the mood they can easily find themselves being replaced. The question is what do we, as student activists, do in this situation? It is certainly not by setting up a completely separate and new NUS with an ideal constitution, which would in reality be empty and even more removed from the mass of students it claims to represent.
First of all we must be realistic and take into account the fact that the NUS is a very peculiar union indeed. Not only do most of its members (of which there are many millions) have membership for only three years, but they also generally become members when they are very young. As well as this, the NUS is not one union, but quite a loose federation of many small students unions. This means that students are generally quite unaware of their leadership, what to expect from a union, and how to participate in the NUS. This also means that the traditions are weaker. Students are also generally members automatically, unlike other unions. This means they have not actively chosen to participate in the union, or been recruited through some campaign.
The fact that university is supposed to be the place where people lay the basis for a career is also part of the reason why there is so much careerism in the student movement, a phenomenon we are all opposed to. In addition, the looseness of the NUS and the right-wing nature of the student leadership, means that sectarianism is ever-present in the student movement. It would be dangerous to fall into this trap and for student activists to separate themselves from the mass of students.
For these reasons a broad analysis of the student movement is important. Patience is also vital if we are to build this movement. This will ensure that we do not slip into sectarianism and cut ourselves off from the mass of students, looking for quick solutions and eventually growing frustrated and giving up.
Many times it has been said that the mood of the students is like a barometer of society, anticipating the coming radicalisation of the labour movement. This is because students are free from the burdens of the past, are often engaged in the questioning of our society in their studies, and tend to have more free time than workers. Although the latter factor is being significantly undermined by more and more students having to work (indeed, the vast majority of students work part-time in term time, just to cover basic expenses and to avoid slipping into too much debt), this also means that as well as most students now coming from a working class background, most suffer some of the worst exploitation in a workplace.
In this way, students are involved more and more in the problems of working life. And thanks to the unprecedented economic attacks students are facing since the introduction of top-up fees and withdrawal of grants, both of which effectively went unchallenged by the NUS leadership, students are consequently painfully aware of the crisis of employment which affects them most severely. Finally, students are deeply affected by the housing crisis, since they are forced into some of the worst housing conditions under the control of some of the most crooked landlords. These are all problems faced by students en masse, and the distance between the ideal of student life, and the reality, is causing deep anxiety and underlying discontent.
We have already stated that there is a vast chasm between the leadership of the NUS and those they claim to represent. Part of the reason for this, as was said, is the aspects of careerism inherent in areas of student life. Clearly a small layer of students desire a career in politics and the NUS is the best existing platform for their ambitions. By and large, they do not care about the NUS itself, of have any real understanding of students’ interests – it is historical accident that the platform for their future careers is in a union.
But why are such people elected to represent students, if they do not care about them? It would be completely wrong to say that students are right wing – for one thing those elected do not run on a right-wing platform (they could hardly say ‘vote for me and I will do nothing about top-up fees’), generally they run on “leftist” programmes, that they invariably fail to carry out. Why are they allowed to get away with it with so little fuss - and why do more or less the same individuals get elected again the following year?
One fact stares us in the face – the absence of the mass participation of students in their own union. A student’s time is limited, and thanks to a heavy workload and having to work to pay the bills, he or she will most likely keep their head down for the duration of university, whatever they think about their conditions. It is also true that students have been progressively alienated by the weakness of their own leaders, who inspire no confidence in the students at all.
Furthermore, students affected by the situation in society as a whole – if the working class is relatively passive, this atmosphere will pervade society and in turn universities. It is very difficult for students to win serious reforms without the participation of workers in their struggle, because these reforms are tied up with the political and economic condition of society as a whole – for instance, the return of grants would require a massive increase in education spending for all, and an end to the problems of housing would require a national programme of house building. However, it should be added that the increasing participation of students in work increases the likelihood at a certain stage of a mass student-worker movement for change.
All attempts to set up a rival and more radical NUS are doomed to failure. If the current leadership is the expression, and not the cause, of the withdrawal of students, then no amount of left-wing electoral combinations, organised completely independently of a mass student movement, will have any effect.
