day of action

The loan privatisation protests show student activism is back

Originally published by York Vision

If there’s one thing that has been repeated about the student movement, long after the fires around Conservative HQ began to fade in 2010, it’s the claim that it’s dead.  The protests after the infamous ‘Demolition’ demonstration that November were a sorry shadow of the anger 52,000 marchers felt by Milbank – not to mention the many thousands who couldn’t make it – gradually getting smaller and smaller with the capitulation of the NUS to simple gesture politics.

But the past few days have shown that rumours of the student movement’s death were exaggerated. Underneath the seeming calm, the sense of dispossession was still there – waiting for a spark. In the government’s plans to privatise the Student Loans Company, they may have found it.

The government’s announcement in June that it plans to sell off the student loan book to private investors – literally the entirety of young people’s educational debt – marks a frightening new step in the steady decline of our education system, transformed from a universal public good to a mere business purchase – a corporate opportunity instead of the common provision of knowledge to create more rounded human beings. And it comes in the wake of the disastrous (not to mention shambolic) transfer of the Royal Mail to, overwhelmingly, institutional investors – banks, hedge funds and speculators.

By 2015, higher education could be almost completely privatised – not even our debt will be publicly owned anymore. More than this though, in order to ‘sweeten up’ the deal (since investors don’t want to buy our debt as it stands) the government is expected to reduce or remove the interest rate cap. Put simply, fees could go up, indirectly, yet again. They will have to, since the government can actually borrow more cheaply than any other institution in society. Private companies on the other hand, can’t.

So it was with this growing realisation in mind that hundreds of students marched, rallied, petitioned, leafleted and occupied their campuses on Wednesday in a national effort to block the proposals to flog off our future repayments. Coordinated by the Student Assembly Against Austerity and backed by the Young Greens (the youth branch of the Green Party), at least 25 campuses took part, with two – Birmingham and Sheffield – actually being occupied by students. The spirit of the tuition fee protests may just be coming back.

In Birmingham, students have occupied their Senate House, the historic decision-making centre of the University, to push management to ‘make a public statement against the privatisation of student loans and in defence of the public university’ – alongside other worthy pledges such as reducing the gaping pay inequality in Higher Education and getting the Vice Chancellor to take back his calls for tuition fees to be further increased. Sounds a lot like York.

And in Sheffield, students took over their campus branch of Santander – presumably a potential buyer – in a symbolic move against the loan sell-off. A pretty clear message against bankers, who obviously did much to cause the economic crisis, taking over our debt.

It wasn’t all old school revolutionary 1968 tactics being used however. Protest in the 21st century is dynamic. We had live tweeting, Facebook streams, online news coverage and flickr feeds. We had banner drops, students locking themselves together in ‘debt chains’, and in Cambridge (where police recently tried to recruit students to spy on each other) and Manchester, students lay trapped under red boxes marked ‘debt’ (no prizes for guessing the message). In York we opted for a rally, alongside getting students to sign a petition to local Tory MP Julian Sturdy to condemn the coalition’s plans. As ever, a diversity of tactics is needed.

I talked to a spokesperson for the Student Assembly Against Austerity, Fiona Edwards, who agreed that the student movement is coming back to life. “There is an upturn in struggle within the student movement. Students’ living standards are being hit hard by the Tories’ austerity offensive, and just as with other sections of society, we aren’t prepared to accept this without a fight.

The coalition seems to be trying to down-play the sell-off and push it under the radar. After the Day of Action, it looks less certain they’ll get away with it however. “Wednesday’s day of action has sounded the alarm and raised huge awareness about the next big attack on education”.

This government has made it clear that it intends to push through privatisation before 2015. That means there’s not much time left. And since Labour themselves not only introduced fees but also tripled them (years before Nick Clegg could follow suit), it’s more urgent than ever that we push the government to drop the proposals. Keep your eyes out – the student movement might be back, after all.

