The current round of UCU strikes is happening off the back of years of attacks on higher education. This impacts the staff and students of today – but also the quality of education that will exist for students in the future.
Victory for the workers in their strikes, and victory for students in the fight for free education form part of the same struggle.
Capitalism is killing education
Education is the cornerstone of economic and social development. Marxists fight for free, quality education for everyone, so that we – both as individuals and as a society – can maximise our full potential.
For almost a decade and a half, however, capitalism has been lurching from crisis to crisis. And it is workers and youth who have been made to pay, through austerity and attacks.
That means cuts to education budgets. This, in turn, forces universities to increase their income if they want to survive.
This requires management to make savings, which take the form of attacks on workers, amongst other things. The very university staff who are supposed to be a pillar of education institutions are those who are being exploited the most.
Today, higher education is run like a business. And like any business, under capitalism, this means that universities are in competition for consumers – that is to say, students.
Consequently, universities are forced to be as marketable as possible. This means spending a massive amount of money on vanity projects, marketing, etc.; and, in turn, foregoing funding for other areas – such as study spaces, accommodation, and mental health services – that are more important to students’ lives and learning.
The marketisation of education has resulted in higher tuition fees, higher rents, more pressure on staff, lower quality education, worse graduate employment prospects, greater achievement gaps between rich and poor, and so on.
This process has been going on for years. But the coronavirus crisis has brought all these problems to the surface, making them painfully clear to everyone. And this deterioration is only going to accelerate in the years ahead.
Profit is the enemy
We know from these UCU strikes that staff are angry and willing to fight back. And we know from last year’s wave of student rent strikes – and from the growing solidarity we’re seeing from on the picket lines – that this sentiment is shared by students as well.
Staff-student unity is vital in the fight for free education. Students and workers must come together to attack our common enemy: university management and the profit system that is ravaging our educational institutions.
We should be clear: this is not an ideological question, or a case of simply changing the minds of university senior management.
Governments of all shades across the world are faced with the same task of cutting social services and implementing privatisation programmes in order to keep capitalism afloat.
The point is that this isn’t a case of badly-managed capitalism, or nasty Tories, or vicious vice-chancellors who simply hate educating young people – it’s a product of the inherent contradictions of capitalism that require the pursuit of profit at all costs, including sacrificing access to quality education for all.
Unite and fight
Clearly education and research needs to be funded. But we must point to the hundreds of billions of pounds sitting in UK banks, owned but uninvested by big business.
We argue that these businesses – and the banks where they hoard their money; the same banks that were bailed out with public money following the 2008 crash – should be expropriated and integrated into a socialist plan of production.
Instead of leaving it up to individual profit-seeking capitalists and their friends in government to decide how this money should be invested, the working class should democratically decide where the wealth produced by them is invested. Without a doubt there would be plenty available for investment in free education at every level.
Free education therefore can ultimately only be won and safeguarded by taking universities and other educational institutions out of the hands of private investors and capitalists – run democratically by students and staff, as part of an overall plan of education, research, and development.
Such a task can only be achieved on the basis of students and workers – across the labour movement – uniting together to deal a mortal blow against the capitalist system.
As we enter into a period of heightened attacks on workers by the capitalist class, this battle in higher education could play an important role in leading the fight back.