Report: UCU Rank & File Meeting

rankandfile

By Dan Davison, NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep

On 29 April 2018, approximately 50 activists from across the UK met at City, University of London. They were there as part of a newly formed Rank and File network within the University and College Union (UCU). This network emerged from the strikes this year over proposed cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which saw a surge in activity within the union at the grassroots level. 64% of members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted ‘Yes’ on 14 April 2018 to an offer made by the employers’ consortium, Universities UK (UUK), to set up a Joint Expert Panel that would, among other things, look into the valuation of the USS Fund. Despite this, many UCU members – myself included – saw the handling of this ballot as a capitulation by Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary.

The Rank and File meeting therefore had a central objective of ensuring we do not lose the energisation of UCU’s activist base, especially seeing how 24,000 new members have joined the union since the USS strike ballot. Although the network and meeting both arose from the USS dispute, the common understanding remained that our battle is against larger ills within the education sector, including marketisation and precarity. Likewise, the question of how to intervene in UCU’s structures and democratise the union was central, with the members present generally accepting that UCU’s weaknesses cannot be solved with a change in leadership alone.

We also acknowledged the need to share skills and resources, especially between stronger and weaker UCU branches, and to link with broader workers’ and students’ struggles. Encouragingly, it was suggested that the new network should push UCU to work in closer solidarity with students in the fight for free education. Much inspiration was taken from examples across the world, including the recent West Virginia wildcat strikes and the establishment of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union in California. Although involvement in the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) was suggested to keep the dynamism of the strike alive, no serious case was made for UCU activists to ‘dual card’ as IWGB members or to found another union altogether.

The Rank and File network has no steering committee as such, but now has several working groups that we broke into following general discussion of the network’s aims. These working groups are on democracy, anti-racism (including migrant workers’ rights), the Higher Education pensions dispute, and precarious labour. Given my history of union activism around casualisation, I joined the precarious labour group, which saw a healthy discussion of everything from practical demands, such as moving precarious staff onto fractional contracts, to common interests to which we can appeal in our campaigns, such as high workloads and the gender pay gap.

Overall, the Rank and File meeting was promising, but the onus falls upon the newly connected members to turn its initiatives into concrete gains. We have a vision of a better union in mind: now we need to bring it into reality.

Organising a Rent Strike at Bristol Uni: What we did, how we went about it, its successes and failures

rent-strike-2
Written by a Bristol activist.

Between 2016/17 activists from Acorn Community Union, Bristol Reclaim Education and other groups came together to start a campaign against university halls rent increases. It was Acorn Community Union plus other student activists (including newly elected Student Living Officer Stephen Le Fanu) who initiated Bristol Cut the Rent at the end of the previous academic year (2015/16). Bristol Cut the Rent was inspired by the similarly named UCL Cut the Rent campaign which between 2015/16 had launched one of the biggest rent strikes in higher education history at University College London – UCL had launched anamazing rent strike where over 1000 students took part, coupled with big demonstrations, rallies and flash occupations of management, the campaign won over £1.5million in cuts, bursaries and rent freezes despite UCL’s attempts to intimidate rent strikers and student journalists who uncovered and spoke out against UCL’s profit-making in university halls.

Bristol Cut the Rent at the end of the 2015/16 academic year launched a meeting and a protest over proposed rent increases which garnered a lot of support. The following year Bristol Cut the Rent launched a rent strike campaign to encourage first year students to withold rent en masse as a way to protest and gain leverage over the university in order to demand rent cuts, rent controls and transparency in rent costs.
The following is an account of how those involved in the organising went about organising a rent strike, th successes, and the failings of the campaign and what we can conclude. Just to clarify however I was just one of those involved in the campaign and can’t necessarily speak for others. Nevertheless I think it’s important to reflect on campaigns you have been involved, what happened, what went well, what didn’t and what we can learn from that.

By no means would I say that the Bristol Cut the Rent 2016/17 rent strike was a success, however it was one of the few in times in Bristol University’s history when students at the university had taken collective (and technically illegal) action against the university and the very fact that this was done and how it was done should be told.


Rent Strike Weekender

Those who had been organisers and activists in the UCL and Goldsmiths Cut the Rent campaign, both of which had secured pretty big wins using rent strikes as a tactic, organised a “Rent Strike Weekender”. This was a weekend of workshops on rent, the housing market, university marketisation as well as practical workshops on how to organise a rent strike, how to do the social media campaign, how to go into negotiations with management, etc. Around 4-5 of us from Bristol went down to the weekender. At the weekender itself there was easily 100-150 people from over 25 campuses who had come to learn and
share their knowledge.