The next national Day of Action has now been set as the 3rd of February. Over 100 people and 10 campuses have already pledged to join the action within a couple of hours of the announcement. Find out more here: https://www.facebook.com/events/237473933084637/237497453082285

Josiah Mortimer organised York’s protest and sits on the National Committee of the Young Greens, the youth branch of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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The government think the student debt sell-off will go unnoticed. They’re wrong.

Originally published by The Economic Voice

Student Debt

Here’s a shocking thought. By 2015, higher education could be almost completely privatised. After the shift from public funding to individualised funding through (tripled) tuition fees, most thought universities were already private enough as it is.

But the government’s announcement in June that it plans to sell off the student loan book to private investors – literally the entirety of young people’s educational debt –will mark a frightening new step in the steady decline of our education system from one of universal good to the framing of it as a business purchase, a corporate opportunity rather than the common provision of knowledge to create more rounded human beings.

It’s all part of the coalition’s plan to, in the words of Danny Alexander (the Chief Secretary to the Treasury), ‘sell off £15 billion worth of public assets by 2020. £10billion of that money will come from corporate and financial assets like the student loan book, and the other £5 billion will come from land and property.’, as a New Statesman article earlier in the year pointed out.

£10bn is a hefty amount to come largely from student debt. Why would anyone want to buy it? That’s the point – they wouldn’t. In order to privatise the Student Loans Company, the government will have to offer ‘sweeteners’ to investors – namely, hiking the cap on interest payments.

The NUS claims is has won a promise from the government that this won’t happen. Celebrate! Or, perhaps not. For a start, the tuition fee debacle itself has shown that the parties of this government cannot be trusted to keep their promises – whether from guaranteeing a ‘fair deal’ for the tax-payer on the Royal Mail privatisation (disastrously undervalued – as well as intrinsically immoral, of course) to the pledge to not raise VAT. A promise from the same government that claimed it would send our economy on the path to prosperity is not worth the paper it’s written on. Whether the sweetener is direct or hidden, there will be one, and it will be young people who, as usual, are hit hardest – particularly those who cannot pay it off early like wealthier graduates could.

So the fight is on. In Parliament itself, over 30 MPs have already signed an Early Day Motion condemning the privatisation, including the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. Outside Parliament, students and graduates are organising against this retroactive attack – retroactive because it will affect loans from 1998-2013, and an attack because it’s another hit on young people already wracked with unemployment, low-paid insecure jobs, mental health crises and a lifetime’s worth of money owed.

The 20th of November will therefore see a National Day of Action against the sell-off, organised by the Student Assembly Against Austerity with the backing of the Young Greens, the youth branch of the Green Party, and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. Already 14 campuses have pledged to take part, with more to follow. In what is likely to reawaken the spirit of the 2010 student protests, and following the lecturers’ strikes at the end of October, thousands will petition, leaflet, occupy, be symbolically ‘buried’ with boxes of debt, organise debt ‘obstacle courses’ and hold banner drops and mass meetings.

The government isn’t just taking on the students of Milbank – it is taking on a whole generation – graduates and college kids, together. Indeed, the only people who will benefit from this privatisation are the same class who caused the crash in 2008 – the bankers, the speculators, the casino capitalists. We all stand to lose. So the government has picked a pretty big demographic to take on. They’re hoping it will go under the radar. Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that is won’t. A previously demoralised student movement is now on the rise again. Time to get moving.

So join the Day of Action on the 20th. If there isn’t an action happening on your campus, organise something. If you’re not at university or college, go along to an event anyway – this policy is likely to affect you, your friends or your family. Don’t let the coalition push this through without scrutiny. Otherwise, there may be no going back.

Campaigners Condemn Met Violence – What Really Happened on the 9th

[A version of this piece appeared in the Socialist Worker on the 13th December]

There is a lot to say about the demonstration in London on the 9th. It has been attacked by those on the right as a protest of ‘wanton violence’ – but that statement could easily describe the actions of the real culprits: the Metropolitan Police. This is what I saw happening on the march and in Parliament Square.

A small group of around 10 students from Cornwall headed up to London by minibus, leaving at 2:30am and bringing placards, a megaphone and a Cornish flag to show that students here want their voices heard. We were part of the massive and growing movement defying the government and the Lib Dem’s broken promises.

