Parliament rushed through the Higher Education and Research Bill — the legislative vehicle for their ruinous agenda of fee-raising, university-privatising reforms — through to Royal Assent on 27 April in advance of the snap General Election.
Over the past eighteen months, we’ve fought a major battle against the reforms. We have argued the case against the misleadingly named Teaching “Excellence” Framework (TEF), presented our alternative vision of a free education system governed by democracy not the chaos of the market, and through protest and direct action – most notably the boycott of the National Student Survey – we’ve generated pressure that has extracted some concessions from the government. Despite wrecking attempts by a handful of right-wingers, the NSS boycott was taken up in large numbers on many campuses and, despite substantial spending by many universities to cajole and bribe (!) students, participation at a number of institutions is expected to come out below the crucial 50% threshold that makes the data unusable. Under this pressure, many amendments were passed in the House of Lords, and though the Commons reversed many of them, we retained a number, including a tightening of regulations on new private universities, and a delay in the link between the TEF and tuition fees until 2020.
But these compromises are not enough. Fees are still set to rise (if only with inflation), the TEF is still coming, and measures to ease and accelerate privatisation will be put into place. We can reverse the higher education reforms by continuing and stepping up our campaign. The NSS boycott begun this year must continue until the reforms are dead. The goal of the NSS boycott is leverage – to disrupt the functioning of the market and the TEF until our demands are granted. To make the 2018 boycott bigger, we should be preparing now, in particular assessing our local campaigns to learn from what worked well, and convincing and signing-up next year’s boycotters as far in advance as possible.
We also need protest and direct action, locally and nationally. Actions should be part of a coherent drive to add to the pressure, win hearts and minds to join the campaign, mobilise and organise activists, put the issue on the public agenda, and issue a show of force to our institutions and the government. We need discussions with education workers, whose trade unions supported our boycott enthusiastically, to see how we can cooperate and how their industrial muscle might be brought to bear on the issue. And our movement and NUS needs to organise all this under the banner of an unequivocal political demand. No fudging and no tinkering round the edges – let’s be crystal clear that we won’t settle for less than the complete reversal of the reforms, and that longer-term we are fighting for a free, democratic, universal National Education Service.
The results of the upcoming general election will have a massive impact. As well as the smaller parties on the left, now the Labour leadership supports free education too. We want opposition parties to pledge that they will reverse the reforms and build the free and democratic education system we are demanding.