The below is a transcript of a speech Rachel gave to a #demo2012 rally in Manchester on Friday 19 October 2012
Last April NUS National Conference voted in favour of a national demo. Let me remind you what that mandate was: against cuts, against fees, against high interest on student debt and against privatisation.
I hope we can all agree that we are all against cuts, fees, debt and privatisation. And a demo is what you have when you are against something. That’s all fine. But I think this demo needs to be the start of something, not just an expression of what we are pissed off about.
I want to go beyond being against things. I want to find something that’s worth fighting for.
I want ethical education institutions that take seriously their responsibility to individuals, to communities and to global social justice and educational development. I want everyone, not just an academic elite, to be able to access post-compulsory education at any point in their life without fear of debt.
I want educational experiences that help people to become democratic actors, citizens who can make a difference in the world, and yes, economic actors with creative, satisfying jobs. Learning is not something that is apart from our economic system, it should be deeply rooted in our economic system because that will transform how we think about labour, capital and markets.
I want a tertiary education system that operates in the public interest and that can evidence its public value.
For me, this means three basic things.
First, genuinely flexible pathways into and out of various forms of education. Why should HE follow FE, and why should people be sorted into academic or vocational pathways before they know what their interests and talents might turn out to be? Why shouldn’t people with a Masters return to Level 3, or people study ancient history alongside their day job? Embedding learning and growth throughout life is part of social justice; it’s part of how we create a fair, balanced economy.
The Tories have got it so wrong- they think that people exist for the economy, and that the answer to economic growth is longer hours and lower wages. In fact, the economy exists for the people, and should be set to the purpose of helping people to grow and develop. The economy is for us, not us for the economy.
We should be concerned about fair access to higher education and we should be looking to expand educational opportunities. But we need to get away from the idea that academic higher education is the pinnacle of personal achievement. The type of education you have is far less important than what you are able to do and become because of it. The FE sector has understood this for years. FE colleges have a mission to serve their local community and support people at whatever stage in their life to access the educational provision they need. HE institutions could take a massive leaf out of the FE book.
Second, we need a genuine dispersal of power – empowering students, staff and communities in institutional decision-making. Institutions don’t change by themselves and central government policy can only go so far. Students, staff and communities have a responsibility to engage in the community of institutions, not just acting as consumers giving their feedback, or as stakeholders in a corporate business.
I want to see institutional governing bodies that include students, members of the local community, alumni, and yes, representatives of the global community of education. Institutions’ interests are global – they recruit international students, set up overseas campuses, collaborate on major international research projects and share good teaching practice with each other. Why do we insist on limiting our vision to UK HE when the world is on our doorstep and there is so much we have to contribute?
At course level I want to see a commitment to engaging students as partners in their learning. Not just giving the thumbs up or down to their course or filling in satisfaction surveys, but engaging in positive, meaningful conversation about what the course is trying to do, how well it is working and how responsibilities can be more widely shared.
Finally, institutions should be held accountable for how they collaborate to serve the public good, not encouraged to be in competition with each other for an already-insufficient number of student places. The market doesn’t serve the public good and it never has.
You know we’ve gone through the looking glass when the government’s advisor on social mobility thinks that fair access, widening participation and student success can be achieved through the creation of a new league table, as the Milburn report recommended yesterday.
We desperately need not just new ideas – though we really need those as well – but a new way of thinking about education.
And that’s why this demo is not the end, it’s not even the beginning. We need to build a mass movement of student activists, we need to work with our institutions to build true, political partnership between staff and students, we need to win over the public to our cause, and we need to explain to government how we make our vision a reality.
We can’t do this if all we know how to say is what we are against.