Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Mass movement needed to stop this attack on students

Sometimes being vindicated is an unpleasant experience. When I started university in the late 90s - when tuition fees were introduced and student grants were scrapped by the incoming Blair government- I (and others like me) marched and protested and campaigned to save free education.

We warned that it could, if this was imaginable, get even worse in the years ahead. The politicians might not stop at that initial level of fees - and they might find further ways of marketising higher education, or extend the same logic to other sectors of education.

We have, sadly, been proved right. Free education has become an ever more distant memory. The terms of debate have shifted from 'Should there be fees?' to 'At what level should fees be set?' Arguing a principled defence of free education has been caricatured as pie-in-the-sky utopianism.

The Browne Report today - advocating unlimited fees - is a further leap in the wrong direction. I'd be lying if I claimed it's what we predicted over a decade ago - I don't think any of us imagined things getting this bad.

There is one huge reason why the previous government got away with moving so far in the wrong direction on this issue, and why the current government feels it can push even further: there has been no effective resistance. The official student movement, in the form of a National Union of Students led by right-wing Labour Students, capitulated to the idea that fees were 'necessary' and turned itself into a polite lobbying organisation.

There is one great lesson from this experience: fail to resist and your enemy will attack and attack and attack until they destroy you. They will do it through 'consultations' and 'partnership' and all that horrible Blairite crap, but underneath the seductive PR it's utterly ruthless. 

So here we are. People like me who graduated nearly a decade ago are still paying off debt, but we're lucky compared with the current generation - and, if the Tories get their way, truly blessed compared with the next generation.

Is it too late for the student movement? Absolutely not. There's a shock quality to the Browne review that can either paralyse or galvanise. Which of those happens depends partly on leadership - it's hopeful that NUS President Aaron Porter has so far proved superior to his predecessors (though that's not difficult) - but more importantly on the grassroots movement.

Students up and down the country will need to build bigger protests than we managed when fees were introduced. The national demonstration in November to oppose education cuts will have to be a launchpad for a mass anti-cuts and anti-fees movement, not a routine one-off gesture.

Students will need to forge stronger-than-ever connections with university staff, and seek broader public support. They will need to reach out to FE and school students who potentially face a bleak future, but who can play an active role in changing that future.

They will have to link the issue of fees with the cuts in both the further and higher education sectors, making the opposition to fees part of a bigger movement against the government's assault on the public sphere. Today is meant to be a turning point in the 'reform' of universities. It also needs to become a turning point in their defence.


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