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University should not be a debt factory

Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

December 5, 2016
11 min read

education-demo-three-women-with-placardsA new wave of students have arrived to combat the ever threatening policies of the Conservative government. For many of the students who attended the 19 November national student protest, it was their first London demonstration. It was a way to show their discontent with the marketisation of their education, as well as the debilitation of colleges and sixth forms as they get stretched to their absolute limits.

With the scrapping of maintenance grants, student loan terms changing and tuition fees set to reach £12,000 by 2026 – students are facing higher debt than ever before. There is already a handful of universities who are listing their fees at £9,250 for September 2017.

The demand from the 15,000 students, lecturers and education staff on the march was clear and unified – free, quality education for all.

Joe Davies, 19, who studies at University of Bath was one of the students who were on their first demonstration. He said: “You can’t make a commodity out of a basic human right. We have a government that tries to maximise profit from what they see as a human resource to drain. They are going to charge for education because we all desperately want education. It’s like a guaranteed money-maker for them.”

no-liberation-without-a-free-eductionThe controversial Higher Education and Research Bill which had its third reading earlier in November, is one tool the government is using to commodify education. Currently being discussed in parliament, it will see universities being effectively privatised as it will allow new private providers, including for-profits, to gain a university title – lowering standards and quality of education.

It is also set to introduce Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which will see universities scored and ranked in a way that allows fees to rise with inflation and under the false notion that it will motivate better teaching. This in turn will mean the ‘better’ universities will be more expensive, driving a wedge further between those who can afford higher fees and those opting for a cheaper option.

Speaking at the rally, Sorana Vieru, NUS Vice President (Higher Education), called for a boycott of the National Student Survey, which will be a key tool used by the government to measure a university’s success, but has a questionable relationship to quality of teaching.

The protest, called for by the National Union of Students and University and College Union, was dubbed United for Education. ‘United’ being an allusion to the divisive consequences we have witnessed post Brexit and Trump and to the racism seen by Theresa May wrongly deporting 48,000 foreign students. Students were sent home under claims of insufficient English speaking levels after Panorama exposed an English speaking scam in 2014. However, there was no evidence that the individuals deported had cheated.

down-with-debt

Further education

The march had a focus on fighting for colleges which have had heavy cuts since the Coalition came in to power, with huge job losses and course closures. Nina Doran, 46, UCU member and teacher at City Liverpool College, said: “Over the last five years all we have seen is cuts that are affecting our students. Traditionally it’s been about jobs for staff but now we are seeing courses being cut and cuts to guided learning hours. They are finding much more sinister ways to make cuts that are not indirectly but directly hitting our students. The student have seen changes like merges and reduced options on their courses and yet they are paying £5,000. They really love their teachers and they’ve seen them being made redundant. The colleges have had a 40 per cent cut. Our college which had 24 sites less than five years ago has been cut to nearly half. I’ve been teaching for 25 years, and you just can’t recognise the college, not just in the size but in the quality of what we do.”

But Nina spoke of resistance from within the college. She said: “Our students are now getting organised and finding their voice. There have been some cuts to the art department and last Monday they were protesting outside one of our sites and made some banners followed by a march.

“It’s about time that you see something like this protest. In 2010 there was a momentum there, but this has been a long time coming. Unions aren’t the most radical of organisations but they need to be. They need to be listening to what students and teachers are saying and do it seriously. I know there is anti-trade union legislation that does hinder us but I think we need to be disobedient and stand next to our students.”

According to the Sixth Form Colleges Association’s annual survey, around two-thirds of colleges have had to drop courses with almost 40 per cent dropping courses in modern foreign languages. Labour has also claimed that up to four in 10 further education and sixth-form colleges in England could shut if the government goes ahead with savings.

Nurse bursaries

The announcement earlier this year that bursaries for student nurses and midwives are to be scrapped was another reason for protesters to swoop to London.

Becky Trainor, 22, and Molly Fallon, 20, are both in their final year at the University of Leeds studying adult nursing. On the coach down to the London demonstration, they were excited for their first demonstration – protesting on behalf of the next class of nursing students, who will not benefit from the rewards they have received.

Their degree is accompanied by 40 hour week placements, on top of part time work and studying. Where they received free tuition fees and a bursary, those who will follow them will now have to pay the full £9,000 a year and apply for loans.

