So the National Union of Students has called a national demonstration. Its hard not to be cynical about it. Those who took part in the demonstrations of 2010 probably had the same initial reaction as me to #demo2012: too little, too late. Why bother marching?
#demo2012 is about more than fees
This isn’t 2010 anymore and the situation has changed. A familiar pattern has emerged in government policy, of which Higher Education is a central pillar. The sense of crisis that the financial crash created, concentrated on government finances, has been wielded as a justification for attacks on public services.
As the first 9k cohort of students enters university, they will not be citizens enjoying a universal right, rather consumers making a subprime investment in their own human capital. Any doubt about the use of the word “subprime” can be dispelled by a glance at the graduate unemployment figures.
Hailed by some as “bold and radical”, the governments plans for education, as manifest in the HE White Paper, are in fact a continuation of a 30 year old consensus. As G4S are hired to run prisons, ATOS makes huge profits ruining people’s lives and NHS trusts prepares to sell off services to private contractors, so too does the government court those who would run universities for profit.
None of this started with the coalition. It is merely a continuation of the New Labour supply side reform, which itself was rooted in the ideas of Margaret Thatcher. This was never about saving money. It has been about an ideological transformation of education from a universal right into a consumer product and shifting debt from the state to individuals.
The Higher Education Policy Institute in a recent report came to the startling conclusion that the new student loans policy only adds up by assuming male graduates will earn in the future an average wage of £99,500. It may even turn out to be the case that 9k fees are more expensive than the old 3k fees system. Even the architect of the original top-up fee system Nick Barr has branded it “a crap policy” and “an accounting wheeze.”
This political future is far from inevitable. The coalition is weaker than it was two years ago, and fears taking on students. Nothing highlights the fractures between its two constituent parties more than universities, once a Lib Dem power base, and no policy has yet been met with such sustained opposition. Legislation that was planned for this year has been delayed and the situation is in limbo.
I’m not asking anyone to put all their faith in the NUS. Nor do I expect anyone to believe a walk through London is going to trigger some huge policy change in itself. Least of all do I expect anyone to fall in behind the “we are one nation” Labour party. I am as bored as everyone else of slick manifesto promises that get conveniently forgotten at the first whiff of power.
What I will argue is for students to autonomously organise for their own interests, both within and beyond our union. Recently students in Quebec defeated a planned fee rise, and toppled their provincial government with a sustained strike and radical protests.
Chilean students continue to be an inspiration as they raise the demand for a Higher Education open to everyone, and in the act of doing so expose the very foundations of vicious inequality that still pervades their society.
Both these movements recognised a key point: the imposition of fees & debt onto university students, and access to university, is a class issue. The ideology that justifies fees is the same that maintains such high youth unemployment, allows profit to be made from healthcare and strips us of rights at work.
Only by raising our demands for education together and in solidarity with the wider cause of the organised working class can we affect national politics in a meaningful way.
Soyez réaliste, demandez l’impossible!
In the UK we are a long way from achieving movements of such magnitude, but who would have thought the movement of 2010 was possible? Just briefly students punctured the seeming invincibility of the dull consensus, and provided a real challenge to the authority of the political class.
In the face of weasel words about ‘diversity of providers’ and ‘changing education landscape’ we can stand up for the basic principle: education that benefits everyone in society, is accessible to everyone in society and is paid for by everyone in society.
As Guild President Sam Butler told students at the beginning of the semester, marching is an empowering experience. Politics stops becoming something you complain about in the pub; you become an actor; participating not spectating.
The time is right for students to raise their voice again. Bring on #demo2012.
James is a socialist activist and member of University of Liverpool Against Fees & Cuts. In addition to editing the LSMedia news section he contributes to Liverpool Education Activist.