Make no mistake – higher education in the UK is in crisis. After decades of uncertain policy and three successive Tory-led governments with a clear desire to marketise and corporatise our campuses, we’re left with a generation burdened with debt, with an explosion in mental health issues among students, with universities bereft of democracy and increasingly fuelled by precarious labour, with Students’ Unions that are often little more than marketing arms of their universities, and with continuing inequalities in educational attainment. The passionate learning, debate and inquiry that should be the soul of education has become little more than a thin veneer pasted over profiteering and corporate-style expansion.
The response to this, from the official structures and institutions that in theory exist to promote students’ interests? All too often, indifference, at times even bordering on collusion. It is depressingly commonplace to see Students’ Unions only producing cowering, mumbled resistance to their institutions’ injustices, if any at all. NUS is largely absent, its work often irrelevant to the big issues facing many students across the country – a trend set to worsen following plans for ‘radical reforms to democratic and corporate structures’ that could potentially gut representation and democracy within the national union.
I’m in my seventh year of being a student now, in the final year of my PhD in Lincoln. During that time I’ve been lucky enough to meet some incredible activists with a deep commitment to justice and education, and privileged enough to be part of some amazing campaigns that have gone on to secure real wins for students and wider society. I have also, however, been unfortunate enough to see students failed, time and again by those elected to serve them. All too frequently, people and institutions meant to be the voice of students have let us down.
But there’s a new movement in town – the Student Left Network. In our founding document, approved at a meeting last November, we describe ourselves as a “broad coalition of student activists involved in campaigns to transform our universities, education and society. We aim to unite and renew the student left and go on the offensive to transform education and society. We are on the radical left: we fight for a society based on social ownership and radical democracy, where production is organised to serve human and environmental need rather than profit.”
We have a clear vision of what we want higher education and wider society to look like. In particular, we are calling on our universities and colleges to:
- End the exploitation of postgraduate research student workers
- Pay a living wage to all university staff, including outsourced staff, and ensure a maximum of a 5:1 pay ratio on campuses
- Divest from fossil fuels and arms companies
- End collaboration with the government’s racist PREVENT agenda
- Properly fund, staff and resource mental health services
We aim to achieve this through a number of methods, from fighting for a more democratic NUS and Labour Students, to building more democratic local Students’ Unions with stronger links to trade unions.
I, for one, am tired of being told things aren’t possible
One of our key aims is to bring together otherwise isolated activist groups, from rent strikers to environmental activists, to learn from and support one another and take the fight to the next level. We desperately need a national student movement that fights marketisation, the exploitation of workers, the mental health crisis, climate change and far right bigotry. And it needs to do so from the bottom up – being led by and relevant to students, unafraid to speak truth to power and to demand radical change.
With some powerful exceptions, the official structures of the student movement have broadly given up on dreaming big, acquiescing to many of the recent effects of a more corporatised, individualised world. Free higher education? An unobtainable luxury. Tackling deep issues like mental health at the root, rather than papering over them? Nice idea! Now come stroke this cute dog. A properly democratic campus, radical, activist Students’ Unions, and a democratic, accountable national union? Pipedreams.
I, for one, am tired of being told things aren’t possible, of accepting a vision of campus life increasingly detached from reality and morality. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Student Left Network, in the short-term at least, will be in renewing the sense that student life should, but most importantly can, be radically, beautifully different, if we organise collectively to make it so.
If you’d like to join or learn more about the Student Left Network, you can do so here.
Featured image credit: Student Left Network
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