Image from Socialist Worker.
On November 19, 15,000 students protested against increasing university fees and the marketization of education. Jointly called by the NSU (Northumbria Students’ Union) and the UCU (University and College Union) under the banner of “United for Education, to demand free, quality further and higher education, accessible to all,” this national demonstration brought together people from different parts of country, including a group of Scottish students who traveled to London by coach.
The issues addressed ranged from cuts in education spending and the current climate of austerity to the need to stand up against racism, police violence against ethnic minorities and politicians’ scapegoating of immigrants. Students and lecturers marched through central London chanting: “Free education! Tax the rich!”, “Free education for all!”, “No fees! No cuts! No Debts!”, “Education is a right, not a privilege” and “Theresa May out, refugees in!”.
University tuition fees in England will rise to £ 9,250 per year from 2017. The fees will increase in proportion with inflation in the following years. Universities’ ability to increase fees will depend on them providing evidence that they meet a quality of teaching and satisfaction threshold. This indicates that education is increasingly treated as a consumer good rather than a universal right. The use of the National Student Survey (NSS), launched in 2005, contributes to that development. It reflects a tendency to measure the quality of a university degree using the language of ‘customer satisfaction’, as if one were evaluating a laser hair removal treatment. Furthermore, the NSS is part of a wider strategy to justify raising tuition fees. The NSS includes official data on UK university courses, such as overall ‘student satisfaction’ scores, as well as jobs and salaries after study. Ostensibly presented as an improvement tool, universities encourage their students to fill it out in the hope of increasing satisfaction scores and improve the university’s status in the rankings derived from it. NSS results are directly linked to the increase in tuition fees, as the universities’ ability to charge higher fees depends on their rating.
The instrumentalization of lecturers for purposes of social control and security was another object of discontent. As part of the UK’s “Prevent” strategy, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 places a legal duty on academics to report students showing signs of radicalization. “Radicalism” is defined as “opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. There is undeniable ambiguity in the term ‘radicalism’ and the notion of ‘fundamental British values’. The phrasing of the provision gives too much discretion to decide what counts as radicalism, and can potentially be applied to a wide range of activities that criticize the current political order or seek to organize society in an alternative way. While creating a climate of fear and suspicion, as teachers are required to perform policing tasks. This unnecessarily shuts down free speech and opportunities for critical thinking.
Universities are also required to cooperate with the Home Office’s immigration policy. Lecturers must keep a record of students’ attendance and report attendance to the UK Visas & Immigration Department. Some universities go as far as requiring discriminatory physical checks of international students. These provisions have chipped away at a relationship of trust between students and academics, as universities increasingly reflect the current surveillance culture. Speakers at the rally mentioned the deportation of 45,000 international students who were wrongly accused by the Home Office of committing fraud on their English language test in order to obtain a student visa. The decision to deport students was made on the basis of hearsay and flimsy evidence. The unfounded criminalization of foreign students is part of the Home Office’s wider strategy to significantly reduce immigration and tries to provide an excuse to begin a mass deportation program.
The march from Park Lane to Westminster was followed by a rally, where a wide range of speakers spoke about various issues. Malia Bouattia, president of the National Union of Students, voiced the students’ anger: “The government is running at pace with a deeply risky ideologically led market experiment in higher education. Students and lecturers, who will suffer most as a result, are clear that this can’t be allowed to happen”. Many University staff joined the march. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Universities and College Union said: “Staff pay has been held down in recent years, while the gender pay gap has risen and universities have introduced more of the sort of contracts you would associate with Sports Direct. All the while those at the top have continued to enjoy inflation-busting pay rises.” The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, sent a video message in support of the students and lecturers and called to fight against austerity measures imposed by the conservative government. One of the most well received speeches was that of journalist Owen Jones. He pointed out that the increase in education was isolating working class youth the most and that the lack of social policies will give rise to fascist forces. A Black Lives Matter activist from Chicago also spoke, expressing solidarity with the action.
In her closing speech, Bouattia called students to organize, stressing that the protest was not an end in itself but a beginning.