As 10,000 students marched for free education in London on 19 November on a vibrant demonstration largely organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), the National Union of Students (NUS) meekly published a “Roadmap for Free Education”.
The NUS full-time officers (FTOs) did all they could to scupper the 19 November free education demonstration – flouting the decision of the union’s National Executive as a whole. They have released the “roadmap” report in order to do the bare minimum on their mandate from the last NUS conference.
Since left-wing activists won the debate on free education at the NUS Conference 2014, the FTOs have had to shift their position away from the Blairite policy of a “graduate tax”.
The document’s executive summary notes: “higher education could be funded by collective public investment through progressive taxation, with an increase on tax of the richest in society.”
This is good, and is what the NCAFC has been arguing for years. Moreover, some of the figures and arguments in the Roadmap could be useful for activists.
However, the Roadmap is explicitly not about mobilising students on campuses to demand free education. As the introduction makes clear, the NUS has “put together a roadmap to help our politicians and our vice-chancellors to make the right decisions on higher education reform.”
These are the same politicians and vice-chancellors who have created and prevailed over the “market experiment” which the Roadmap rightly argues has failed to deliver an improved higher education system.
The document usefully shows how the consequences of the new system have deviated wildly from its stated purpose — but makes the mistake of assuming that the government was other than wholly dishonest in its stated reasons for deepening the marketisation of higher education. Increased marketisation was never about reducing the deficit, providing better value for tax payers or “putting students in the driving seat”, so simply pointing out that these things have not happened is not going to change the government’s mind.
All those arguments were designed to cover for the government’s real intentions. The homogenisation and quantification of education and the market-driven course closures are not “failures” of the government’s policy — they were the point.
The government will not be swayed by polite argument, but only by force and pressure from a re-energised student movement. On this, the Roadmap has nothing to say – which is no surprise given the NUS’s recent attempts to wreck the growing free education movement on campuses.
No doubt the NUS is hoping that Labour will be elected in May 2015, and that the movement for free education can be won on the terrain of water-cooler chats with higher education ministers. That too is an illusion.
Liam Byrne, the shadow minister for universities, science and skills, has so far remained wedded to the idea of a graduate tax, and even the modest talk of a move to £6,000 fees has reportedly been scuppered by Ed Balls.
As well as simply making the arguments, the student movement needs to step up its pressure on the Labour Party to adopt free education, using the run-up to the General Election to organise demonstrations and demand guarantees from Labour candidates.