Today, November 19th, there is a demonstration by students in central London for free education. Marxist students wholeheartedly support this demonstration and will be participating in it energetically.
The NUS leadership, on the other hand, has exposed its inability to be on the side of students. Austerity measures, £9000 in tuition fees, and cuts on university staff are having a huge impact on access to and quality of higher education. Regardless of all the motions passed in the last four years against the policies adopted by the Con-Dem coalition in matters of education, the NUS leadership has failed, once again, to live up to its task of taking the side of the students.
Activists have organised a march today to call for politicians to scrap tuition fees. However the NUS President, Toni Pearce, has unilaterally withdrawn NUS support for the demo at the last minute. Hundreds of coaches were already organized from universities around the country, including the University of Southampton, with thousands of students wishing to attend. The concerns of Ms Pearce are ostensibly about the safety and liability of student unions with regards to insurance and for the inaccessibility for students with disability. These arguments are there to mask the fact that most of the NUS leaders have aspirations as politicians and they really don’t want to upset their would-be employers in Parliament.
The reality is that students are burdened with tens of thousands of pounds of debt by the end of their degree, with slim employment prospects. The dream of getting a well-paid job is vanishing under our feet, substituted by the nightmares of short term or zero hour contracts and debt. Apparently this is not sufficient for the NUS leadership to get angry at the government. If their worries for students’ safety were genuine, the NUS should have publicly appealed to the police to keep their batons in their pants and refrain from their favourite hobby of ‘kettling’ students. They should use their organisational resources to organise effective stewarding of the march by the students themselves, as well as providing as many facilities for getting to and from the march as possible. In the students’ demonstrations held in London in 2010 and 2011 the biggest threat to public safety came from the aggressive behaviour of the police. Yet it seems that the NUS thinks that the problem is the youth protesting to obtain their basic right to accessible education.
Fortunately the demonstration will go ahead regardless. As a student union not affiliated to the NUS, I am calling on Southampton University SU to offer students at this university the opportunity to actually voice their discontent for the political elite and to take the matters into their own hands (and the streets).
In the past few years the failure of the politicians to listen to the students and the lack of a strong leadership in the NUS have left the movement demoralised. This demo shows that, despite this, discontent is only growing. The proposals of privatising student debt, increasing fees further still, and cutting further staff wages have stirred up anger and brought the discontent back to the surface. Most importantly there is a necessity to link up our movement with the workers at our university, the professors and staff in general who are seeing their wages and pensions decreasing in real terms. But not only that. In fact their ability to have contact hours with students providing the high quality education that we all need and want is decreasing as well, with a decreasing ratio of professors per student.
At the moment we are in the middle of an industrial dispute with UCU members carrying out a marking boycott. Unfortunately this action is having the effect of pitting students against staff, rather than staff against the management of the university which is responsible for the worsening of working conditions. Nonetheless the students need to understand that the fight of the workers of today is the fight students will take up and continue tomorrow. We need to pressure unions to take bolder actions like walk out strikes, and assure that the staff are receiving support from us to be more confident about their own struggle.
The Marxist Student Federation, which includes 29 Marxist Societies around the country, has taken up the task of exposing the student movement leadership and is linking up with the trade unions to ensure our fight can be successful. Join us if you want to give a chance to your own future.