Opinion: Our education is in peril – we must mobilise to protect it

With a demonstration by the NUS and the University and College Union taking place in London tomorrow, Bradley Allsop, Postgraduate Officer at the University of Lincoln’s Students Union, explains why he thinks you should attend the protest.

Photo: Bradley Allsop

Photo: Bradley Allsop

Tomorrow, the National Union of Students and the University and College Union (the main union for most academic staff on campus) are holding a national demonstration on the streets of London. The demo has three key policy areas:

  • To invest in our FE colleges and sixth forms and stop college mergers
  • To write off student debt and stop private education companies profiting from student fees
  • To scrap the HE Bill, halt the rise in tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants

(The details of the HE bill and the response by NUS and UCU can be found here and here).

This is my fifth year in higher education, having been at three different universities during that time. As each year passes, I become more and more aware that there is something deeply wrong with the direction our campuses are travelling in: wrong for students, wrong for staff and wrong for broader society too. This is why I believe it’s vital that every student that can comes down to the demo on Saturday, not because it will fix all these problems, but because it could be the start of the process that might, if enough of us try.

The tripling (and then some) of tuition fees, bad enough by itself, is but one part of a plan by the Conservatives to completely alter the university landscape: this isn’t a conspiracy theory, they’re quite open about this intention. Essentially their aim is for universities to act like businesses, higher education as a ‘commodity’ within a ‘market’ and students to now be consumers instead of learners and scholars.

This has been brought about by a number of things in addition to the headline fee changes: reduced public funding of universities and further education colleges; an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation to any staff not ‘on message’ (we cannot afford bad press in this brave new world); elimination of grants for living costs; a switch in focus by universities to employability and marketing, rather than quality education; increasingly unattainable targets for staff and a rigid focus on profitability within senior management teams. All of this has had serious impacts on my time at university.

At different institutions, I’ve seen passionate, courageous and intelligent academics that instilled in me a fierce curiosity and desire to change the world, throw their hands up in despair and grief at the prospect of being able to influence their own university’s decisions, genuinely fearful of speaking out. I’ve seen senior members of staff sneer at the thought of student democracy, publicly criticise and intimidate students that have spoken out and brazenly lie to students about university proposals. I’ve seen vast salaries, private chefs and personal trainers lavished on senior managers who bring little value to our institutions, whilst student support and courses are cut. A backdrop to this is the proliferation of student mental health problems, and disturbing levels of student poverty, made worse by mounting debt and fears about getting a job after graduating. Our educational powerhouses have instead become sad parallels of the world they are meant to change and improve.

This attempt by government – aided by all-too eager jet-setting Vice Chancellors – to turn education into a marketplace has shifted the cost of learning to students (whether they can afford it or not) and compromised academic rigour and staff well-being in the process. We desperately, desperately need to extract ourselves from this downward spiral and reclaim our education, and with it the notion of it as a public and social good, not a private investment.

This means fighting for policy that invests in higher and further education, publically funding our educational institutions so that students do not have to shoulder unsustainable levels of debt. It means getting rid of the philosophy of ‘competing’ institutions and instead replace it with an ethos of collaboration between institutions. With this comes a reallocation of resources from vain ‘marketing’ projects and instead a reinvestment in the stuff of uni: our educational experience. Finally, such moves can begin to relieve the pressure put on overworked and ostracised staff and give them a sense of ownership over their work environments once more.

But as well as removing the negatives of recent years, we have a chance to make campus life more than it was before too. Fighting for campus democracy (Lincoln has made some progress in recent years on this), where students are no longer seen as consumers but partners in education, wielding real control over how campuses are run and what our education looks like. We can also refocus on what role we can play in the wider community, how we can make our world a better place and judge the merits of our work on this, rather than on how ‘competitive’ it makes us in the world of work.

A final word for those who don’t believe marches and other forms of direct, student activism can change anything. At my previous university, Queen’s, Belfast, after months of campaigning by students and staff the closure of BA Sociology and BA Anthropology has been reversed. The same happened there with cuts to student counselling services, thanks to the great work of Students’ Union elected officers. I took part in an occupation of the university administration building that forced fossil fuel divestment onto the university agenda and gave students a place at the table when reviewing Queen’s’ investment policy.

History is replete with – determined by, in fact – examples of grassroots movements by ordinary people demanding change and winning it, from the labour unions movements of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s winning labour and wage rights, to the Suffragettes, to the wave of black, LGBT and women’s rights movements of the 60’s securing more equality to the anti-corporate movements of the 90’s shining a light on exploitative corporate actions in developing countries. Students in particular have a long and proud history of fighting for and achieving change, so never let anyone tell you you can’t make a difference. The demo tomorrow is meant to be the start of a fight, a movement, not one action in isolation. So come, join us, and fight for your future.

More information about the details of tomorrow’s demonstration can be found here.

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