On Monday 1 February the higher education funding body, the HEFCE have announced the details of how the budget cuts imposed by Peter Mandelson back in December 2009 will fall. The headline cuts is one in the universities' teaching budgets — £215m in the acedemic year 2010-11. This cut will lead to a the loss of 6,000 student places. Up to 300,000 university applicants will be turned away this summer. The lecturer's union UCU is warning of over 6,000 teaching job cuts although this number is almost certain to rise. New Labour's higher education cuts amount to £950 million over three years.
Budget cuts are accompanied by New Labour's political agenda for education — wholesale marketisation. Peter Mandelson has made clear that degree content should be determined by business and that funding should be awarded to universities according to how well they provide business-friendly courses.
Meanwhile a "fees review" is underway. The result is a foregone conclusion. The government intends to charge students the full "market rate for education", sending the costs of higher education soaring, subjecting students to massive levels of debt. "Letting the market rip" will result in the introduction of a tiered education system, split between top-rate and cut-price universities, subject to all the turbulence and disruption brought by full, market-driven competition between institutions.
As universities gear up to compete in league tables and maximize top grades, they are introducing ever-more draconian disciplinary policies to control students and staff.
Students have responded to the cuts in education with demonstrations and occupations. Staff are balloting to strike.
Student demonstrations at campuses in Birmingham, Leeds, Sussex and London have drawn in hundreds of student, with more action being planned at dozens of campuses.
At London Metropolitan University in December an invasion of university premises by demonstrating students saw police called in to control the situation, while upstairs a meeting of LMU bosses voted to resign en masse.
Students in Aberdeen invaded their management’s offices and staged a short occupation.
Activists in Workers’ Liberty and Education Not for Sale who are involved in organising national and regional meetings of anti-cuts activists report that not a week goes by without them being contacted by students announcing a new campaign.
UCU and Unison branches from Manchester Metropolitan to the University of the Arts London are reporting surges in membership, as staff join unions in the expectation of big battles. Meetings called by unions on campus are drawing dozens of members. At demonstrations called by the UCU outside the Houses of Parliament in London on 26 January, and outside the Scottish Assembly the following day, hundreds of staff and students were in attendance.
But the strike ballots that are being mounted by union branches remain on a campus-by-campus basis and aren’t being adequately co-ordinated, much less integrated into a national strike plan by the union leadership.
Likewise, the student campaigns that are springing up across the country are isolated — the National Union of Students is not working to co-ordinate action against cuts and fees, and so communication between the campaigns is difficult. In the absence of a national plan from the leaderships of the education unions and NUS, it is necessary to create a rank-and-file co-ordination of campaigns in education.
The National Convention Against Fees and Cuts is designed to provide just such an opportunity to co-ordinate action on a national level. On 6 February at University College London, students and staff from dozens of campuses will meet to discuss the way forward and plan actions over the coming weeks and months.
Fending off the government’s attacks is not just a matter of beating back this or that local university management; it is a question of challenging the government’s entire political direction, and forcing the government to find a different way to pay for the economic crisis. Only by inflicting a political defeat on the government on the scale of what students and young workers in France were able to achieve in the struggle against the CPE law in 2006 will we be able to defend education against the impact of the economic crisis.
Higher education is being used as the thin end of the wedge (students have not been militant in the recent past). We will soon be seeing cuts of an equal viciousness across the entire public sector. The movement to defend higher education is a test case for the coming battles in all public services, and a matter of concern for all trade unionists.
• More: conventionagainstfeesandcuts.wordpress.com
European students against marketisation
Across Europe, education is under attack. Budget cuts, and a continent-wide programme of marketisation of education known as the "Bologna process", threaten education as a public service across Europe. Capitalist education ministers and education sector bosses want to transform education in Europe into a pared-down implement for maximizing profit, serving the national interest, just as in the UK.
But students are fighting back across the continent.
In October 2009 hundreds of students occupied the largest lecture theatre in Austria — the Audimax. The occupation of this symbolically important building sparked a wave of occupations throughout November and December, which saw more than 80 institutions occupied in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and the Czech Republic, in a co-ordinated protest against the Bologna process.
Many of these occupations are still going on. In some universities, Vice Chancellors have given over whole buildings or seminar rooms to student campaigns in return for regaining the use of major lecture theatres.
Regular national and international meetings of representatives of occupied universities are taking place, bringing students from east and west Europe together. Students from Slovenia, Poland, Croatia, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland and Holland will take part in a series of international conferences and mobilisations over the coming months — in Paris in February, at a counter-conference in Vienna in March, and in Bochum in June.
Students from the UK should play their part in this Europe-wide movement to drive back the marketisation of education and the capitalist education ministers.