A feminist perspective on free education

Submitted by AWL on 25 February, 2015 - 12:56 Author: Kelly Rogers, Defend Education Birmingham, National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, personal capacity

On International Women’s Day women in NCAFC have called a mass occupation to force a discussion around a feminist perspective on free education politics.

This discussions needs to include a critique of the neoliberal university from a feminist perspective, and a critique on our own movement: sexist practices on the left, and the failures of feminist groups and organisations like the NUS Women’s Campaign, whose distorted application of safer spaces politics is leading us squarely towards inaction.

Let’s take a closer look at the demands that have formed the centrepiece of our occupations, demonstrations, and campaigns over recent years:

• Education should be free with living grants for all

• The reintroduction, and improvement, of EMA

• Halls accommodation should be provided as an in-house service, not for profit, and should be provided in house.

These demands relate to the economic well-being of students during their studies and after. While it goes without saying that if implemented they would benefit both women and men, and that economic inequality is a problem that we should be fighting against for the benefit of all, to declare these demands genderless is to obscure the very real reality of poverty felt by women, because they are women.

The gender pay gap is still a critical problem. In 2012, comparing all work, women earned 18.6 per cent less per hour than men. “Women’s work” [1] tends to be devalued and low paid: almost two-thirds of those earning £7 per hour or less are women. Women also tend to take on part-time roles, partly due to the disproportionate burden of caring responsibilities.

These roles offer lower pay, fewer opportunities for promotion, and typically comprise more precarious contracts. Discrimination still rests at the heart of the labour market, especially for women of child-bearing age (a category into which the majority of graduates fall) [2]. All this means that when women leave education they are faced with a hugely inhospitable job market.

Women are faced with a set of obstacles that make is far more likely they will end up living in poverty [3]. The labour market is even more inhospitable to women of colour, disabled women, lesbian, bisexual, queer and trans* women whose intersecting oppressions mean they face discrimination from many corners.

The threat of a lifetime of debt hangs most heavily over women, and the benefits promised to graduates, in the form of economic freedom and social mobility, fall largely into the laps of men.

Living costs while in education are also a gendered issue. Women take on the brunt of caring roles – to children and/or elderly or disabled relatives. During the 2010/11 academic year, 1,500 (5.5 per cent of total student population) declared themselves as having caring responsibilities, with the majority having dependent children. The majority of these, as in wider society, are women.

These responsibilities necessarily carry with them financial burdens which will only be made worse by the expensive costs of education and living imposed by our institutions, which rake in vast profits and enjoy multi-million pound yearly surpluses. The NUS found that the second largest barrier to lone parents entering higher education was financial problems relating to childcare costs and fees. 92 per cent of lone parents are women.

Any demands relating to living costs, then, are intertwined with these aspects of the real lives of women; raising the number and generosity of bursaries and living grants could really offset the financial problems facing students, and dissuading women from entering higher education [4]

• Just pay and conditions for staff: 5:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid staff and an end to casual, precarious contracts.

• No outsourcing of services

• A Living Wage for all workers

• Closure of the gender pay gap

Once again women would disproportionately benefit from the implementation of these demands, compared to men. Our Higher and Further Education institutions suffer abysmal gender pay gaps, relating not only to discriminatory pay but to the roles that women and men occupy. The overall HE full-time gender pay gap is 18.5 per cent and the part-time gender pay gap is 22.5 per cent, both of which are higher than average public-sector pay gaps. At 12.7 per cent the gender pay gap between full-time HE teaching professionals is higher than all other teaching professional groups. Women are far more likely to be working part-time than men in most occupations within HE institutions. Finally, women are also under-represented in senior positions; only 19 per cent of full-time professors and 14.4 per cent of university vice-chancellors are female [5].

The implementation of the Living Wage for all staff in all institutions would be going some way to making the lives of women staff better. Reducing the gap between the highest and lowest paid to 5:1 would see a vast reduction in the pay gap. If this is achieved by topping up the incomes of the lowest paid, using the savings shaved off the highest paid, we would witness a net shift of wealth vastly in favour of women [6].

In most cases women are the first to be made redundant, the first to have their hours and contracts hacked, and the most likely to be paid less than subsistence-level wages. Defending education workers is a feminist project.

• An end to the intimidation and victimisation of students: no disciplinaries for protest, cops off campus, no co-operation with migration enforcement and ejection of their officials from campus, no co-operation with spying programmes such as Prevent.

All activists are at risk from the growing repression from university managements and government. Last academic year saw a frightening shift in the level of repression that university managements are prepared to use against their students, and this year we only have to look to the University of Warwick, with police deploying tasers and tear gas, for this point to be demonstrated. Once again, however, liberation is central to the issues at hand.

There are numerous reported cases of harassment and degradation of women by police when in custody and of the denial of basic needs, such as the provision of sanitary products; of brutality and violence against disabled protesters — the awful treatment of those under “suicide watch” and the denial of medication, of racial profiling and violence towards black individuals both in and out of custody; the deportation of dissident migrant citizens; and trans and genderqueer individuals being misgendered, mistreated and harassed as a result of their gender identity. Freedom to protest is also a right that is most often enjoyed by the privileged, even when our freedom is being eroded and withdrawn.