This is to say nothing of the bankrupt attempt to set up a new NUS independently of the mass of students in the hope that they will later see sense and join. In reality a new student union established without their involvement or consent will inevitably pass by the majority of students unnoticed. We must add that when the students do move en masse, it will be because they need to, to defend and improve their conditions. It will not be because they are disgusted by the right-wing leadership and attracted by the saintly appearance of an untarnished-because-unused alternative student’s union.
We are in complete agreement with other activists over the disastrous state of NUS democracy following the governance review, which was passed at an ‘extraordinary conference’. These rules will certainly make our tasks harder, mainly because the leadership will hide behind the rules and the ‘advice’ of the ‘experts’ that are now called in to tell the NUS to cut its services. Socialist Appeal was completely opposed to the governance review and sees its passing as a step backward.
However, it would be extremely light-minded to give up on the NUS simply on the basis of some bureaucratic rules. Although the new rules may represent a real step back, was not the NUS beforehand not extremely bureaucratic? Why now has it suddenly undergone a qualitative transformation? This is not explained. These activists merely tell us ‘the process of bureaucratisation has become irreversible; we must abandon ship and construct a new organisation!’ We cannot hide behind the rules. Rules can be changed.
The history of the NUS is itself proof of this process. It was formed in 1922 when the majority of students in the Universities were drawn from the wealthy. Generally, students were overwhelmingly hostile to the labour movement, as their behaviour in the General Strike of 1926 demonstrated (bus loads of students were bussed in as strike breakers). The NUS was strictly ‘non-political’, in other words completely accepted the frame-work within which it worked and avoided any criticism of the status quo. It was exclusively concerned with student welfare and conditions in the narrowest context.
The leadership of the NUS saw it as an ‘educational pressure group’ and prided themselves on their good relations with the Department of Education. Needless to say, a position on the NUS Executive was seen as an important stepping stone to a good career in the professions, the civil service or the bureaucracies of the Tory Party, the Labour Party or the trade unions.
But this began to change in the early 1960s. Expansion of higher education drew in not only much larger numbers of students, but students from much wider social strata, including a proportion of working class students. Rapid expansion gave rise to new tension in the universities. At the same time, the students, who can be regarded as a barometer of underlying trends in society, began to sense impending change and to move in unconscious anticipation of a new awakening of the labour movement. This was bound to shake up the student unions and bring changes in the NUS itself.
In 1965 the NUS supported the NUT’s salaries campaign and organised protests against the government’s reactionary White Paper on Immigration, which had serious implications for overseas students. At the same time, there was growing discontent at the undemocratic, bureaucratic structure of the NUS, especially on the part of the new universities and those older universities which had managed to democratise their student unions. How else could an undemocratic union, representing the social composition of the past, transform itself into a democratic one, representing the new social composition?
In 1967 came the most significant development, the formation of the Radical Student Alliance. The RSA was formed against the background of widespread dissatisfaction among students at the NUS. A series of no-confidence votes in the NUS executive was passed in Student Unions throughout the country. Needless to say, many student activists, exasperated with the historical cronyism and careerism of the NUS, abandoned it. But in the end, the NUS was transformed, from within and by a mass student movement, into a more democratic union. There is no reason why this cannot and will not happen in the period opening up.
Since the leadership of the NUS actually represents an adaptation to the status quo, any mass student movement against the status quo must inevitably take the form of a struggle in the NUS itself. Hence the above example of the movement in the NUS in 1967.
This necessitates that activists participate patiently in the NUS (and outside it, where possible) to win the struggle against the present leadership and their governance review.
Many activists, in their frustration, have understandably labelled the NUS a ‘charity’ or ‘pressure group’, rather than a democratic fighting union. We are also told that the NUS means nothing to students now, and that it is little more than a body to get cheaper beer and TopShop discounts. First of, we must point out that, given the financial difficulties and stress of student life, a union which organises social activities and cheaper products is not meaningless to students and should not be abandoned.