What I found particularly inspiring and interesting about the rent strike weekender was how much doorknocking and face-to-face conversations were stressed. One of the Goldsmiths activists explained how they had been inspired by the organising around the had read about during the Poll Tax rebellion where organisers did waves of doorknocking and literally had meetings in people’s kitchens in countless housing estates.

A brief timeline of the rent strike

November 2016
– we started doorknocking in University Halls (UH is the cheapest halls but nonetheless had very high rent, it is currently £110 a week and will be increased)
– a week and a half later there was a meeting of 30+ students in the University Hall bar

December 2016
– a pledge system was put together where students signed up to pledge to rent strike if 100 other students agreed to do the same
– Doorknocking was done in many other halls including Hiatt Baker, Badock, Durdham as well as Northwell House and city centre halls.

January 2017
– the pledge was only a few people short of the 100 needed
– the rent strike was not called due to there not being enough participants

February – April 2017
– periods of negotiations were had with university management who only partially agreed to give us a breakdown of the costs halls running and maintenance.
– doorknocking began again but not to the same extent as in November and December
– a new pledge was put together with 150 people needed to call a rent strike
– this target was not reached and in the end around 40 or so students took part in a rent strike
– the campaign’s final major action was a demonstration at the university
– in the end the campaign won a pledge for more bursaries for rent, a rent hike of 3.5% instead of 4.5% and a breakdown of the ingoings and outgoings of in university halls.

Doorknocking and having conversations with students and our struggle to get information
Doorknocking was probably the most important aspect of the campaign and the main way in which we actively engaged, talked and listened to people. Doorknocking and the engagement you do through conversations is the often invisible and often considered “less sexy” work of the campaign. I personally find it one of the most fun parts of campaigning and organising because you are not shouting things at people or buildings you are talking to people as people and getting them to understand the power they have collectively. However, when it comes to doorknocking and conversations it can be done well and it can be done badly. In hindsight I think our approach was partly good partly bad and it is something that we could definitely have had training in by good, principled and successful organisers.
When doorknocking we introduced ourselves by our names and why we were doorknocking. We would then ask them an open question like “We think you pay too much rent, what do you think?” More often than not the person agreed. We would then explain how much rent has gone up in the past years and that we knew that there was a way to respond and demand rent cuts. In most of our conversations we almost immediately talked about going on rent strike. We would ask if the student knew what that involved. If they didn’t we would explain. We would then ask what they would think about doing this kind of action. This would usually result in a bunch of questions like what the university response would be, does it actually work, etc. To all of these questions we had answers which we had learned and knew from the UCL and Goldsmiths Cut the Rent campaign. We knew more or less what the response from the university would be at most points both with regard to home and international students. By being open and honest about the risks as well as the power of taking this kind of action we gave people the confidence and understanding to take action.

However, although we did this we only partially got students involved. Our approach and how we saw ourselves for the most part was a group that would try to maneouvre the campaign with a certain amount of students in halls participating too. We always wanted to students in halls to get involved and participate however the language we used and the way we engaged was not the type that actively engaged students. Reading more organising advice from successful organisers like Jane McAlevey I realise that even quite small things in conversations make a big difference when it comes to encouraging and building confidence. E.g. instead of saying “Thank you” at the end of a conversation it’s better to say “Good talking to you”, “See you later”, “Look forward to seeing you soon” because we are not thanking them for doing something we want to say “hey it’s your rent and your problem we’re just here to give you the info and help you along seeing as you want to do something about it, we’ll help make decisions but it needs active democratic engagement from everyone for it to be successful.”

Again we did get some students actively engaged and organising and that was very important to the campaign. However, we failed to get the majority of students engaged.

Another issue we had when it came to doorknocking is that we could not give a straight answer on how much we could win. We had done our homework to some degree however getting some very basic information from the university proved difficult. The university for a long time refused to give us information about the costs, ingoings and expenditure on halls deeming this information as “commercially sensitive”. We were told that a differently worded Freedom of Information request might have been more successful. We never did this and instead just ploughed on ahead.

