The Fight For Education: After the EMA Vote

The Tory-led coalition had their way today, and voted to scrap a life-line to thousands of poorer students. A bid by Labour to save the Education Maintenance Allowance was defeated by Conservatives and Lib Dems who reject the idea that young people from low-income backgrounds should be encouraged to go on with further education. By doing so, they have condemned a generation to unemployment, a fact backed up by the latest figures: almost a million under-25’s are unemployed – a record high.

Students in Cornwall and other parts of the UK travelled to London to lobby MPs, to persuade them not to abolish the EMA scheme. Many were ignored. Some MPs spoke only to single students, despite many travelling hundreds of miles during the exam period. Some MPs would not even stop to explain their decision to betray young people. This betrayal will not be met with such apathy by students. The next couple of weeks will see more demonstrations nationwide to fight for education, to fight for our futures.

What are the NUS doing to support the struggle? They recently passed a ‘radical’ document calling for support for the demonstration in Manchester on the 29th – while completely ignoring the protest in London, the centre of power, and the national day of action on the 26th. Anti-cuts groups need to be becoming active in their student unions, in trade unions and local groups to support these demonstrations, regardless of which organisation is ‘leading’ them.

Billy Hayes of the CWU has been calling for unions to do exactly that,  declaring workers and students ‘allies in misfortune’, and heralding a ‘serious fight-back’. Other unions have been slower to take up the call. But as Hayes asks, ‘are we going to fight for our rights’ or not?

EMA could be funded, three times over, if only private schools paid VAT on their fees, meaning these elite institutions finally give something back other than Tory-cabinet ministers.

There is no fairness in the scrapping of the EMA. Peers in the House of Lords can claim an allowance of up to £300 a day just for turning up. And now our future doctors, academics, scientists and teachers are being denied £30 a week to continue with college. The Tories and Lib Dems can be certain. Once exams are over, there is going to be a serious surge of support for the fight-back, and it will not stop until those at the top find out what ‘being in this together’ really means.


Activists storm council in Truro against scrapping of EMA

Around 40 students and activists marched over two miles to County Hall in Truro today to protest against the government’s scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance. The demonstrators marched with placards saying ‘Don’t Con-Dem Us to Unemployment’, chanting ‘education for the masses, not just for the ruling classes’. The march was met with huge support from members of the public.Upon arriving at County Hall, the main Cornwall Council building, the protesters continued chanting and many members of staff and councilors offered their support. The cold weather and exam period had meant many could not attend but the atmosphere was incredibly positive.

Most dramatically though was when six protesters got into the main council meeting and began putting up anti-cuts posters and shouting ‘no ifs, no buts, no education cuts’, before being removed. The short occupation shifted the debate from the trivial topic of an adult products store in the city to the more important matter of education and funding for deprived students.

Max Stephens, a college student and activist, said ‘The fight-back has started and we invite people in Cornwall to join us in solidarity in future actions.’ Lisa Camps, another main organiser, echoed this – ‘We won’t let our voices be drowned out amid the government’s vehemently anti-student rhetoric.’

Another Truro College student said ‘The EMA helps thousands of students from low-income backgrounds in Cornwall and across the country continue with higher education, and despite the turnout the demonstration today was an important part of the overall campaign against the cuts in the county.’

The protest was organised as part of Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance after several large protests in the city against cuts to education, and represented part of the resistance campaign. There will be more demonstrations as socialists, workers and students plan their next moves for the local fight-back.

Demonstrations like these are bringing various left-wing groups and community organisations together in the county – today saw comrades from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, SWP, Labour, anarcho-syndicalists and even Lib Dem councilors uniting.

2011: The Year of Resistance

Some spectators of the student and anti-cuts movement in 2010 point out that there hasn’t been a major demonstration since the 9th of December. But the phrase ‘this is just the beginning’ highlights what the campaign is really heading towards. The fact that the last big demonstration was only three weeks ago says a lot about how the scale of discontent towards the rise in tuition fees and the cuts to the public sector. The cuts haven’t even begun to bite yet – it is in 2011 that we will see a veritable explosion in activity against the government’s economic plans.

The TUC’s warnings that the year will be ‘horrible’ for public sector workers and the public in general coincides with the Local Government Authority’s prediction that during 2011 around 140,000 public sector jobs will go. We haven’t had such an onslaught against ordinary people in Britain since the 1930s – and the reaction in opposition to the cuts will be similarly unprecedented. When an organisation like the IMF is arguing for more investment in job creation, you know that times have changed: these cuts will damage the economy.

UK Uncut will be resuming its actions in the New Year, and with the snow gone turnouts will be considerably higher. The storm of media coverage surrounding the events gives a massive boost to the campaign, and indeed the Radio 4’s coverage today went into detail about the background of UK Uncut – a dozen or so people meeting up in a pub and setting up the website that has spawned a mass movement. When you compare the truly grass-roots nature of the ‘group’ with seedy organisations like The Tax-Payers Alliance (Tax Dodgers’ Defence League might be more apt), it is clear who is representing the interests of the poor, and who is representing the interests of big business.