Becky, who was unsure whether to attend university, was swayed by the rewards for studying nursing. She said: “I wouldn’t have gone to university if it wasn’t for the bursary. It is such an intense course but the bursary made it worth it.”

Molly agreed. She said: “I couldn’t have done it. They now expect parents to pick up the pieces and make up the £5,000 a year bursary they would have received.

“I feel let down and that only the rich students will thrive. There is a shortage of nurses and the dropout rate on the course is already high due to it being so hard. It doesn’t make sense why they are putting more people off.

“It’s almost as if they are wanting the NHS to fail, so people will think it is a poor service so they can privatise the NHS and make profit. We give so much back once we have graduated and all we have to look forward to is a 1 per cent pay rise.”education-not-deportation

Student protests in 2010 and beyond

Organisers claim ‘The government is waging war on students and our education’, yet unfortunately, this discontent hasn’t yet stirred all corners of universities. Looking at the 15,000 said to have attended, it would seem the attack on education had slowed down in comparison to the large numbers of activists and students who attended the student protests in 2010. Then, 50,000 students marched together in London after the announcement to triple tuition fees and to abolish the Educational Maintenance Allowance.

So with all the cuts and closures to education, why are we not seeing an angry backlash on a much bigger scale?

It could have something to do with how the media responded to the demonstrations as something highly controversial – labelling students as yobs and anarchists, rather than extremely concerned young people. Or could it have something to do with the heavy handed behaviour of the police and thousands of students being kettled in Parliament Square.  A Freedom of Information request from a member of the public shows that out of 221 arrested during the London student protests in November and December 2010, only three people were charged. This questions the motive of these arrests and the effect they had on people’s future choice to protest.

Alaina Briggs, now 23, remembers attending these demonstrations as a Barnsley College student. She said: “They were almost billed as a fun day out where you can deal with issues you care about. Loads of not-very-radical-people came which was great but then we got kettled for hours, witnessed massive police horses charging at us and saw police violence first hand. It understandably scared a lot of people from attending in future, I suppose it did what police were wanting it to.”

Cora Singer, 21, studies at Leeds Beckett University. She said: “I got into politics during the student protests of 2010 and found them really inspiring. I think the atmosphere and reactions on those demonstrations were completely expected as people were angry about their futures. However, for me, the way the media reported and misrepresented the demonstrations, made me want to get involved more.”

“Education is so expensive and even if you don’t have to pay it all back straight away, being in all that debt is intimidating. In the end it does come down to your family’s financial situation and how much privilege you have affects your whole university experience.”

In 2010 NUS president, Aaron Porter, said: “We’re in the fight of our lives … we face an unprecedented attack on our future before it has even begun.” Yet, he quickly condemned students protesting and refused to back future protests. He created a gap between those who were accepted within the movement and those who were deemed unofficial.

Then in 2014, the NUS let students down again when it removed support for what would have been the biggest national student demonstration since 2010, due to safety concerns. It received a backlash of criticism from activists as a result of the inevitable deteriorating consequences.

The NUS is now stronger and more united it its fight. For those in attendance, Saturday’s march was inspiring with a sea of banners sporting likeminded phrases and the motivating speeches from the likes of Malia Bouattia, NUS president, journalist Owen Jones and Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary.

Elaine White, the UCU union representative in Bradford and UCU national women’s representative, said: “It is heartening to see students acquire so much energy during these movements but people burn out and students lose time and energy and have to move on and get jobs. As we have seen here, there is a new generation of university students and sixth formers getting active. It is the organisational stuff, the talking to people and getting them involved in debate which is how you build movements.”

The German student movement won its struggle against fees due to its consistency. Henriette Filler 19, studies at SOAS, University of London, said: “I’m from Germany so I know it is possible to have no fees, so I find this ‘no cap’ on education quite unbelievable.”

4-rent-strikeVisible on the march were members of Rent Strike, who were there to link up the different struggles affecting students’ lives. Beth Perkin, 22, who attends University College London, believes rent is just one part of the bigger picture: “It’s all about the exploitation of the students – it’s part of the same struggle and the neo-liberalisation of universities. It needs to stop; university shouldn’t be a debt factory, it should be somewhere that enables you to be passionate and pursue things you love. We saw what happened at UCL with the one million pound compensation success, as a starting point to spread rent strikes all over the country. It leads in to a wider struggle not just with students, but with all people who are suffering due to the housing crisis. Rent is one way to reclaim your power and that’s really exciting.”

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