• Directly democratic education with all decisions made by, or accountable to, staff and students

• Education for the public good: for financial transparency and accountability, against the influence of profit in education and research, against league tables, and for ethical investment and procurement

Demands for democracy too have benefits specific to women and to those from marginalised groups. For equality to exist in our education institutions, it is necessary that power, as well as wealth, is distributed more equitably. Democratic structures that give students and staff meaningful oversight over decisions over restructuring of departments, for example, are crucial in a context where young women academics tend to be the first to be made redundant, or to have their contracts casualised.

Democracy often involves affirmative action that deliberately platforms and affords greater power to those belonging to liberation groups. It is necessary that democratic reforms incorporate means of engaging and platforming women, so that we can begin to address the overwhelming silencing of women taking place in universities and all workplaces day-to-day.

•  We demand equality and an end to discrimination in education.

Across the board education activists and activist groups are failing to talk about liberation. This failure is related to a crisis across left-wing activism where support for liberation on the left continues to be nominal rather than meaningful.

The above analysis only scratches the surface, especially with regard to the intersecting identities and oppressions that women in Higher and Further education embody and experience, and yet even this limited analysis makes it clear that the demands being put forward by education activists are certainly not genderless, and have, at their heart, liberation. Learning to consider the campaigns we organise for, and the slogans we shout, from a liberation perspective is an important step in ensuring that our activism is truly liberating.

We are letting our education institutions and our government off the hook. Deep-seated discrimination and inequality between genders, races, disabled and non-disabled people, people with different sexual orientations, and British and migrant student and workers is going unchallenged.

The NUS Women’s Campaign statement justifying their withdrawal of support for the 19 November Free Education demo states, “Our priority as a campaign is the welfare and safety of women and the right for women to organise and campaign in the ways that they feel the most comfortable”.

Their priority not change, but safety. NUS’s u-turn was a particular blow, at a time when a very small number of hard-working students, nearly all of them women, were organising a demo that was later attended by over 10,000 students. But it reflects a trend where safer spaces politics, a set of politics which in theory and often in practice is laudable, is being misapplied and co-opted. In the context of this trend, it is worth asking the question: what does it take to make women safe?

There appears to be a prevalent idea in the student movement, at present, that we can make the entire world safe by, first, organising within safer spaces, second, rigorously (and often undemocratically) policing those spaces, and third, legislating the rest of society into also being safe. If society, or x institution/organisation/group of people refuses to comply with safer space rules, then it is the obligation of all right-on feminists to advise other women not to participate in those spaces.

Let’s consider an alternative: when we say “our priority is the welfare and safety of women”, we mean is it our priority to organise radical campaigns that fight for a future without debt, a future with good working conditions, and a future where education is free, and every woman can be educated for the sake of education, and the sake of the public good. A radical overhaul of the education system, from school level to university level, from which progressive ideas and generations of socially-minded activists will be born, is a necessary step to a society in which women are always safe. This sort of change isn’t going to be legislated into existence, because it requires a real challenge to a powerful state-corporate nexus, and the prevailing neoliberal ideology, and it involves coming up against managements, government and police. All of these sites of resistance mean being distinctly unsafe. A significant number of women activists over the past two years have been kettled, arrested, disciplined, suspended from university — and none of these things were safe, or comfortable.

So why, as feminists, are we teaching women to avoid these fights, and to retreat to safer spaces? Safer spaces are absolutely necessary, but they should strive to be havens where women, and other oppressed groups, regroup, collectively heal, educate themselves and organise so that when they go back onto the streets they are able to make the change they need, and engage in resistance that is truly empowering, because it is effective. Ultimately, it’s not about the individual, it’s about the movement.

This International Women’s Day, a day that over recent years has served to typify a neoliberal, individualist “feminism”, we want to move to the beat of a different drum. We want to occupy — not because it will be safe, although there are benefits in occupying as women and non-binary people, and without men — but because we want to pose a challenge to a system that continues to make all women unsafe, and open up a discussion with others inside our movement about how that is done.

• For more information on plan and location, and what you can do, contact NCAFC women on 07891714146, 07749263622 or by email.


[1] By which I mean work than women typically do – women are disproportionately employed in carework, and other social reproductive roles such as cleaning.

[2] See Fawcett Society.

[3] Economic independence is incredibly important for women in particular who continue to remain trapped in abusive relationships and households in their thousands, simply because they and their children have nowhere else to go.

[4] There are many other aspects of women’s lives that should be noted here, although this list is (of course) not exhaustive: lesbian, bisexual, queer or trans* women are far more likely to be estranged from their parents, offering numerous financial pressures. Women of colour often come from lower-income backgrounds, compared to white women, meaning that parents are less able to offer financial support, and that many of them live in poverty, or would do if they chose to enter higher education. The numerous and varied disabilities that many women at university live with also often mean that those students have far higher living costs than non-disabled students, a fact only set to get worse with continued government attacks on disability benefits. Now let’s imagine how these different identities might intersect and a much more complex image emerges. The lived realities of students from liberation groups involves multiple and complex oppressions and needs, that much is very clear.

[5] See The Gender Pay Gap – A Literature Review by New JNCHES Equality Working Group.

[6] The same applies, of course, to BME staff and especially to women of colour – the gap in pay, in opportunities and the division of work type is racialised and gendered both.

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