Organising independently of the mass of students will lead to a dead end. One cannot create an organisation artificially hoping everyone will leave the NUS and join the new union. Organisations structures are an expression of an already existing membership. In one article, an activist involved in this movement even complains that his motion that the ‘new NUS’ “take on flesh and blood” was not supported! But flesh and blood cannot be created by ink and paper! Unfortunately you cannot simply vote it into existence!
As regards the above statement that the NUS is merely a charity or pressure group, and some sort of consumer’s association, we believe that those who draw this conclusion are making another mistake. It is one for thing for the NUS to be this in the eyes of its current leadership, quite another in the eyes of students. To confuse leadership with organisation as a whole can have dangerous conclusions. According to this logic, the 87% of students who voted against NUS disaffiliation at Sussex (which was the one place this was likely to go through on a left wing basis) are clearly in favour of such benefits, and are therefore a lost cause to activists. Either that or they do not see the NUS as merely a charity, and actually value its mass structure as a powerful tool for student interests. Over the past 20 years more than 30 universities have correctly rejected disaffiliation from the NUS.
In actual fact, it is for precisely this reason that on most campuses the Tories, whilst using the NUS to further their careers, tend to launch campaigns for disaffiliation. They understand that it is a mass organisation, and would prefer it to be weakened, benefiting rich universities and rich students. We cannot align ourselves with such people.
The historic task for the student movement is the building of a fighting union, linked to the labour movement in struggle against privatisation and fees, and for grants and a mass programme of green house building. The conditions and rights of students have criminally been allowed to deteriorate. However we do not want simply to go back to the situation of post-war grants. Although a step forward, this is not enough. We must raise our horizons to what is required.
What we demand:
- No to New Labour and their cronies in the NUS – reclaim the mass organisations and remove the right-wing leadership!
- Day to day running of Colleges by elected representatives of the staff unions and student unions as well as the local labour movement.
- Annual election and the right of immediate recall of all representatives.
- Reject NUS disaffiliation. For a fighting militant union representing students’ interests.
The Future of Education
When the Blair government came to power it did so preaching the mantra ‘Education, Education, Education!’ For the majority of those children who entered the education system in 1997, whether they are now looking for work or are planning to continue their studies, they are faced with a system in crisis.
The whole situation demands that students struggle with workers nationally and internationally to resist the attacks and prepare the way for the overthrow capitalism and transformation of society. The experiences in Europe of 1968, and the recent university and factory occupations throughout Europe and the world, show that this is possible if we adopt the right strategy and tactics. Ultimately, the struggle for this movement lies within the NUS and the mass workers organisations in Britain, the trade unions and the party they created, the Labour Party. It is the mass of the students and workers that will transform and reclaim their organisations.
The present crisis of capitalism has destroyed the ruling classes’ capacity to develop education in the interests of the mass of workers and young people. The present generation are the best educated job-seekers in history.
The ultimate goal of education should be the improvements in science and technique and with that the increased leisure time available for the mass of the population to participate in and further the development of art, literature, philosophy and the many other cultural achievements of mankind. However under capitalism the discoveries of science are not used to further the cause of the human race, but to lay-off worker and replace them with machinery and develop ever more devastating weapons of warfare.
Tom Mann, in fighting for an eight hour day in 1891 said: “…the demands we, as workmen, now make, is for leisure to think, to learn, to acquire knowledge, to enjoy, to develop; in short, leisure to live.”
Under socialism, with society under the democratic control of working people, the vision of Tom Mann, one of the founders of the organised labour movement, could become a reality. Education could become a life-long process; a tool to eliminate ignorance and raise the aspirations and dignity of humankind to newer heights.
What we demand:
- A fully funded and fully comprehensive education system under local democratic control. Keep big business out of our schools and colleges.
- Open further and higher education to all. Free access for all to Further and Higher education. Scrap tuition fees. No to student loans. For a living grant for all 16 to 18 year olds in schools, education or training. For a living grant for all undergraduates.
- Break with the anarchy of capitalism! None of the reforms outlined in this document can be implemented in a sustained way without the socialist transformation of society. For a socialist plan of production based on the nationalisation of the top monopolies under democratic workers control.