Arriving at around 10am, we were met with instant support from workers and members of the public, with one woman shouting ‘go for it’, and we had several conversations on the way to the tube in Brixton from supportive Londoners.

At midday in Malet Street there were already several hundred gathered, and stalls had been set up distributing placards and left-wing literature. The vibe was good-natured, and though we did not get a chance to hear the speakers, the reaction from the crowd in response to EAN organisers, RMT executive members and other group representatives was incredible, spreading through the crowd with immense energy.

The march itself was entirely peaceful – thousands walking through the centre of London chanting ‘they say cut back – we say fight back’, with people waving out of windows and clapping the protesters on. But when we arrived at Parliament Square at around 2pm, the atmosphere changed. The police had already begun to kettle us, and horses were brought in without justification. Only then did some ‘violence’ break out, with flares lit and smoke-grenades thrown. Resisting this kettling technique, many broke out onto the main area of Parliament Square, where the kettling was then moved to. The protesters, meanwhile, resumed the positive vibe, with music playing and small groups sat in circles chatting.

On the other side, by Westminster Abbey, the police were agitating further. Nonetheless, the chanting and music continued, even with the condensed crowd being pushed ever further back by thick lines of police. Some tried to get near Parliament itself but the police presence was overwhelming, indeed excessive. As demonstrators realised that the kettling tactic was being extended across the Square, the fight back began.

Around 100 who got out of the kettle at first, and a spontaneous meeting was established to determine what the plan was – with ideas of occupying neighbouring Barclays bank. This was abandoned after police caught on and covered the area. Instead we resolved to refuse to be kettled ourselves, and a line of young people was formed, arm in arm, to prevent the mounted police infringing our right to peaceful protest and movement. It was an amazing moment, as the line of horses came forward and the police threatened to crush the human-wall. The line surged up with a song – ‘break these walls between us’, and the mostly female line of teenagers forced the police to back off. The response from the demonstrators at the Met’s retreat was ecstatic – we had won a small victory.

Though the police wall at the other end was not broken, some were allowed back in to join their friends on the other side. This was around 3pm, and soon the mood got more intense as several dozen extra horses were brought in, an intimidatory move designed to generate fear in the crowd. And then, without warning, they charged.

Over the course of the night several more horse charges occurred, and one protester from Cambridge was crushed underneath one, breaking her collar bone. Other disturbing examples of Met brutality such as police throwing a man off his wheelchair and batoning innocent school kids provide an insight into the attitude the London police have. One of the Cornwall students had his glasses ripped from his face and stamped on by an officer, and I saw a man being pushed back by a policeman into a construction hole where presumably roadworks had been taking place – the hole now uncovered and unsafe. Had he have fallen, it could have broken several of his bones.

But within the kettle, against all odds, the crowd continued dancing, talking and demonstrating. The hacker group Anonymous spoke from on top of the Churchill statue, and small bonfires were lit to keep warm in the freezing temperatures. Other groups sat with their laptops or watched from a height the thousands of people filling Parliament Square.

There was a darker element to all this. The police had provided no toilets, with even the Westminster underground toilets locked up. No water was distributed, and many had not eaten since the morning – despite hundreds being kettled until as late as 11:30 at night on Westminster Bridge.

Personally, my phone was broken and I could not find my friends for around two hours, and while climbing up a fence to get a better view to look for them, a policeman ran forward and threatened to pull me down, using insulting terms I won’t even go into here to describe me. There was no consideration for well-being. It was just provocative police action.

Our divided group left at around 7 to catch the minibus (which had been waiting two hours due to the prolonged kettling), shaken by the experience and what we had seen, and returning back to Cornwall for 6am. We had been charged at, kept confined for hours in the cold and refused the right to leave, and denied the ability to remain calm through the constant attacks of the Metropolitan Police.

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts have released a statement, saying the organisation ‘utterly condemns the violence inflicted on demonstrators by the police’ as shown by the large number of hospitalised protesters and personal accounts of what happened.

