Students are in open rebellion against an exploitative system
Continuing an escalation of direct actions, student rent strikers are currently occupying buildings across four university campuses in the north of England: University of Manchester, Sheffield Hallam, University of Sheffield and University of Nottingham. Amongst their demands are rental and tuition fee rebates, protection for precarious staff on campuses, and an end to sexual violence and excessive policing on campus. These occupations occur within the context of a wider rent strike movement, which had amassed around 15,000 strikers as of January.
University managements have responded to the occupying students by refusing to meet with them, endangering them by locking fire exits, and with assaults by security staff. Despite this austere response, the success of similar occupations in securing rent rebates last year demonstrates that students can win this fight.
Meanwhile, international students at three London Universities (Goldsmiths, the Royal College of Art and SOAS) are striking against paying tuition fees. Similar strikes are planned soon at Kings College London and the London School of Economics. In a nationalistic policy, international students are faced with extortionate tuition fees, well in excess of those paid by domestic students (which are already considerable). These international students are furious that this daylight robbery continues unabetted even when a sub-standard education is being delivered to them as they study remotely.
A history of solidarity
Students have long been a potent force in the labour movement. Students have consistently shown solidarity with major workers’ campaigns, including the miners strikes of the 70s and 80s and the anti-apartheid movement. In 1968 students played a leading role in an escalating period of civil unrest that resulted in the largest general strike in France’s history. While this latter student-led movement was ultimately unsuccessful in achieving their anti-capitalist aims, they forced the Gaullist regime into making a series of concessions to workers that increased wages and improved working conditions. More recently, the National Union of Students (NUS) have entered into limited collaborations with the Trades Unions Congress (TUC), and the 2010 student protests spurred the wider anti-austerity movement of the last decade which students continued to support throughout.
Despite this, students are under-represented in trade unions [with the exception of syndicalist unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)]. The University and College Union (UCU) only represents academics and support staff, despite broad agreement on many key issues such as preventing the privitisation of education. This separation places barriers on joint actions and communication between students and staff. By contrast, industrial unions aim to unite everyone working and studying in one industry to promote solidarity, and coordinate more effectively to transfer power to the working class.
Marketisation of education
These student demonstrations bring much-needed attention to the critical neglect of educational institutions. The necessity of rent and fee strikes highlights the fundamental changes to higher education in the last decade: in recent years higher education institution funding has come primarily from tuition fees, which ballooned to £9000 (and up to £60,000 for international students) in 2012 leaving millions of students with unrepayable debt. Moreover, the extortionate rents charged for student accomodations (even when students may not being using them during a pandemic) make universities little better than landlords.
This falls within a wider context of the marketisation of education: the joint transformations of education and research into commodities, students into consumers, educators into service providers, and education from a value in itself to a means to create economic value. Sudents, education workers and the rest of society all suffer as a result of these changes. We at the Education Workers Industrial Union believe that this needs to be inverted: economic value should serve people by providing them with education.
Fights in a system at breaking point
The ongoing pandemic has demonstrated the complete inability of the capitalist system to plan for a crisis. Because of the marketisation outlined above, this is no less true in the education sector. Chronic underfunding forces universities into extracting as much capital from students as possible to survive. Simultaneously, this underfunding stretches universities to breaking point in ways that also affect staff.
Prior to the pandemic, faculty in higher education have had unmanageable workloads exceeding 50 hours a week on average, despite contracts stipulating “normal” working weeks of 35-40 hours. This amounts to academic staff working around two extra days unpaid per week just to keep the system ticking over, suggesting university faculties are about 30% understaffed. While being excessively overworked, academic staff have been rewarded with an effective 17% pay cut in real terms over the last decade. Faced with these pay cuts, an increasingly casualised workforce, and cuts to pensions UCU members organised a series of major strike actions between 2018-2020.
On top of this, in the last year teaching staff worked labouriously to create new materials for online teaching, while simultaneously facing threats to their job security. Postgraduates have been given insufficient time to finish their researchdespite not being able to access university resources during lockdowns. Clearly the current extractive model of funding that students are fighting against is ineffective (as well as unethical) as it is incapable of providing adequate resources in universities.
Higher education is not the only educational sector to have been eroded for decades and strained to breaking point under the COVID-19 crisis. Schools have been similarly neglected by austerity and a state that cares little about investing in people. Conditions are now so bad under COVD-19 that one in three teachers plan to quit within the next five years, which would be devastating for classrooms around the country. The trend towards increasing numbers of temporary teachers in organisations like Teach First may be a foreboding indicator that schools are heading towards a casualised workforce with rapid turnovers. Such a future does not bode well for teaching conditions, and the education of young people.
In January this year members of the National Education Union (NEU) refused to return to classrooms citing section 44 of the Employment Rights Act which guarantees the right to a safe working environment. The wielding of this act by such a large number of workers is a historic first, and potentially presents a new tool for exercising collective power.
The problems facing students, teaching and support staff all stem from the same underlying causes. Only together can we take back education for the working class, and so we stand in solidarity with the students as they lead this fight in occupying their campuses.