Due to this lack of information we failed to be direct about how students could win. The most reasoning we could give was pointing out how much the university would spend on expansion and pointing out the above inflation rent increases that had been happening but it wasn’t possible for us to say exactly how much money the university had been making from rent and what type of rent cut was possible to get. In the end we got a breakdown of costs and income from the university regarding halls. The university claimed that they had made a deficit however the categories of this account were very vague including unexplained financing of “other” costs accounting for around £5m, rental paid to lease owners (ca. £13m) and “loan financing” £2.7m. Moreover, some other ingoings of university halls were omitted in the “budget” including the amount made from conferences.

Moreover, sabbatical officers had seen different budgets from the university and heard different claims from the university management including that they didn’t budget for halls.

Given this confusion it was not possible for us to say properly where the university would get its money from to finance a rent cut exactly because the university was so obstinate in being transparent.

Lessons learned
In the end I learned a lot from the campaign about the work that people need to put into the campaign. In the end I think the campaign would have benefitted best from having someone who had helped in a successful rent strike or majority workplace strike. And going forward I think it is important for anyone doing community and/or work-place organising to learn from those who are doing it very well, such as United Voices of the World (UVW), the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union (BAFWU), the Picture House workers campaign, as well as strikes by good branches of bigger more bureaucratic unions such as those who helped organise the St Barts strike with Unite in 2017.

A very obvious thing but something that we didn’t take seriously enough is doing our homework on what might be called the “cost of concession” – the amount of power you need to win whatever it is that you want to win. We didn’t have a clear idea about how much we could win, and what it would take to win that. When it comes to a rent strike the power of it comes from the fact that for quite a few months you are en masse witholding a large amount of money that the university wants. However, to make the strike very strong, and this requires students building a significant amount of solidarity, students would have to threaten an indefinite rent strike until their demands are met. Unfortunately many of us who talked to students about rent striking sold it on the basis that it is a very safe action since the university won’t want to call evictions on so many students. Whilst this is certainly true, it’s not a good basis on which to build something that needs to to actually be very strong.

Assuming we had had a good idea of the “cost of concession” and a good strategy to present. E.g. mass petitions + rallies led by students in halls + demos led by students in halls + occupations led by students in halls + an ongoing rent strike. To actually turn it into something with mass participation would have involved bringing the campaign into more parts of students social life. E.g. getting other, in particular “non-political”, societies to support the campaign, getting live-in seniour residents onboard, getting lecturers and professors to support the campaign. This large amount of support for the campaign can only be built by taking those who will take the rent strike and getting them to lead it, since they know what support would be best to get in their wider student life.

Finally something that we did not do but we ought to have done is knock on literally every door. And even more importantly getting to a point where it is basically only those taking rent strike action who are knocking on doors. We got some rent strikers doing doorknocking but not enough to that it was rent strikers democratically and mass participationally taking rent strike action.

In the end, helping organise the rent strike was a very new thing for all of us and it changed the way I organise quite a lot. I really encourage students and non-students to take the initiative and organise more things like this and join up with housing and work-place struggles outside of university. It can only make the struggle against marketisation, for free education, and for free and accessible housing more of a reality and all the things that will liberate us more of a reality.

Summer Conference Announced!

conference

On the weekend of 8-10 June, NCAFC will be hosting our summer conference, We Are The University, at Sheffield students’ union.

The recent UCU strikes saw the biggest wave of student activism since 2010, with occupations taking place at 25 campuses. But while the strikes have been called off, the fight for free education, for workers’ rights and for democratic institutions is not. On the 50th anniversary of 1968 student revolt, now is the time for the left to come together – and to build a sustainable movement that can win the fight for a liberated education.

As always, access to the conference, food and accommodation is free. However, if you are struggling with transport costs, you can use our access fund. Please email [email protected] with your requirements and the finance committee will try to cover as much of your fees as possible.

The conference will officially start with registration opening at 12pm on Friday 8th June, and our first activity at 1pm. This will be followed by an informal social, with the main conference as usual taking place over Saturday and Sunday, with a variety of political and democratic events. A full agenda will be released shortly.

Motions can be proposed by affiliated local and political groups, or by any group of at least 7 individual NCAFC members, and must be submitted to [email protected] by 18:00 Wednesday 30th May. Please see here for a guide on how our democracy works.

Register for free here – and click attending on our Facebook event here, and invite anyone you think might be interested!