Students should and will not be deterred by the result of the vote or the tactics of the police seen on the 9th of December. Instead we will regroup, organise and fight back against the assault on social mobility, our generation and the working class by the ConDem government. There are more protests planned for the 13th to save EMA.

Preparations Already Being Made For Next Day of Action

An estimated 130,000 students and young people took action yesterday across the country against the rise in tuition fees. In protests that united school children, university graduates, parents, and workers, the Day of Action was an incredible success and, with occupations continuing in universities as locally as Plymouth, there is more still to come.

MPs are set to vote on the tuition fee proposals in as little as a few weeks, so it is vital that the next month sees action on a huge scale to counter the education cuts. It appears concessions may already be being made, with Lib Dems expected to have a free vote on the issue. If they use that vote to support the Tories then they stand no chance of re-election; and if they reject tuition fees, it could, hopefully, spark the beginning of the end for the coalition. But it is of course too early to speculate.

We cannot be complacent. Yesterday saw demonstrations in Truro, Falmouth, Plymouth, Exeter and across the South West – traditionally the land of Liberal Democrat and Tory voters. This is encouraging, and it is why we are already organising several demonstrations across Cornwall over the next few weeks.

30th November – 2nd Day of Action

Next Tuesday will mark another day of student action, and Cornwall students will play a part in this. We are organising, alongside Labour activists and trade unionists, a lobby of the County Council from 8am on the 30th to ensure they vote against the crippling budget.

There are also inchoate plans for a possible march, occupation or ‘student strike’ during the day, and Falmouth Fight the Cuts, FXU Labour Students and Truro anti-cuts students will no doubt be organising over the next few days to discuss the options.

Information on the ‘student strike’ idea is provided by the NCAFC on Facebook. At least 15,000 are already planning to take part.

4th December – Petitioning of Sarah Newton MP

Students in Falmouth are currently gathering signatures for a petition which outlines their disgust at the ‘regressive and unfair cuts which the coalition intends to implement’. I will be circulating this over the next week in Truro, and the signatures will then be delivered to Truro and Falmouth Tory MP Sarah Newton.

8th December – Falmouth Fight the Cuts to Occupy Moor

Falmouth Fight the Cuts are planning to protest against the cuts in Cornwall by protesting on the moor in Falmouth. Students from Truro and around the county will be joining them in a demonstration which already has over 300 expected to take part, and that number is growing all the time. The Facebook group for the event can be found here.

And then…

An official Truro Alliance Against Fees and Cuts is on its way, and discussions are currently being held about its direction and plans. As can be seen, communities in Cornwall are not staying silent on the issue of the tripling of fees and swingeing cuts to the public sector – and with every Day of Action over the next month, we will be standing together, united against the coalition and the cuts.

Day X – Student Resistance Reaches Towns Across UK. Falmouth and Truro Join the Action

Thousands of students took to the streets today as part of the national Day of Action, organised by the National Campaign Against Fees And Cuts (NCAFC), with the backing of Education Activist Network and the Right to Work campaign.

What made today inspiring was the fact that over 100,000 young people, according to the NCAFC, protested across the country – without the backing of the National Union of Students. If this many people can organise without the NUS, it shows what a powerful thing this movement is becoming.

Over 100 Students in Truro Protest

The demonstration in Truro involved up to 150 students, marching over 2 miles in the pouring rain to County Hall to protest against the rise in fees. Not only was this organised locally and independently, these students left the warm and dry indoors to say ‘no’ to the coalition’s unfair proposals.

For a while the main road into Truro was blocked while we marched down, showing how large the numbers involved were considering the usually politically-complacent nature of Truro. With banners and placards, chants of ‘no ifs, no buts, no education cuts’ resounded around the city, and other cities nationwide.

Regional Unison officer Stuart Roden was well received, calling for students and workers to unite to stop the cuts. This was echoed by myself when I spoke, saying ‘we are all in this together, and we are the big society’ – just not the Big Society that the Tories envisioned in their misleading rhetoric.

