On Saturday 15 October student activists gathered in London at a National Forum hosted by Student Broad Left to discuss building a fighting student movement that supports Jeremy Corbyn and takes on austerity, racism and war.
Here we share Joss Knight’s speech from the ‘United for Education – fighting austerity, cuts and fees’ panel.
I’m Joss Knight, member of the Student Assembly Against Austerity national committee for Imperial College.
I will start by acknowledging that these are pretty bleak times for many people in Britain and elsewhere as the right wing have become more vocal and emboldened throughout Europe. Students are feeling this keenly as the basic right to education has been attacked over and over and education has been more and more commodified, segregated and neglected in recent years. Since Theresa May became our unelected prime minister the Tories have redoubled their commitment to an elitist backwards education system with their attempts to bring back grammar schools.
Students face a cost of living crisis fuelled by the scrapping of EMA, maintenance grants and NHS bursaries, rapidly rising rents across the country and, not least, ever increasing university tuition fees. The remodelling of Further and Higher Education on free market principles is turning students increasingly into consumers and institutions into profit centres. Among universities, this will lead to a two tier system with ‘elite’ institutions allowed to charge higher fees, while others are left more and more strapped for cash. With the average graduate debt presently over £40,000, this will inevitably further entrench the association between wealth and privilege and going to university. Tuition fee raises have already seen huge drops in part time and mature student application rates.
I recently heard the apt observation that, among the Westminster political classes, further education is something that happens to other people’s children. This has been made abundantly clear by the financial squeezing dry of colleges by successive brutal cuts. They don’t care. Colleges face being cut and pasted together in mergers called Area Reviews. Combine this with a 40% cut in the adult skills budget, now the Adult Education Budget, since 2010 and it can spell nothing but disaster for further education.
Moreover it is black, female and LGBT+ students who are being hit hardest by the assault on education. Black university students are less likely to be awarded 1st and 2.1 class degrees and are less likely to do well in and be satisfied with further education courses. This is for a host of complex reasons, but one major reason is that the racism ingrained in our society means that any cuts made in the name of austerity have the greatest immediate impact on black and minority students. Black students tend to come from more deprived areas, and these areas are the worst hit by cuts to services, be that schools or extracurricular activities. Services for all marginalised groups are the first to be hit when cuts are made and LGBT+ student’s services must be protected in the face of this.
Education is a right, not something we should have to fight for. Free education is entirely possible – it is the norm across Europe and was something we had in Britain in the not too distant past. Austerity is not, as the Tories claim, a necessity, but an economically discredited cover story for allowing our most valued institutions – our NHS, our colleges and universities – to fall into disrepair and then be quietly dished out to the private sector.
We should not be disheartened though. In the face of adversity, students are not known for lying down and giving up. From reversing the privatisation of the tuition fees loan book, to gaining concessions from UCL with the cut the rent campaign, to turning out en-masse to stop deportations and protest racism and injustice, students have fought and won numerous times in the recent past. We must continue this great precedent and get involved in direct action as much as possible. In response to the crises created by this succession of far right xenophobic governments we have to react immediately. We must also create the foundations of the education system we want to see in the long term – which sees education as an end in itself as well as a path to greater wellbeing for all people, not as an employee factory. NUS have recently elected a leadership genuinely committed to campaigning for free, fair and accessible education for the first time in years. We can build on this and use our power as a body millions strong to enact the positive change we want.
We have a new source of hope in Jeremy Corbyn and the progressive left wing of the labour party. Their dramatic rise to leadership of the opposition has caused greatly renewed interest in left wing politics, especially among young people and students. They are continually battling the government on its disastrous education policies and have, among other things, suggested that they will set up a national education system to provide education as a national service from cradle to grave, something that any country should reasonably aspire to. One of Corbyn’s greatest strengths is that he does not behave like a typical politician. He doesn’t just spout the establishment line. That being so, it is imperative that he completely rejects the false narrative of blaming migrants for economic problems. Even making some concessions is not good enough as it legitimises the xenophobia sweeping through the country right now. In universities and colleges, the new influx of people inspired by Corbyn must be left in no doubt that immigration is not a bad thing. While international students continue to be treated as cash cows and one in six black students continue to report experiencing racism on campus this idea must be rejected at every level.
Corbyn does provide a real prospect of change for many people in education though. He represents a major class struggle within the labour movement at the moment. If Corbyn and the ordinary people he represents are successful then we could see, for the first time, establishment power structures in the UK containing a real representation of the UK population – people who were educated in state comprehensives, people whose children are in further education, people who know what it’s like to grow up in working class households and among these a representative proportion of all oppressed groups within society. Whether the new and more representative labour movement could then lead a societal transformation from parliament is a different question but, with more and more organisations, even the IMF, discrediting austerity, it is hard to imagine that it wouldn’t at least herald an end to the latest round of attacks on ordinary people and education.
There is much to do, from organising and gathering support within our own institutions, to taking action through protests, boycotts, strikes and other means, to working as part of the wider national and international movements against austerity in all facets of society. We, as students, have the creativity, drive and optimism to build a better future and we must bring these qualities to the heart of the anti-austerity movement.