In preparation for the National Free Education Demo in London on November 15th, the Guild hosted a rally last Friday (November 10th) organised by Vice-President Rory Hughes. Four speakers came to the Guild to ask ‘what is to be done?’, discussing the barriers students face in order to achieve the abolition of tuition fees and other problems universities in the UK currently face including the marketisation of education and the increasing mental health crisis.
Will Stronge, co-founder and editor of the think tank ‘Autonomy’. He is an associate lecturer in philosophy at the University of Chichester and a researcher in politics at the university of Brighton.
Hope Worsdale, current President of Warwick Students’ Union and member of the National Committee of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC).
Holly Rigby, a secondary school teacher in South East London and currently studying for an MA in Education Policy at King’s College London. She is an activist with Momentum, the grassroots Labour movement.
Jenny Nelson, a campaigner from the Jubilee Debt Campaign, a charity which completes specialist research on student debt.
The Q&A portion of the event was livestreamed by LSRadio:
Following the rally I had the chance to interview Holly, Hope and Will on some issues I feel are of particular interest to students:
The Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn
Was Jeremy Corbyn’s policy on abolishing tuition fees clear enough in the general election? (I.e. whether he’d cancel fees for current students, when it would come into effect, how they’d cost it).
Holly Rigby: I think if you look at the turnout of 18-24 year olds I would argue that he did make it clear for the people who matter. So I think that the media conversation around it not being well costed, about there being confusion whether he’s cancelling all debt, I think that is all it is: media chitchat. Because the numbers show in every category under the age of 44, they voted Labour. People know what Jeremy Corbyn stands for its just that its much easier to try to distort than to challenge the ideas.
Will Stronge: Labour have the only fully costed manifesto. It’s important to keep that in mind. They did quite well in attacking this myth that the left in general are economically a bit loose, when actually you can see exactly all the costings and it was actually the Tories that fell down there.
Hope Worsdale: I’m far far more interested in politicians records – what they actually have done and are doing – rather than one random interview being spun by the right wing media. Jeremy Corbyn is an MP that has consistently, literally for decades, been on the side of students, and consistently argued for free education and consistently argued against tuition fee rises. So something’s been whipped up and it’s a really desperate attempt from people that are not allies of students whatsoever; for them to say ‘this man, he’s mislead you’, it’s rubbish.
I don’t think people fall for it. Jeremy Corbyn has undergone probably the most intense character assassination in the media of any high-profile politician, possibly ever. And I think at every point, a lot of people in the movement and even I were like ‘oh shit, this is going to be the end of Corbyn’ because they’re framing him to be a terrorist sympathiser, but it didn’t work. People saw through it.
Students saw through it, but do older voters?
Holly: Listen, we are kind of talking like we won the general election. We didn’t win! It was a good campaign but the Tories are still in power. But they are absolutely in crisis on every measure: in the cabinet, on Theresa May’s leadership, on Brexit, on all social policy. So I think that we definitely are on the ascendency but you are right there are massive portions of British society that we need to win over if we’re going to form a majority government, that is true. But look what we did in six weeks. There were 26 points between TM and JC at the beginning of the general election and look how that gap narrowed, it was the biggest turnaround of any Labour party politician since the 1940s or something insane like that. So with another however long we’ve got until the next general election, which I happen to think is going to be happening sooner rather than later, we’ve got work to do. We need to be going to Stoke, we need to be going to all these places: Middlesbrough, these kind of post-industrial towns and winning arguments there because we’re not winning there.
Will: It’s interesting to think about if an election was called with a larger run up compared to the six week one, which went so badly for the Conservatives that they then said ‘we weren’t ready for the snap election’ which they called themselves. If an election was called with a longer run up then we’d have seen really what mobilised grass roots campaigning could do. That’s an interesting prospect considering that within six weeks, what I initially was thinking was going to be an absolute travesty – I’m just being honest! – ended up being, particularly for our generation, quite an exciting, perhaps the most exciting, moment for us, despite it being a loss.
