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.


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.

Back in ’68…Building an anti-cuts NUS and an international movement

[This piece was written for Militant Student]

The president of the London School of Economics student union, David Adelstein, and Marshall Bloom, president of the Graduate Students’ Association, have been suspended for taking part in demonstrations and direct action against their leadership. Millions of people are taking to the streets in France, and there are massive protests in the US after the government ignores its people’s demands. The year? 1967.

But there are some crucial differences. In the ‘60s university education was free – indeed they actually paid students to go to university. Britain was under a relatively left-wing Labour government. Today we are facing the most brutal cuts for generations – and university fees are being tripled, alongside unprecedented cuts to teaching budgets and the humanities. These are disturbing, and simultaneously exciting, times. As nearly 100,000 workers join forces with students every day in Wisconsin, revolutions break out in the Middle East and Northern Africa and Britain prepares for it’s largest demonstration in years on March 26th – times seem to be changing. In a very big way.

And yet the head of the Bank of England, Mervyn King said recently he’s ‘surprised people aren’t angrier’. When a representative of the bourgeoisie says makes this kind of comment, students and workers know it is time to take the action to another level.

This action is becoming international. Spurred on by the student protests of last year, UK Uncut formed to challenge tax dodging. Just a few months later it has spawned off-shoots in the US, France, Canada and Sudan. In a globalised economy, direct action is too becoming globalised.

At home, however, over 100,000 UCU members look likely to strike this month, and like the radical students of the 1960s we should be joining these lecturers in solidarity – a concept summarised in the book ‘Student Power’ over 40 years ago – ‘the first students to revolt…may not be those who suffer most acutely’. For school and college students to see people already in university protesting against the rise in fees is immensely inspiring, and has strengthened the movement. In this ‘renewal of revolutionary politics’ we are seeing 17 year olds radicalising people in their 50s who were active during the miners strikes of the ‘80s. This is a unity the left hasn’t seen for a long time, and the recent election result in Ireland (five United Left Alliance candidates were elected) only adds to the evidence that unity can have a fortifying impact upon the cause for democratic change.

Figures alone mean little, but the left groups of the UK have seen their numbers grow over the past year, a fact that all socialists and students should welcome. These developments add to the call for a fighting NUS, and after Aaron Porter’s standing down, Mark Bergfeld (for president) and Michael Chessman’s (for vice-president of FE) election campaigns have shown there is a real chance for the National Union of Students to be transformed, as in the late ‘60s, to a body that truly defends its members.

But after the exam period, it is imperative that the movement is revitalised. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers are set to lose their jobs this year. Two thirds of public sector workers are women, who are being hit disproportionately. Pandering to the national press, however, is the ‘freedom of the lemming’, as one commentator put it. November’s student protest last year put young people on the map, and sparked a national revolt. Both the March 26 demonstration and the march from Jarrow to London on the 1st of October will bring together many groups, but it is in the student unions and local communities that we must develop the fight – the anti-poll tax campaign had groups in nearly every part of the country when it was introduced.

So as youth unemployment reaches a million, like the LSE student union president of 1967, SU’s must put all they can into building diverse and progressive campaigns against the cuts, and ensuring that this year is the year for a left NUS. Adelstein, it’s worth knowing, was reinstated as president after a militant 10-day occupation at the university. Just something to take note of…

Government Sneaks Higher Fees into Schools Bill

The economy is failing, that is one thing the government can’t hide. But as the Education and Children’s Bill came out today, it was revealed that the government has tried to deceptively hide away a clause in the bill which allows for variable rates of interest on student loans – nothing to do with children, or schools: the main targets of the bill.The cover-up has not gone unnoticed.

This proposal would mean students could be paying after graduation, not only their massive burden of debt in fees, but interest on that debt which could be higher than the normal rate. Essentially, those least able to pay – working-class graduates, could face thousands of pounds of extra debt in interest. Of course, students who don’t have to take out loans won’t have to worry about this problem. The Bank of Mother and Father will take care of those privately educated young people.

