By Dan Davison, NCAFC Postgrads and Education Workers Co-Rep
On Monday 19 February, Theresa May launched the latest funding review for higher education.
Acknowledging that the UK now has “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world”, May put forward that the review would “examine how we can give people from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance to succeed”. This followed Education Secretary Damian Hinds’ suggestions that students might be charged variable tuition fees according to their specific degree’s economic value. Indeed, the themes of “meritocracy” and greater “value for money” infused May’s speech, which floated such options as adjusting the repayment period for graduates and bringing back maintenance grants, but excluded abolishing fees altogether.
These shifts in position from Government figures almost certainly reflect pressures brought first by the student movement in 2010 and later by the Corbyn-led Labour Party, which has committed to abolishing fees, reintroducing grants, and setting up a new National Education Service to allow people to access education throughout their lives. Nevertheless, such concessions from the Conservatives mean little without directly tackling the underlying problem of marketisation. In other words, such tinkering around the edges of tuition costs and debt repayment not only comes across as a “too little, too late” gambit after years of slashed funds, course closures, and fee hikes, but also explicitly reinforces the very education-as-commodity logic that gave ideological cover to this systematic gutting of the sector.
Education is far more than a financial investment in one’s future: it provides a substantial benefit to society as a whole by fostering skills and knowledge, as well as individual fulfilment by allowing people to seek new personal and intellectual horizons. One cannot reduce this worth to a price tag based on whether the private sector happens to consider a given skill or field of knowledge vital for its internal operations. Whilst many students’ experience of the current system may well be a monotonous grind to gain a set of numbers on a sheet of paper that will hopefully find them a job, the only manner in which we can break people free from such a life-sapping existence is by radically altering the way we have come to conceptualise education itself. It calls for us to be able to see and treat education the way we see and treat healthcare: as a public good that everyone is entitled to access, supported by the redistribution of wealth.
We most clearly see the spectre of marketisation lingering above the funding review when we consider it alongside the ongoing strikes by UCU members to defend their pensions. The proposed changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, effectively spelling the end of guaranteed pension benefits.
The significance of this dispute cannot be overstated. Academic staff are posed to lose up to 40% of their retirement income and other pension schemes will almost certainly follow in USS’s wake.
The role of marketization in all this is simple: the reforms to USS are driven by the felt need to shift as much financial risk as possible from the universities to the individual workers, which in turn is driven by the felt need to make universities more attractive to commercial investors. In other words, senior management are cutting staff pensions in order to maximise profits. This means that student hardships, such as extortionate rents, rising fees, funding cuts, and overcrowded campuses, and staff hardships, such as the proliferation of casual employment contracts and the stripping of pension guarantees, are symptoms of the same underlying problem.
Until and unless we overhaul the entire education system to prevent managers from running universities like businesses, May’s promises will continue to ring hollow.
Abridged from anticuts.com
Support staff back the UCU
By a unison member
Most university support staff — admin, repairs, gardeners, cleaners, caterers, security, etc — are not in the USS scheme but in various inferior schemes.
We are not involved in the strike, but we are certainly supportive. At our university, Nottingham, UCU were the guest speakers at our Unison branch AGM. A handful of admin workers are also in the USS pension scheme and some of them are also taking action, including my line manager! The university is certainly quiet. A lot of the students have gone home for a long weekend after their lecturers told them they would be on strike.
The UCU branch here has supported the campaign for a living wage, and championed the cause of the Operations and Facilities staff who have far inferior terms and conditions to the rest of the staff. It is time for us to repay their support.
Unison nationally has sent out advice that we must not take solidarity action, i.e., join the picket lines (although we may visit the picket lines out of work hours), and we should not cover for work that striking staff would have done. Our Unison branch has voted to donate to the local strike fund.
We have found ways to show our support in our individual workplaces: from my office we have been taking thermos flasks of hot water out to the pickets and stuff to make hot drinks because it’s freezing on the picket lines. If the strikes carry on longer we will be discussing other ways we can help.
Staff morale at our university is rock bottom; a recent staff “engagement survey” showed alienation across all job roles. I’m not surprised that people are seizing the chance of the strike to express their discontent.
I hope UCU will organise a rally or a march around the campus: it would be well supported by all sorts of people who work at the university.
Some library workers at Birkbeck University have been refusing to cross UCU picket lines, with the library closing as a consequence. Solidarity spoke to a Unison member from the library:
“This is by a long way the best and most actively supported strike we’ve had at Birkbeck for years. Picket line rotas which in the past might have been covered with a few “usual suspects” have been filled by a much larger group of staff who understand quite how huge an attack this is. Unison has been supporting the UCU in taking this action, as we know that if this is allowed to happen further attacks are likely, including to our pensions and other working conditions.
“It’s been really great seeing Unison members, including part-time lower paid library workers, taking action in solidarity.”
UCU members’ confidence is high
Jon Fanning, Lecturer in International Management Strategy and University of York UCU Executive (pc), spoke to Solidarity.
At York we have four regular pickets, given the spread-out nature of the campus.
We picket from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. At 1 0a.m., we move towards Hetherington Hall, the senior administration block and have a bit of a rally for 10-15 minutes, to let the VC see how many people are there. On the first day, and on Monday, after the email went out to keep the pressure on, the pickets were big — over 100 people! People have been taken by surprise at how big the pickets have been.