What are your thoughts on Brexit and its implications for Universities?
Hope: I think we just basically don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of student recruitment and whether EU students are going to continue to come and study in the UK. There’s this really interesting debate going on which I actually find very difficult because at the moment we’ve got EU students paying nine grand which is the same as home students and for non-EU international students its like 15 grand, 20 grand, even higher in a lot of universities and so there’s currently a debate happening in the sector about what happens when we leave the EU? Those former EU students, will they then be treated the same as none EU-international students, will there fees go up? And obviously that’ll have an impact on funding for universities.
Holly: I think lots of the things that people were concerned about Brexit was around tuition fees for EU students and things like Erasmus as well, losing that opportunity. But I think if we’re going to make the argument that all people everywhere should be able to attend the universities they want to go to and be able to travel, we need to expand that to international students. Why is that EU students should be privileged above and beyond international students? And the debate around Brexit can sometimes be a bit limiting, that we’re still talking in terms of borders, we’re still talking in terms of ‘we want the EU to be a privileged body where people can move freely and access universities’ but if we’re going to be genuine in our response as socialists we need to talk about what does that mean for people who are outside of fortress Europe? What does that mean for international students from the developing world who want to come here to study and be able to move freely?
Are you completely convinced by the link between rising mental health issues in Universities and rising tuition fees? Is it the main reason or are there other factors to consider?
Hope: I think it’s one of the reasons. I think capitalism is essentially the reason. There is quite undeniable evidence that shows a correlation between the marketisation of education and worsening conditions of mental health but I definitely wouldn’t say that it’s the sole driver. We live in an ill society, that is just the reality of living in this country. And I think that there are many many factors that contribute to that and marketisation of education is one, I don’t know if it’s the only one but it is definitely a factor.
Will: This plays out in the poll which Jenny was talking about [on student’s expressing their mental health concerns]. It would be interesting to see if there was a similar poll done in 1996, before tuition fees, if there was a general increase as tuition fees went up to see the correlation.
Holly: Well there has, cases of anxiety and depression have trebled since the 1980s. Literally from the point where neoliberalism started, mental health is just increasing and I think that mental health is so complex because you have big social factors, like tuition fees, but then you have the individual experience of them. And the problem that we have right now is that a lot of the time when we’re addressing mental health we’re focusing a lot on stigma and not being able to talk about it, which is really important, but at the same time we’re not really addressing the key issue because its putting the blame on the individual like ‘you’re anxious’ , ‘you’re depressed’, ‘you need counselling’: an individual response to essentially what is a collective problem like tuition fees is a collective problem. We can’t alleviate these pressures on people just by focusing on individuals and their mental health. I think we need to have a dual response to it, which is addressing people’s real lived experience with their mental health but we do need to ask these bigger questions as well about tuition fees and about capitalism essentially. Lots of studies have shown that the most unequal countries in the world have the highest rates of mental health and addiction, there’s empirical evidence that bears that out. So we need to talk about all those things, but it would be far too simplistic to say tuition fees cause mental health.
Will: It’s important to think about the social context and political economic context. Historically, if you think about post-war, this golden age of welfare state capitalism, was essentially the age where the most brutal effects of capitalism were somehow ameliorated by social protections in a certain way. So wages were higher, the trade unions were getting stronger so they could bargain for better conditions and there was a settlement. As Holly was saying, from the 80s onwards in particular we then start getting the erosion of these settlements basically, the erosion of these social protections which are the backdrop for the mental health crisis. And individualisation which comes with an illiberal ideology, which comes from the 80s onwards really has said that ‘these problems are your own’. Tuition fees and the marketization of education, which is neoliberal policy, is further compounding more of the burden upon individuals and also getting rid of the idea of education as a collective good. All of these things seem to tie in to ground these social problems.
Tickets for the coach travel to the National Free Education Demo are still available through the guild website until 9am November 13th. It’s £10 for a seat with a £5 deposit returned to you on the coach.