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Scrapping grants will inspire another wave of student protests – how can they win?

Student funding changes will hit the poor hardest and transfer wealth upwards. Kate Bradley looks to campaigns around the world for lessons of successful resistance

August 3, 2015
11 min read

Fees2010AnthonyBennisonStudents protested the tuition fee rise in 2010 but lost momentum after, what will be the response to the Tories’ latest proposals? (Photo: Anthony Bennison, Flickr)

In 2010, the student activists who occupied Conservative HQ at the tuition fee protests were shocked by the prospect of average student debts rising to £27,000 a head. By now, we are numbed by the familiarity of austerity policies, and no riots followed George Osborne’s announcement of further changes to education funding earlier this month.  But that does not mean the proposed new policies are any less nasty. In fact, the replacement of grants with loans is one of the most insidious and unjust education policies yet.

The main progressive argument against the change has been that it will put working-class students off applying to university, slowing social mobility. This argument is valuable but it is mostly speculative and not always backed up by the facts.

Research by the Independent Commission on Fees has suggested that tuition fees have not been as large a deterrent as expected to applicants from lower-income backgrounds. Though it appears counterintuitive, it is possible that the seemingly-reasonable conditions on loans have made them less of a worry to new students. Plus, of course, in this system students can replace struggle in the job market now with a struggle to repay debt later—an appealing deferral of responsibility during periods of widespread unemployment. Whatever the reason, the idea of loans-as-deterrent is not the most robust argument against them.

For anti-capitalists, there is a much stronger line of reasoning. Under the proposed system, those who cannot rely on families’ financial support, or who live in more expensive cities, will have to take out larger maintenance loans than ever before. Due to interest rates, this will lead to poorer students repaying much larger amounts of debt in the long term than those who can afford to pay for living costs and fees upfront. As anti-fees campaigner James Elliott puts it, the interest accrued over time is ‘effectively a charge on the student for being from a low-income family.’ The problem is only exacerbated for poorer students who tend to lack the cultural capital required to enter the elite after graduation.

What is more, if in a few years the Tories privatise the student loan book, as they tried to do in 2013, the money being taken from lower-salaried, more indebted graduates will go straight into the hands of whichever large shareholders the Conservatives select to take control of the debt. This facilitates the long-term movement of money upwards through the class system, ensuring the majority of graduates remain debtors to a few increasingly wealthy creditors. Even if the Government retains ownership of the loan book, their financial model performs the same role that privatisation would: reversing social democratic gains and shoring up the wealth of investors and high-earners.

For many, the reworking of the student loans package barely registers on the Richter scale of austerity measures in Osborne’s budget. But for students—and anyone who values education and its role in critical thought—it is essential we fight it.

The question remains: how do you fight such a relentless Government? The furious response to the 2010 hike in tuition fees was likely absorbed by the Liberal Democrats’ election collapse. But beyond that protests have not been effective, whether in Parliament or on the streets. Now we have a choice: either we follow the usual paths, gathering people to attend demonstrations and leaving it at that, or we stop to consider fresher, more creative strategies.

Learning the lessons

One way to plan the next few years’ resistance is to look to more successful comrades around the world. The Quebec student movement has had considerably more success than our own in challenging attacks on education. In line with other neoliberal governments, Quebec’s Liberals announced a potential tuition fee hike in 2012. The student movement reacted quickly, most notably the group ASSÉ (Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), a radical student union to the left of our National Union of Students (NUS). After they began to protest, the government issued emergency legislation (Bill 78) to stop the resistance. Instead, it triggered huge civil disobedience, especially from students. After months of protest, Bill 78 was reversed, tuition fees frozen, and a groundswell of dissent helped oust the Liberals power in the National Assembly.

Across the pond, British student activists gazed on in amazement, all asking the same questions: how did they do it? How did they mobilise so many people? What could we learn from them?

For some in the UK, the success of Quebec’s student movement appeared to emerge from a unique social context which we could not mimic. Quebec has a historic culture of protest based in student uprisings of 1968. But when I spoke to Jérémie Bédard-Wien, former spokesperson for ASSÉ, he seemed reluctant to accept this essentialist explanation. In his words: “Quebec students are not born revolutionaries.” For Jérémie, the key to success in 2012 was in student activists’ efforts at movement-building before protests began. Many people spent months leafleting, holding democratic meetings and discussions, getting into persuasive arguments with their peers and keeping energy as high as they could.

