Friday 25-09-2015 - 14:18
In 2010, I was a fresher. My first term at art school coincided with the first term of the coalition government; one of their first moves was to triple tuition fees, and so one of my first experiences of the student movement was the November national demonstration and its descendance on Milbank.
I will never forget the protests that took place that Autumn. They provided an outlet for my frustration, helped me build a network of friends and gave me the political education I would never have received in the classroom.
I will also never forget what defeat felt like. First fees, then the Education Maintenance Allowance, a whole host of support so many of us had relied on to get through education torn apart.Five years on, as a proposed cut to maintenance grants awaits debate in Parliament, I believe the student movement has a better shot of winning. Here’s why: the government has a relatively small majority and the student movement is strong. We have active, local groups and dedicated Unions prioritising this campaign, and a recent break from the pro-austerity consensus in UK politics has awakened a new and enthused activist base. We are also more pro-active. Instead of protesting against each policy proposal, we are carving out a vision for what we want education to look like: free, funded, affordable to all and welcoming to international students. A positive and clear position is our strength, but to win we need to act – and fast.
Although I was the £3k generation, it wasn’t the fees and repayment threshold that caused me anxiety or forced me to work 20 hours a week in term-time. It was the high rents, travel cards and expensive art books that set me back - and so many students have it the same.
In the last five years the cost of living has risen, tuition fees have risen, yet financial support has stayed the same and now the government is even planning to cut it. By turning the existing maintenance grants into a loan, the poorest students will graduate with the most debt.
Our own research at NUS shows that 50 per cent of students already struggle to meet their living costs, and it’s no wonder that more than a third say they would have reconsidered university if grants were not available.
The entire student movement, with our colleagues in the trade unions, must step up to the mark and continue to reject the funding system that says if you can’t afford it, you can’t go. Education will never be free until everyone can access it: that means campaigning for living costs to be met must be a basic demand in the fight for a free education. While the debt-burden is wrong and the pricing of our courses undermines the very essence of education as a societal asset; it is the reality of austerity and how it manifests in our members’ lives that is the urgent crisis denying education to so many.
Last week saw Students’ Unions from across the UK mount an incredible local lobby of MPs over the cut to grants. As our first intervention this was hugely successful; but we need to up our game. To overturn a majority in Parliament we must prove that the impact of this policy will cause all kinds of trouble, and not just in the student-populated constituencies.
One of the most effective ways of demonstrating our strength – and of bringing new campaigners in – is to mobilise on a national level. To physically march for our demands and bringing all those concerned together: students, student unions’, the trade unions and our staff. To gain widespread national coverage for our cause, exposing and opposing these government’s cuts for what they are - an attack on the poorest people in exchange for a tax cut for the rich.
That is why NUS is joining the upcoming rally in Manchester to protest at the Conservative Party Conference, and the national demonstration for free education marching on Parliament – keeping our campaign for grants central to both actions:
- Sunday 4 October – National Rally at Conservative Party Conference, Manchester
- Wednesday 4 November – National Free Education Demonstration, London
Let’s consider how we can bring as many people as possible to these actions. Some unions are organising transport, others are joining up with local campaign groups to provide cheap options. Coaches and materials for Sunday 4 October can be found here and here. Materials to promote Wednesday 4 November can be ordered here.
I believe we can win, but only if we continue to apply persistent pressure. These national mobilisations are our next steps – see you there!