Reflections on the UCU Strike: Where Do We Go From Here?

strike
By Dan Davison, NCAFC Postgrad & Education Workers Co-Rep and Cambridge UCU activist. Photo by Andrew Perry.

On 14 April 2018, 64% of members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted ‘Yes’ to the offer made by the employers’ consortium, Universities UK (UUK). Industrial action, including action short of a strike (ASOS), is now suspended. UUK’s offer aims to end the ongoing dispute over intended reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. As explained in a previous article, these changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, spelling the effective end to guaranteed pension benefits. In their offer, UUK proposed to establish a ‘Joint Expert Panel, comprised of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers from both sides’, to ‘deliver a report’ and ‘to agree key principles to underpin the future joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the USS fund’.

NCAFC advocated a ‘No’ vote in the ballot, finding that the proposal offered little in the way of concrete guarantees and noting how it could see UUK continuing to use the contested November valuation for the USS, despite the pension scheme’s ‘deficit’ being fabricated. On 13 March, UCU rejected a previous proposal drawn up by the union and UUK’s representatives during negotiations, after UCU members demonstrated outside the union’s national headquarters and local UCU branches called on the national leadership to turn down the deal: an outcry that trended online with the hashtag #NoCapitulation. Moreover, between the announcement of the new proposal on 23 March and the closing of the ballot on 14 April, many branches came out in opposition to the offer as it stood, preferring a deal with clearer and more reliable assurances. On social media, this position was often identified with the hashtag #ReviseAndResubmit, in humorous allusion to the peer review process for academic journals.

Whilst the 63.5% turnout for the ballot on the new proposal is not something to dismiss out of hand, the result comes as a disappointment for many strikers, as well as those who have stood in solidarity with them. I will lay out some major criticisms of the UCU leadership’s handling of the ballot and offer a few explanations for the ballot result. I will then make some critical observations about how the National Union of Students (NUS) conducted itself throughout the strike. I will end on what I hope will be a constructive and optimistic note on how we can build upon the gains of the strike, particularly the unprecedented energisation of UCU’s rank-and-file.

1. The UCU Leadership

One of the most significant problems with the ballot is the manner in which Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary, presented the available options in her emails to the membership. More specifically, Hunt conflated the more hard-line ‘no detriment’ position with the less hard-line ‘revise and resubmit’ position, and then framed the ‘No’ option on the ballot as a mandate for ‘no detriment’. A significant number of UCU members favoured ‘revise and resubmit’, considered ‘no detriment’ unrealistic, and would have been willing to pursue further industrial action in pursuit of demands shaped by a ‘revise and resubmit’ position. As Hunt presented the ‘No’ option as a commitment to bargaining for ‘no detriment’, we can safely assume that many members who ordinarily would have rejected the offer instead accepted it. Moreover, whilst it is established practice for a union’s executive committee to make recommendations in such matters, it appears that the recommendations Hunt gave to members were hers alone.

Unfortunately, UCU’s national leadership has a long history of failing to pursue effective industrial action when needed. As we recognised when UCU called off its marking boycott during the 2014 pay dispute, when the national leadership clearly does not support further industrial action, members become demoralised and are left to believe that, if they do vote for further action, the action will be tokenistic and ineffective. With staff members losing significant pay on strike days, one can understand why the leadership’s visible lack of commitment to seeing the strike through to the end would have had a dissuading effect on UCU members. Indeed, one would be forgiven for a certain cynical suspicion that the ballot was called during the Easter break precisely because it would be a time of year when student support for the strike would be less visible on campus and when there would be no picket lines to generate feelings of solidarity.

In many respects, the contrast between the ballot on the one hand, and the wave of demonstrations, open letters, and branch resolutions for #NoCapitulation on the other hand, is instructive for the problems with an atomistic approach to democracy in a national organisation. When members are in a room with others who have shared their struggle, the fostered feeling of solidarity boosts confidence, and one can actively participate in a structured discussion that lays out and debates the available positions. When members have to vote as geographically separated individuals, that atmosphere of solidarity and accompanying confidence are lost. Moreover, in the context of the present dispute, those members who were not active during (and, presumably, less supportive of) the strike ended up receiving disproportionate guidance from the leadership’s communications.

