BUILDING THE MOVEMENT FOR FREE EDUCATION: THE STUDENT RADICAL #4

In certain circles, there is the perception that the transformation to the ideal of the student as consumer is complete and that therefore the student activist and a radical student movement is a thing of the past. Although there was the anti-fees flashpoint in 2010, the argument goes, now the modern student is more concerned with getting their money’s worth from the education they directly pay for, than they are about changing the world.

Over the last four years there have been countless examples of campaigns that prove this thesis wrong. This series of articles seeks to explore those campaigns, what they have achieved and what they mean for the student movement and the Higher Education sector as a whole.

by Chris Jarvis.

Estimates vary, but between five and ten thousand students marched through central London on Wednesday 19th of November. Under a multitude of banners, they brought with them a single central message – education should be a public good, not a commodity, and therefore should be free for all.

After a series of governments of many colours have introduced and then deepened the commercialisation of Higher Education, Universities are now run more like businesses than ever before. The principles at the core of Higher Education now are those of the market. In this context, a campaign, a movement or a march that calls for education to be free, and to shift the financing of education from the student to the state appears on the face of it to be fundamentally reactive.

(© PA)

Conversely, this demonstration and the wider movement of which it was a part was and is the direct opposite. The students who marched through London in the cold of November weren’t marching in response to any changes in higher education policy, to any further marketization or any particular political development. Rather they were marching in favour of an ideal and a principle which has been a central tenet of the left of the student movement for time immemorial, and an idea that is once again re-entering the mainstream of student politics – that of free education.

This demonstration was different in that it shouted loud and clear the message that irrespective of the current direction of travel of our University system, the principle of and campaign for education to be free is as important as ever.

Student campaigns of recent times have tended to be responsive to market driven, right wing developments on a local and national scale. From past campaigns to ‘keep the fee cap’, battles against course closures and attempts to halt the privatisation of campus services, there has been a tendency for students, and the workers they have stood with, to be on the back foot. This demonstration was different in that it shouted loud and clear the message that irrespective of the current direction of travel of our University system, the principle of and campaign for education to be free is as important as ever.

Although the march was littered with veterans of 2010, the majority of those in attendance were not of that generation. Some will have rallied four years ago around stopping the cuts to EMA and some were the leaders of the fight against £9k, but for most, this demonstration will have been the first foray into national student activism, leaving aside the disaster that was NUS’s woeful 2012 ‘educate, employ, empower’. This means that thousands of students, whether they stayed the course to listen to a series of inspiring ‘usual suspect’ speakers, from Caroline Lucas to Dianne Abbott, or else took different actions at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and elsewhere, have now returned to their campuses with the energy and momentum that is needed to build future campaigns, strengthen the movement and take further action.

(© AFP)

As this article series has sought to suggest, there has been a latent mood of student radicalism on a variety of issues in pockets across the country in recent years. What has been lacking is national co-ordination, confidence and numbers. The free education demo on November 19th should hopefully have instigated all of those things. Students returning to their campuses are now building for a day of action on December 3rd, which has been called (separately) by the Student Assembly Against Austerity and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. With this, we can hope to see the broadening of the base of the movement, through large, localised actions, that ensure that the next time a national demonstration is called, it will be twice this size.

Without this, free education would either continue to remain a pipedream, or else would be, as at present, propped up by an unfair and regressive system

There is no illusion that the campaign for Higher Education to be free, fair and fully funded won’t be a long and arduous one. It will require the complete undermining of so many assumptions of our existing University framework; from the idea of the student as a consumer to the wrangling over league tables. But additionally, it will require a reprioritisation of the political elite, wherein taxes are made to be far more progressive so that we move the burden of funding public services from ordinary people and towards the wealthy and big business, wherein we scrap nuclear weapons and wherein we end the subsidy of corporate interests. Without this, free education would either continue to remain a pipedream, or else would be, as at present, propped up by an unfair and regressive system which relies on the disproportionate contribution of those who have least.

This is a tall order, but if a radical and broad based movement for free education emerges from this demonstration, then it is a place we can begin to move towards.

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