As it becomes clear that students’ interests are no longer represented by the Liberal Democrats, representation will be taken to the streets. January 29th’s protest in London against education cuts and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance will draw even more union support than before as the campaign widens against all cuts to the vulnerable, the jobless, students and workers.

Action is happening on both a national and regional level. Plymouth has had over 20 actions in the past few months. Truro, one of the smallest cities in the country, has also had its fair share of marches and demonstrations, varying from 150 students blocking the main road to a small group of activists putting up a sign outside the Council building saying: ‘Dear Cornwall Council, thanks for slashing public services. Love, the bankers xx’

It is this diversity of dissent that will provide the strongest defence against the cuts. It will be university occupiers writing letters to the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, it will be people blockading Topshop in Brighton, it will be union activists leafleting in Manchester, students lobbying their MPs in Scotland. It will be a coalition of every demographic, in every area.

There is also likely to be a lot of action on the 11th of January, which is rumoured to be when MPs vote on EMAs. Though Parliament’s website gives little information, coinciding the day of action with the day of the vote would be an effective way of challenging MPs to think again about whether to scrap the scheme which helps over 600,000 young people go on to further education.

When the campaigns for keeping the EMA, abolishing tuition fees, fighting tax avoidance and the cuts come together on March the 26th (the TUC-organised march), something exciting will happen. Whether it will be half a million people uniting peacefully, or genuine unrest and civil disobedience, one cannot predict.

Few are anticipating a wide-scale socialist revolt, or a new era of class consciousness. But the important thing to remember after this is over (and that will not be any time soon), is that while Cameron is indicating that he’s ‘trying to avoid’ restoring public services once/if the economy recovers, we must elect a government in 2015 that will rebuild what’s left of the public sector so that people will be put before profit. Until then, we exercise our right to protest with as much might as we can.

Parliament to Vote on EMAs – 11 January

In just a couple of weeks Parliament will be voting on whether to scrap Education Maintenance Allowances, according to the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. The up-to-£30 a week allowance that has enabled thousands of working class and lower-income students to continue with further education is being scrapped by the government. But as recent U-turns show – on free book provision for children, and the school sports programme for example – when under pressure the government changes course. It is essential that thousands of students across the country protest on the day of the vote, January 11th, against the abolition of EMA.

In Cornwall there should also be mass student action. What exactly will happen is being discussed but it is hoped that a walkout will take place in Truro. The EMA scheme is provided by local councils, so potentially it can still be saved if the vote passes. It is vital however that EMA is saved in Parliament, and not merely individual councils who are facing 28% budget cuts over the next four years.

There will be a protest in Truro on the day – the 11th – meeting at 12:15 in McDonald’s car-par (opposite the college). RSVP via the Facebook group here.

Currently leading the campaign against the abolition of EMA is ‘Save the EMA’, supported by major unions, and ‘Save EMA’ which is largely organised by students.

The Verdict: Sarah Newton’s Visit to Tremough Campus

Last Saturday students occupying the library at Tremough Campus asked Truro & Falmouth MP Sarah Newton to come in order to receive a petition with over 1,000 signatures which condemned the cuts. Students used the opportunity to question her about the rise in tuition fees and the £81bn in spending cuts being made by the government.

Though the visit obviously did not lead her to denounce the cuts, it did present a clear idea of the scale of opposition among her constituents toward the government’s economic policy. Around 50 undergraduates and a couple from Truro College came to challenge her about everything from EMA to Cameron’s FIFA visit.

Her responses at the beginning were standard Tory arguments. ‘The cuts are necessary’ (myth), we need to ‘rebalance our economy’ (myth), we have ‘ran out of money’ (myth), just a few of them. But when asked about EMA, her response was both disturbing and ludicrous. I asked how the scrapping of EMA fits in with her vision of so-called ‘compassionate conservatism’, to which she replied that it was not being scrapped (when it is facing over a 90% cut) and that most people on EMA abused it and shouldn’t be receiving it. She claimed it was ‘very poorly means tested’ – a claim that students who have tried to apply know is completely false, as applications have to be checked by the appropriate tax agencies. EMA helps thousands of students go to college, and without it, many from poorer backgrounds simply won’t be able to go.

She also said she ‘didn’t have an opinion’ on Trident funding, despite being an elected MP with a responsibility to at least have a vague idea about appropriate spending.

As the debate went on, she became more defensive, and somewhat patronising. Of course, MPs have time constraints, but by the end her constantly looking at her watch gave an indication that she could not handle the discussion, eventually leaving because she ‘had to be somewhere’. When she said she would respond to any unanswered questions via email, I had to add that she had not responded to my email sent on the 18th November asking her to vote against the rise in tuition fees.

