Several student unions, together with the National Union of Students Women’s and LGBT campaigns, have called for a national demonstration for free education for 25 February 2009.
Already, Bradford, Sussex, UEA and, on indicative votes, UCL, Edinburgh and Aston have backed the mobilisation. More SUs look set to come on board in the coming weeks and, with the two of the main left factions in the student movement (ENS and the SWP-initiated “Another Education Is Possible”) also supporting the initiative, the mobilisation for the action is gaining real momentum. Discussions around it are also taking place inside trade unions such as the RMT, and activists have plans to raise it inside other key unions such as UCU and NUT.
A successful demonstration will send a clear message to the government and university bosses that united, student-worker direct action campaigning around education issues is not something confined to continental Europe. Moreover, it will galvanise activists within the student movement and allow us to prove to ourselves that we can work together to organise campaigning on a grassroots, activist basis independently of NUS. Given that NUS is, sadly, likely to have abolished its own democracy by the planned date for the demo (see below) the demonstration could be the catalyst for cohering a network of activist student unions to found a new national union.
Revolutionaries within the student movement should therefore be clear about the significance of the mobilisation; it is potentially the decisive battle in the struggle over the future of NUS as well as the future of education funding.
The New Labour government’s project for the education sector is amongst the most nakedly neo-liberal of its many schemes; it has been aggressive in its ambition to subordinate every aspect of education — from primary schools upwards — to the exigencies of the market. In 2009, it will review the £3,000 cap on university top-up fees.
Bosses at prestigious universities such as Cambridge have already been clamouring for the cap to be lifted or scrapped altogether, creating an open, unrestricted marketplace in Higher Education that could see top institutions charging up to £10,000 for the privilege of studying there.
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On top of this, the government recently announced it would be slashing the number of students entitled to the (shockingly low and heavily means-tested) student grant. This will see some students whose applications for grants had already been approved lose out on money they thought they were going to receive.
The assaults from the government and university bosses are clear. Less apparent are the attacks under way from the leadership of the “official” student movement, the NUS. Decades of misleadership from various shades of New Labour supporter have seen NUS atrophy from what was once a mass organisation with genuine fighting potential (however imperfect and distorted) into a bureaucratic rump that most of its members see as a provider of discounts and services.
Time and time again, NUS has capitulated and sold-out over key struggles, consistently rejecting the strategies of labour movement-led direct action that movements in France, Greece and Italy have proved singularly capable of forcing concessions from government. Now, the current NUS leadership wants to irreversibly concretise this state of affairs by renewing their efforts to introduce a new constitution that would formally make NUS what it has been in practise for years — an inaccessible, bureaucratic monolith controlled from the top-down by a layer of professional managers, rather than anything resembling a collective, representative, democratic and campaigning organisation (that is, a union).
The fight against the abolition of democracy in the official national student movement cannot simply be a campaign to defend the status quo. It must be an offensive campaign for a real, fighting national union and, if the new constitution is passed, it must be a campaign in the most active, radical Student Unions for a concerted break with NUS and the establishment of a new, rank-and-file led, activist federation of Student Unions.
The February 2009 demo will be a crucial stepping stone.