Just as important, Quebec managed to mobilise outside student circles for their anti-fees protests. Rather than looking on as students rioted, perhaps sympathetic but too out-of-the-loop to join in, workers in Quebec were brought into the struggle through links to trade unions. Neoliberal changes to funding in the education sector (including cuts and privatisation) affect university staff as well as students, especially at the lower end of the payscale. They have reason to be allies in the fight to keep education publicly-funded and indeed some of the largest trade unions joined the protests. Commentator such as Richard Seymour were quick to highlight these relationships. UK students can work towards this same unity by engaging with unions like the UCU, forging links with tutors and support staff who stand against tuition fees, and ensuring our own organising techniques make meetings open and accessible to all, not just students with free afternoons.

One of the most successful tactics in Quebec was the student strike, a strategy that has fallen out of use in British student politics. Bédard-Wien explained that student strikes work by being “economically threatening”. If enough students join in and for long enough, a strike “delays the entry of an entire graduating class into the job market”, forcing seminars to be rescheduled and lecturers paid twice for their work. They also provide a platform where students can organise, by freeing them up to attend discussions and think about ways of advancing the situation. However, student strikes require even larger turnouts than workers’ strikes since students are not withholding labour while they are at university. Their leverage is much longer-term.

Our NUS is unlikely to be the vehicle for delivering this kind of strike. Late last year, they even refused to back a far less radical protest. The inner workings of the NUS do not begin to resemble the direct democracy and grassroots organising that Bédard-Wien advocates. However, the UK does have a student-led group that more closely fits the bill: the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). Established in the wake of the 2010 tuition fee protests, NCAFC comes with less baggage and bureaucracy than the NUS, though it has its own challenges: it is too small as yet to feel properly democratic and conferences are ramshackle and irregular.

Nevertheless, NCAFC members are keen to take on Quebec’s lessons. At a NCAFC annual conference last year, one member proposed student strikes as a viable option for the UK. NCAFC is now beginning to plan for student strikes in the near future – including at its summer training weekend in early September. This is something student activists should consider attending.

Learning the language

Since NCAFC was founded, a country closer to home than Quebec has seen resistance to the idea of tuition fees. In 2014, after just over a decade of charging fees, Germany decided to scrap them, even in conservative southern states like Bavaria. Activist and writer Deborah Hermanns noted that ‘the German student movement won in large part because it kept going and didn’t compromise.’ She suggests that organising around a single, clear demand—‘free education’—is key to maintaining clarity and building support. Anything less can lead to compromises, such as Labour’s £6,000 fee pledge at the last election, a promise which missed the point by accepting the individualistic, market-driven Tory conception of education which student activists fiercely oppose.

Hermanns also suggests that Germany’s student unions are generally more effective structures for working towards change than the UK’s. In Germany, she describes student unions that are still considered political bodies to represent students’ interests, rather than the service providers which UK unions have increasingly become. Perhaps the UK needs a cultural shift, a move to viewing education as a universal right, not a privilege which individuals undertake to advance their careers.

Barbara Kehm, an expert in higher education leadership and strategy, claims that a more socialistic concept of education is strong in Germany—that is, it is seen as a source of collective value which deserves public funding. Maybe much of the work we need to do is on the conceptual level. We must focus on changing minds, challenging the marketised model of education as a means of competitive individual gain, and pointing out the economic flaws and ideological motivations of the new fees system.

This is part of the ‘groundwork’ Bédard-Wien talked about—changing minds and hearts in the wider population. For this task, slogans are not enough. Bédard-Wien told me that ASSÉ partly achieved their goals by carefully considering the language of speeches and manifestos, refusing to fall back simply on the language of left and right which can make movements readily dismissible. ASSÉ focused on how to appeal to a broad audience’s assumptions about the world without conceding any radicalism. Like Podemos and Syriza, they did not fit easily into entrenched political stereotypes. We can learn from this too. Thinking about presentation does not have to be a form of compromise.

A time to think, a time to act

NCAFC have planned a demonstration on Wednesday November 4, which gives the student movement time to ruminate. Undoubtedly, the march will be tense, there will be widespread frustration and a strong desire for direct action. Many will yearn for a repeat of Millbank, hoping for the taste of freedom which destructive resistance can provide—at least temporarily. But we must ask what we want, and indeed what we can get, from disruptive protests.

As Hermanns reminds us: tuition fees are not an inevitability. It doesn’t have to end here. I was disappointed but unsurprised that German students’ tactics seemed so intangible, and that Bédard-Wien did not have any miracle solutions from Quebec. Yet I know there are no miracles in politics. If something seems incredible, someone somewhere probably worked for it. It is time to build, and it is time to think: about student strikes, disruptive protest, organising with unions, changing wider narratives about education and reassessing our own language. These are by no means the only suggestions. What is certain is that we need to come up with something new.

Kate Bradley is a recent graduate and member of NCAFC

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