Ironically, the Tory society’s ‘counter-protest’ against our meeting only served to boost our numbers, and the false-conscious, pompous remarks they occasionally interjected with from the background were dwarfed by the overwhelming indignation in the room about the cuts to education and the rest of the public sector.

The discussion was a valuable exercise in scrutiny and accountability. The Sarah Newton visit was invaluable, because now the action over the next few months against fees and cuts is wholly justified – because when MPs ignore the concerns of ordinary constituents, the argument must be taken to the streets.

The Cuts in Cornwall

Though the cuts outlined in the coalition’s spending review have not yet taken hold, it will not be long before many people in Cornwall are adversely affected by this assault on the public sector. Debate seems almost theoretical at present – who will get hit hardest, where and what percentage the cuts are going to be and how local councils will deal with a highly constrained budget. But once the cuts start to bite, opposition, even among Conservatives, will steadily grow. Already, the majority of the public think the cuts are too much, too fast. In Cornwall this view is no doubt even more widely held, where reliance on the public sector and welfare is high due to limited job opportunities and poverty levels relatively more severe than in other parts of the UK. Despite unemployment being around 6% in the South West, fairly low when compared with unemployment in the North East, it will inevitably rise dramatically in a few months time. The false assurances that the private sector will magically and immediately absorb public job losses may not materialise, and Ed Milliband is right to say Osbourne is taking a massive gamble with people’s livelihoods for the sake of pursuing a right-wing monetarist ideology. But how will this affect myself and other students in Cornwall? The potential scrapping of EMA will prevent many in rural parts of Cornwall being able to even attend higher education, with EMA covering, or at least helping with, many students’ food, transport and studying costs. The increase in university fees, which is now being supported by Liberal Democrats, all of whom pledged to the NUS they would oppose any rise (3 of whom represent Cornish constituencies), will not only put off many students from poorer households, but will also create a dangerous market in education – where price of course becomes the main concern for students, instead of choosing the course which they want the most. Along with the £4.2 billion university cuts and therefore fewer places, this will mean universities once again become the refuge of the rich and effectively exclude struggling young people whose parents may not be able to help them out financially over their time at university. Vulnerable families will lose out in Cornwall when it comes to social housing too. With a current affordable housing shortage in the region, the plans to cut funding for social housing by over 50% and increase rent to near market levels will leave even more people without a home, and push those who can only just afford the new rates deeper into debt and hard times. Do we merely ask what will be cut – the library, the local school, infrastructure development, or staff at the hospital or the Post Office, soon to be effectively sold off? Or do we stand up and say people in Cornwall deserve better, and that the bankers and speculators who caused the financial crisis should take the burden, not those who can already barely afford to get through each week? The cuts will devastate our region and the nation as a whole unless we engage to defend working people, women, the disabled and students who will be worst hit by the government’s offensive. Investment, not cuts, will boost the economy and allow young people to have a fair future.
[This letter appeared in the West Briton in October]

Don’t prevent poorer students going to college – Save EMA

Of all the cuts being made over the next few months, perhaps one of the least noted ones is that of Education Maintenance Allowance, or EMA. The government said they were going to ‘replace’ it – but in reality the whole of its budget is being scrapped, with practically nothing left to support students from poorer backgrounds.

An NUS survey in 2008 found that over two thirds of those receiving the £30 in EMA a week could not carry on in further education without it, meaning when it is cancelled, a huge number of working class young people will be effectively denied the opportunity to go to college and prepare them for what they want to do. Another policy, then, that prevents the poor from succeeding and instead condemns many to a job-path they do not want to take.

Thousands of students have been speaking out against the scrapping of EMA. James Mills recently started the Save EMA campaign, which I strongly recommend supporting. 16-19 year olds have been saying how the removal of the scheme will affect them – one said ‘“I need EMA my mum is on benefits and I am a full-time student at college without EMA I can’t go to college I will have to drop out and I don’t want to do that”.

With job opportunities limited, and less than a fifth of employers willing to hire people straight from school, it is vital that teenagers from poor households do not fall into unemployment and can go to college. Since one in 10 university graduates from 2009 are still unemployed a year on, think about how much higher this figure is for those unable to go even just to college or sixth form after school.

Alongside the abolition of EMA, another revelations last week is that 24 universities will see their entire teaching grants scrapped. Gone. 73 universities are having their grants cut by more than three quarters. This is devastating news for students who will be paying up to £9k a year to receive a significantly lower standard of education, when already contact time is minimal as lecturers focus more on research.

Bridget Phillipson is a Labour MP who received EMA and is supporting the Save EMA campaign. There are politicians willing to stand up in parliament for students. But our main platform will be the streets, social networks, and the media. Through these we can explain that youth unemployment is not conducive to economic recovery. Training our young people on the other hand, is.

Save EMA » MP who was on EMA backs Save EMA.

Sign the petition here at Save EMA.