On my campus, there were representatives of all campuses on the picket line. In the past, people have been reluctant to strike, saying “this one-day strike won’t mean anything, why are we doing it?” Now they are coming out because they can see that this action will have an effect. The strike is solid, it’s spread across the university, and I have not met any students prepared to speak out against the strike: students are very supportive.
There is a movement for students to demand their money back. That can go either way, but at York the people who set it up have done it as a way of showing solidarity, putting extra pressure on management. I know the woman who set it up, who is actually a student from China, who wanted to support the strike. It can be seen as critical of the lecturers but up here it is meant as a way of criticising how students are treated as customers.
I have heard it reported that the actuaries who work for the USS are afraid to speak out, but apparently they all think that what USS is doing is really bad, and abusive to workers. So the USS actuaries are supporting the strike!
The UCU’s negotiators’ confidence is sky-high. It sounds like they are expecting a big victory. At York, we are also looking to push back against a contract that management have signed with an American Higher Education corporation that would allow them to do quality control over, and confirm, degrees and other courses.
If we can push back on that, and get the Board of Studies to reject the contract, that would be a big first step to stopping this stuff.
Cambridge students’ rally gives support
By a Cambridge UCU member
At Cambridge, the first two strike days had pickets on five different sites across campus. Compared to typical UCU picket lines, the numbers were really good.
Student support was visible and vibrant with an SU-led rally of several hundred in front of the University’s Old Schools.
Speeches underscored the joint nature of staff and students’ struggles in the face of marketisation. Activists from Cambridge Defend Education then led over 200 enthused demonstrators through the streets in an impromptu march, which sustained incredible energy with solidarity chants. After coming full circle to the Old Schools site, roughly 100 marchers rushed to occupy the lawn of the Senate House building. The sit-in provided the space for an assembly between UCU members and students about the teach-outs to be hosted during strike days. Energies remained high on Friday with a mass picket that descended on the Old Schools, but an increasing number of students were willing to cross picket lines compared to the first day, when student non-attendance turned the Sidgwick Site into a ghost town.
The need for political education about the importance of solidarity action is therefore clear.
Students occupy in support of strike
On Monday 26 February, a group of Southampton University students stormed their Vice Chancellor’s office and demanded that he answer for his obscenely high salary and participation in the board of UUK.
For more information on their protest see @sotonstudentsagainstunicuts on Facebook. Ben Seifert from the protest spoke to Solidarity.
What we’re trying to do is support and show solidarity with our university staff.
That includes UCU members involved in the national dispute. But down here there are also attacks on the non-academic staff PASNAS pension scheme. This movement is supporting the strike, but it was built in opposition to staff cuts earlier this year. That’s what our coalition came together around: Southampton Students Against University Cuts.
I’m the Chair of the Labour Club, and the Labour Club has contributed to the campaign. We’re a significant part of it. In terms of the occupiers from yesterday, about half of us were from the Labour Club. It is a coalition. The Marxist Society are Labour supporters. And Socialist Students, we’ve done a lot of work with them – and there are even one or two Tory students who have been helping us… So it’s an odd little coalition.
UCU members thought the occupation was absolutely brilliant. Some of the UCU members came to our de-brief and chatted to us,. They were really happy. I’ve spoken to the local UCU branch vice chair and they were totally behind the action. Obviously we weren’t able to alert them to the action before it took place, but we’ve been working very closely together. They’ve been really pleased with the support and solidarity between students and staff over the last few weeks.
This is the first occupation at Southampton in a long time. To students elsewhere planning occupations, I’d say: it’s a lot less scary than you thought. We had a lot of people who were very worried about ramifications, and a lot of people who did take part were pretty nervous before we went in. And actually we got a good result.
If I had to give one piece of advice I’d say: focus less on planning for worst-case scenarios, and think about what happens if you are successful! Don’t predict a riot.
Occupation news ...
As Solidarity goes to press students are in occupation at Liverpool University and University College London.
Students are getting organised on other campuses, and students have been organising demonstrations and joining picket lines.
Get involved! Follow the action on Twitter @occupation_hub or facebook.com/NCAFC
NUS should fight for free education
Ana Oppenheim, LSE student and candidate for NUS Vice President Higher Education spoke to Solidarity.
I am standing for VPHE because Higher Education is facing continuing attacks from the government.
Across the country we’ve seen students marching for free education, going to picket lines, occupying, and getting out the vote for free education in the election.
But NUS has been very reluctant to even talk about it’s free education policy in the election; and it has not been there on the ground with students in their fight for free education, lower rents, living wage and so on.
I am standing so that the NUS will be on the side of students in their struggles, so we can have a democratic movement which wins the fight for a democratic, publicly-funded, education system.
I am at the UCL occupation today in solidarity with the UCU strike. Academic staff across the country are on strike to defend their pensions against a cut of up to 40%. We demand that UCL takes a public stand and comes out against the proposed reforms.
There were dozens of us here last night, mostly UCL students but also students from other universities supporting the occupation. There are also actions taking place at Warwick, Sheffield, Southampton and other places.
I am on the leading committee of NCAFC. We have paid a central role in these fights, passing motions and pushing NUS; we’ve been in the media, making the arguments; we have been in the media, making the arguments for solidarity and free education; and we’ve been helping people take action. NCAFC supporters been central in kicking off the occupation here at UCL; we have activists here, in Liverpool, and in many other places where occupations are being planned.
We are co-ordinating and giving advice to new activists in many areas around the country, helping them to take action on their campuses too.
• National Campaign against Fees and Cuts is also standing Sahaya James for NUS president. Find out more: facebook.com/Sahaya4President