Against soaring fees and cuts, take direct action!

Author: 
Ed Maltby

Against £9,000 a year tuition fees and massive cuts to teaching budgets, students need to organise direct action on as many campuses as possible, while linking up with the workers' movement. We need to deliver a political blow to the government and galvanise trade union as well as further student anti-cuts struggles.

The demonstration called by the NUS and UCU on 10 November is good, but it is only a start. Students need to use the demo as a springboard to escalate the action. We need to see direct action, from local demonstrations, to walkouts, to occupations.

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts is calling for a national day of such action on 24 November.

We also advocate that left-led, activist student unions who are dissatisfied with the way NUS is going should call a representative conference of student unions committed to a basic set of demands, to develop an action programme to fight for in NUS and outside, as soon as possible.

The Government’s programme

The government is proposing a move to a tiered system of fees: universities will be able to charge between £6,000 and £9,000 a year.

It means a move away from a vision of education as a right and a social good, and towards a system under which how much education you are allowed depends on how rich your parents are.

Clearly this government believes that young working-class people are good for basic know-your-place training schemes, bargain basement degrees, and, if they are very good little boys and girls, charity scholarships for a tiny minority, funded by big business endowments. They are introducing all the senseless backwardness of the market into education.

Given that universities have been told to expect cuts to the higher education teaching budget of around 80%, most universities will be forced to charge £9,000 per year fees just to keep their heads above water. Cuts on this level mean huge staff cuts, the closure of “unprofitable” courses, much bigger class sizes, and less contact time (and therefore less support, academic and pastoral) per student.

Universities will become pared-down, profit-making degree factories, increasingly dependent upon grants and sponsorship from big business.

Our programme

In France, the student movement has acted as a beacon to the workers' movement — big struggles on campuses have inspired workers to take action; and students have sent delegations to help strikers by bringing messages of solidarity, strike fund donations, and also by blockading roads and infrastructure.

The student movement here needs to gear itself up to do the same, fast. Fortunately, recent events have shown that this is possible!

At the time of writing, 30,000 students are demonstrating in Dublin. In Oxford, a recent demonstration of over 1,000 students recently took place, on the back of organising meetings which attracted 200 people. On the day we went to press, students at Goldsmiths University occupied their administration building.

Where large regular organising meetings are taking place, students should hold demonstrations, or plan occupations or other forms of direct action. Where they are not, students should organise planning meetings as soon as possible.

Student anti-cuts committees should produce leaflets and posters, animate large campaign meetings, and articulate political arguments to other students against fees and cuts. They should meet up with trade unions on campus, and invite representatives to campaign meetings. They should send representatives to their local trade union anti-cuts committee or to the local trades council. They should take delegations to picket lines, for instance for upcoming fire and Tube strikes in London.

In February 2009, students at a handful of universities held occupations in protest at Israel's attack on Gaza. Over a matter of days, occupations were held at over 30 institutions. The action was spread by word of mouth, and via blogs and facebook. A smaller wave of direct actions took place in March of this year, against cuts, with occupations at more than half a dozen campuses from Sussex to Aberdeen.

Such a wave could probably be re-created if only a couple of universities held occupations simultaneously. Student activists can and should aim for a national wave of occupations and demonstrations, co-ordinated nationally.

Some in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts are calling for walkouts on 24 November. That form of action is very effective in European student movements — a large group of students picket out lectures to encourage students to join the demonstration instead of attending classes, before marching to other campuses or lecture sites. Where it is possible to organise this kind of action it might be useful, but we shouldn't make a fetish of it.

College and school students should start setting up anti-cuts groups and organising what action is possible — from small demonstrations in their colleges, to walking out of school to join up with student demonstrations or occupations as they happen.

Activists in the AWL or the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts can help them set up their campaigns. University students should send delegations to local further education colleges and encourage students there to join the movement.

The minority of student unions committed to free education and dissatisfied with NUS’s sluggishness and conservatism should organise a representative conference to discuss the way forward. This is not an alternative to activist campaigns like the NCAFC. It is necessary to get SUs, most of which either limit themselves to following NUS’s lead or leave things to less formal activist groups, bringing their substantial resources into campaigning too. Grassroots action and coordination by student unions can complement each other.