By Robyn Banks
Amatey Doku is right: student activism isn’t dead. In a recently published interview with the Guardian, the NUS Vice President of Higher Education proclaimed that students’ response to Brexit and their engagement with the People’s Vote campaign has shown that student activism is thriving anew, after years without a “unifying cause”. But what about the fight for free education that has been active on our campuses since 2012? For many activists in the last few generations of students, it was the issue that brought us together and gave us the skills to take the fight to the powerful. But for Doku, it was too “inward looking” to inspire a “genuine” movement.
I take issue with this sentiment, but I’m not surprised by it. Some in the upper echelons of NUS have, in recent years, become supporters of tuition fees and the marketisation of higher education that came with them. Powerful factions, which Doku has aligned himself with, have taken the stance that fees and marketisation have benefited higher education, criticising those who support free education along three spurious lines. The first is a bizarre fascination with their class status, accusing free education activists of being middle class philanthropists positioning themselves as the heroes of working class students. This cynical move completely disregards the actual circumstances of the activists in question, as well as the value of class solidarity within the movement. Their second angle of attack is to continually claim that free education is not affordable, even though the movement has thoroughly costed their proposals and shown that a willing government would be able to provide free education. Finally, these critics construct the free education movement as being too focused on fees and not enough on other financial obstacles students face, turning a blind eye to the long-running fight for the reinstatement of grants and bursaries.
The picture of the last seven years that Doku evoked in his interview is simply ahistorical. The free education movement hasn’t failed to mobilise students. Since 2012, free education has been widely discussed and supported by students despite the lack of support at various times from the government, the labour party, NUS, Student Unions and their universities. Usually working on a shoestring budget, students across the country contributed hours of their own time to raise awareness and support on their campuses. In short, they built a genuine grassroots movement. Compare this to the People’s Vote campaign, which draws its funding from big business and a strange mix of celebrities, from Peter Mandelson to Patrick Stewart.
Despite lacking such precipitous cash flow, the free education movement has survived and thrived in a hostile environment. For nearly ten years there have been consistent campaigns against fees and the wider marketisation of higher education, despite the high turnover of activists in the student movement and the constant lack of support from NUS. It has done this by galvanising students to fight against something that directly affects them and will continue doing so for much of their lives. This is in stark contrast to the People’s Vote campaign, a flash in the pan fronted by such fairweather friends as George Osborne and Tony Blair. One way or the other, the People’s Vote campaign will fade away after March 29th. The millions of pounds being thrown at the movement is not an investment in a sustainable campaign which a new student movement could centre itself around – it just ensures the participation of big names, and even bigger paychecks for those involved.
There is no question that there has been life in the student movement long before Brexit
It’s not just the free education movement that disproves the claim that the student movement has been unmoving over the last few years. Since its launch, the Fossil Free campaign has managed to get 71 universities to end their investments in fossil fuels. This incredible success didn’t come from a group with millionaire backers and the support of sketchy politicians (seriously, any movement with the support of Tony Blair should immediately dismantle itself in shame). It came from core groups of students whose work formed a national and international campaign, bringing together different groups from within the student movement and without. As with the free education movement, these committed activists have managed to win some amazing campaigns on a minimal budget, with SUs rarely getting involved to help unless they could capitalise on the publicity of a victory. There is no question that there has been life in the student movement long before Brexit was even on the agenda.
Doku’s story about the recent history of the student movement is built on a falsehood designed to increase his own political standing ahead of his imminent departure from NUS. Whilst helping mobilise students to attend the People’s Vote demo is certainly an achievement, it is disingenuous to claim this as evidence that the wider student movement has suddenly been brought back to life. The People’s Vote campaign must be understood within the context of being funded by external groups and fronted by problematic politicians. We must not ignore the disproportionate achievements of grassroots movements with little budget or political backing. Many people, including myself, have been mobilised within the movement long before Brexit and will be for a long time afterwards over other issues, and we shouldn’t be written out of history just to suit Amatey Doku’s narrative.
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