The UCU has condemned the hidden clause – and even the increasingly weak NUS leadership has come out in opposition. Gove, who put forward the proposals, has been deemed a ‘power junkie’ by the NUT, as the bill also gives the minister unprecendented powers about the running of schools, while taking them out of democratic local authority control through Academies.

Tripled fees with variable interest rates will put off thousands of poorer students going to university – if indeed they can complete further education now that the EMA is being scrapped. Let’s get back out onto the streets with these worrying ‘reforms’ in mind.



Discipline returns? Gove publishes school reform – politics.co.uk.

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.

Democracy and direction – lessons from the unions

There are now probably more than a dozen significant anti-fees and cuts organisations involved in the fight against the government’s right-wing agenda. There’s been varying amounts of co-operation between these campaigns since November, with activists from the vast array of networks coming together in the national Days of Action. The media are not incorrect when they say that a large number of these protests are organised via Facebook and Twitter. Certainly much of the action conducted in Cornwall has been done this way, with students, Labour party members and the emerging Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance in the foreground.  But will this movement fizzle out without a leader? Or will it merely lead to a more grassroots-led campaign?

Laurie Penny has been arguing extensively in the New Statesman for a more ‘democratic’ approach, that is, a campaign run by students which has no fixed leadership. But the worry is that the movement loses momentum and coherence if it continues in the form of unaccountable groups, setting up events through Facebook in the hope that everyone else follows suit. But another frightening aspect of the criticisms of leadership concerns the casual dismissal of trade unions. Coordinated strike action will have a bigger impact on the government than a few thousand getting kettled in Parliament Square.

Part of the fear of leadership stems from the NUS’s timidity, nay, aversion, when it comes to supporting the student movement. Aaron Porter has truly failed young people in his attacks on the Millbank occupiers, his support for cuts (as leaked to the Telegraph) and his failure to back other protests after the fantastic first demonstration in London in November. But, as Owen Jones argues in a recent Left Futures article, the failure of the NUS leadership is not a failure of the idea of leadership in general. Len McCluskey of Unite has been immensely vocal in his opposition to the cuts, calling for a programme of strikes. Similarly, Matt Wrack of the FBU, figures in the CWU, and most clearly, Mark Serwotka of the PCS (which leads the ‘There is an Alternative’ campaign), are all indispensable presences in the anti-cuts movement.

There is no way around it. Unions are democratic. They are organised. And they have 7 million members. Student support for the unions should not merely be tactical though. It is a moral issue. The working class will lose out more because of the cuts than middle-class students. 1.3m jobs are at risk because of the government’s economic plans. The higher rate of VAT will punish families. Cuts to housing benefit will force 300,000 out of their homes – in London alone. The assault on welfare – £18bn in cuts – is going to be detrimental to both workers and the unemployed. Students have to stand alongside workers as a matter of principle – the principle of solidarity.

This sense of solidarity is in danger of being broken. The Socialist Workers’ Party, famous for their unsteady reputation on the left and the right, have organised demonstrations about education in Manchester and London on the same day that protesters from Youth Fight for Jobs are having theirs in Manchester. The SWP are good at mobilising activists, making it likely that the marches are well attended. But on the Facebook January 29th protest event page, Youth Fight for Jobs say ‘its unfortunate that some of the education campaigns are organising separate events’ – as if having action on a national scale is a bad thing. Having protests in two cities is not divisive – it will probably boost the turnout by widening the ability of people to actually get there. Having an elected leadership that could organise without this kind of jealousy would clear up some of these disputes.

When it comes to the fight-back, we have to accept there will be differing opinions on how to organise and what our message is. This is inevitable: but with no clear leadership, our message may become obscure. Are we fighting against education cuts or all public sector cuts? And if there are hundreds of bickering organisations are we not weakened? The solution could be a consolidation of the networks into a major democratic force with an unambiguous direction, which can then function on the same platform as the unions – not in competition with the unions.

Merging the different campaigns may not be the most popular suggestion, but it’s one that needs to be seriously considered before we decline into a disparate sprawl of disconnected individuals. The last thing we should be thinking of doing is eradicating the notion of leadership.

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.