Both the press and the police had a considerable presence, though the atmosphere was congenial. ITV, Sky News, the BBC and local newspapers interviewed the students and seemed impressed by the size of the demonstration.

We headed into the town centre to further spread the message, supported by members of the public with plenty of waving and horn-beeping.

Though perhaps overshadowed with the dubious reporting of one police van being trashed in London, press coverage was positive. Notwithstanding a BBC Cornwall presenter going around shouting ‘these cuts are necessary’, she did concede we were peaceful and ‘good natured’.

The protest came to an end at around 3pm, and being larger than the protest on the 10th, was a great success. Students are already preparing for the next demonstration outside County Hall at 8am on the 30th November, where we will be alongside trade unionists and Labour party members to oppose the council budget which will put thousands of workers in Cornwall out of their jobs and affect post-16 funding for transport.

Falmouth Protest

Students in Falmouth also staged their own demonstration, with up to 80 of them making their resistance known. We offer our solidarity, and will be joining them on the 8th as part of a huge occupation of Falmouth moor. Full coverage of the event can be found here at the Falmouth Packet.

Worldwide

The anger of thousands of students in the UK was reflected in Rome, too, today, as hundreds there marched against education cuts. More info at Socialist Worker.

The Fight Against Fees is Now Unstoppable

The list of demonstrations planned for tomorrow is now huge. Occupations, sit-ins, marches and walk-outs are going on all over the country, with at least two in Cornwall – one in Falmouth and another of course in Truro. The Falmouth protest is set to involve over 200 people, with the Truro protest possibly achieving a similar number of students ready to fight the cuts.

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts has put up a list of all the events going on nationwide here.

Some universities have already been occupied. UWE in Bristol has students occupying buildings, and some London universities have been occupied, with messages of solidarity going out to all of them. Nick Clegg has been asking students to ‘reconsider’ their campaign. This will only happen when Clegg reconsiders his decision to prop up a Tory government and break his promises to the electorate. It will only happen when the coalition stops supporting 80% cuts to teaching budgets and the complete withdrawal of humanities funding.

Manchester Met and SOAS are being occupied. Their demands have been supported in recent days by the NUT and other unions. This is becoming a mass movement, and will continue to grow. As the placards say – this is just the beginning.

The Next Few Weeks

Just as soon as this Day of Action is over, students will be preparing for the next protest on the 30th, again at County Hall – as part of another Day of Action. The 30th is the day that the County Council will vote on the budget. We have to be there to pressure representatives to vote against the budget and send a message to Westminster that we won’t accept cuts of $170m which will affect services all over Cornwall and cause thousands of job losses.

After that, there is going to be a mass occupation of the moor in Falmouth by students from all over Cornwall on the 8th December. By then there will no doubt be an official anti-cuts campaign in Truro and not simply sporadic protests. The Coalition of Resistance seems like a likely choice – and with the backing of unions, local Labour party members and community activists, it will be a democratic, student-led movement to be reckoned with.

24th November – Truro Students to March to County Hall

 

On the 24th of November, students in Truro will march to County Hall as part of the National Day of Action, to protest against the raising of tuition fees and massive cuts to education. The protest is set to be even bigger than last time, and demonstrations and walk-outs around the country are planned.

The march will begin at at around 1:20 in McDonald’s car-park, and we will head down to the Hall, with the support of local trade-unionists and anti-cuts activists. The protest will end at around 3:30, though there is of course the option to carry on after this time if people don’t have to catch buses.

Our aim is to be entirely peaceful – but we will make ourselves heard, and will ensure that local councillors and the government know that we will not accept the biggest assault on public services since the ’30s, along with the near-trebling of student fees.

With the County Council voting on the budget – set to cut local spending by £170 million – on the 30th this month, community groups and students will also be active there, from around 8am in the morning in order to catch representatives before they vote. Recent analysis has suggested that less than 20 councillors changing their mind could swing the vote in our favour, and effectively block the cuts, causing huge embarrassment to the coalition.

More information will be posted on here in the next few days.