United for Education: what next?

Tuesday 29-11-2016 - 16:46

Thousands of students marched through central London last weekend, sending a clear message that, in the face of colossal attacks on our education, students and staff are united.

It really was incredible to feel the strength of our movement united in defence of the values we all share.

I had the pleasure of speaking to many students and officers during the day, for many of whom it was their first ever demonstration. It is crucial that we use the demo as a springboard to deliver the serious change that our students so desperately need.

The demonstration highlighted our strengths as well as our weaknesses, our movement’s achievements and our needs for improvement. In the process of organising this demonstration, I was struck by both a long-term and a short-term problem, which we face as a movement.

In the short-term, we have seen a receding of local grass-roots networks.

Many have made comparisons between this period and 2010. The most striking difference is that in 2010, most campuses had anti-cuts groups. These groups – on the whole – no longer exist.

The aftermath of 2010 has seen the trebling of tuition fees, budget cuts and the defeats suffered by different groups of public sector workers – all of which have pushed our movement back and disorganised our avenues of resistance.

The coming period will need to be one where we re-build viable grassroots networks. My hope is that the groups of students from your region who came on Saturday can be your local starting block for that process.

In the long-term, our union has long taken the approach that the best course of action was to use our movement to lobby government and mitigate the worse effects of education reform.

If in the immediate term this approach has yielded important wins for students, in the long term it has been unable to stop the general direction of travel; rising costs, cuts in funding, and an ever growing role for private business in education.

This has further reversed our efforts, as well as our structures, upwards towards parliament rather than downwards towards students. I believe it is necessary for our union to face in both directions.

The legacy of previous decades has left us, as a body, ill-equipped to effectively build deeper roots in the student population. Students’ unions do fantastic work on this front, but our UK-wide structures need to be reshaped and reinvigorated if we are to be an effective organising force.

The ongoing review of our democratic structures will need to address these short-comings and reflect on NUS’ need for more solid local work.

We know what the challenges are; cuts to post-16 education, rising fees and attempts to privatise education threaten to cut off access to all but a privileged few.

Students are grappling with rising living costs and diminishing prospects of stable employment after they graduate. If that wasn’t enough, hate crime is on the rise – tearing at the fabric of our diverse society. It is no wonder that many students feel that their voice is ignored,

In order to face up to these challenges and affect, we desperately need to re-build. That is why NUS’ priority campaign is to ‘Liber8 our education’ – to demand a free, fair and accessible education for all.

Now is the time to organise a meeting with those students from your institution, or your region, and discuss the local issues that need addressing, campaign for a commitment to resist the reforms from your managers, defend the right of international students to study and work, oppose cuts to college staff and Prepare to not be complicit in a rise in tuition fees and make a stand against the TEF by boycotting the National Student Survey.

We need to make this the year we fight for affordable housing, and support students taking action on rents. The year we say that international students are welcome here, and defend them against attempts of deportation. The year we stand united against all forms of hate, and project a positive vision of education that is a social good, not a marketplace.

Over the coming weeks, I will be talking to officers and students at colleges and universities on how to ensure that our vision to liberate education is positive, inclusive, and relevant to all.

We will then be launching resources for each strand of the campaign, explaining how you can use it to make a real impact on your campus. We will then launch a series of activities into the New Year to launch a manifesto, putting pressure on policy-makers to take our demands seriously.

The government is waging a war on education will look like for future generation. To their vision of privatised institutions run for profit, let us collectively answer with our alternative: a free, liberated, and accessible education for all, at any point in life.


Photo: Emma Yeomans


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