Nevertheless, I urge student and trade union activists not to assume the worst of those UCU members who voted to accept the deal. Apart from the leadership’s handling of the ballot and general lack of effective leadership, there are numerous understandable reasons why members would choose not to continue striking. With classes finishing for the year, the most disruptive part of the industrial action would have been the marking boycott. Since this would affect students’ reception of marks much more directly than cancelled lectures, one can sympathise with staff members’ fear of ‘hurting’ their students or losing student support by continuing the action, even if a victory for the strike would actually have helped students in the long run by resisting a systematic attack on learning conditions. Likewise, one can understand why the prospect of standing on a picket line when the campus is less busy would be quite bleak for many strikers. Once we have more data on the number of UCU branches that came out against both the rejected and the accepted deals, along with a breakdown of the ballots cast, we can better account for why members voted as they did.

2. The NUS

In a previous opinion piece, I criticised the NUS leadership for demonstrating no support for the strike beyond than a lacklustre joint statement (itself released more than a week after UCU’s industrial action ballot result), despite it being the clear policy of NUS’ National Executive Council to provide much more concrete assistance. That was at the start of February. Individual NUS officers might have made supportive gestures and commentary during the strike period, but as an institution, the NUS remained conspicuously absent. This means that the 26 campus occupations and other surges of campus activism in solidarity with UCU materialised in spite of the NUS rather than because of it.

NCAFC assisted many of these occupations by helping coordinate them online, and – in some instances – by sending members to boost numbers and expertise. This resulted in approximately 40 activists from 13 different campuses across the UK meeting in London to share their experience and draft a joint solidarity statement, with further cross-campus connections being drawn now. Similarly, NCAFC administered both the popular ‘Students Support the UCU Pensions Strike’ Facebook group, which allowed activists to share materials, and the @Occupation_hub twitter account, which kept abreast of direct action in support of the strike. Still, all this is no substitute for the material support of a national union tasked with fighting for our interests as students. In other words, if there was any moment at which the NUS should have lived up to its name, it was at the height of campus activism in solidarity with UCU. The NUS could have officially sent representatives to the occupations and committed itself to defending student protesters from victimisation, especially those on visas who take an especially high risk when participating in direct action, but they did nothing.

The NUS thus finds itself in a curious state of double removal. It is removed from the mass political drive for free education that has seen expression in the Corbyn surge and in Labour’s significant gains in the 2017 General Election. Likewise, it is removed from the fertile layer of grassroots campus activism that made the recent wave of occupations possible. As of the 2018 NUS National Conference elections, the NUS leadership is split evenly between the left and the right, but the right still holds the presidency. However, if the experience of the UCU strike has taught us anything, it is that any attempt to rebuild the student movement must amount to something far wider and bolder than putting left-wingers in office.

3. What Next for UCU?

Even though our current position is intensely dissatisfying, we have made genuine gains through our activism. UCU membership has increased by the thousands and seen unprecedented energisation at the grassroots level. Now we must ask how we rank-and-file activists can prepare for the (almost inevitable) next round in the dispute should the talks with UUK fail and, more pointedly, how we can transform the union itself. I wholly understand the temptation for left-wing members simply to jump ship from UCU. As it stands, UCU has all the trappings of a bureaucratised union disconnected from its more militant base and the UCU Left faction, dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), serves as little more than an electoral machine. For these same reasons, I understand suggestions to ‘dual card’ with smaller, more dynamic unions, such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB).

While all available options should considered carefully, I do wish to stress that there are significant advantages to a large, national union, not least in respect of collective bargaining. Since university employers in the sector have to deal with industry-wide unions such as UCU, it is harder to drive down wages on individual campuses and make the sector even more closely resemble a market than it does already. Moreover, one should bear in mind that the character of unions can change dramatically. Many of the large national unions now infamous for bureaucracy, such as the GMB, grew out of the ‘new unionism’ of the 1880s, which replaced the older ‘craft union’ models. This shift from craft unionism to new unionism meant an upsurge in militancy and the bringing together of different workers in the same industry to fight for collective gains rather than to defend the special interests of a uniquely skilled ‘labour aristocracy’. Conversely and more recently, rank-and-file activists transformed the traditionally conservative and bureaucratic Chicago Teachers Union into an energised, combative body. As such, we should not be overly dismissive of what we could achieve within UCU, building upon the kind of grassroots revolt we saw with the #NoCapitulation surge.
In short, whether one chooses to start a new union or to reform an existing union, there are no shortcuts to effective workplace organising. For now, we must keep engaging with UCU’s activist base and ensure that its newly tapped potential does not dissipate. With new rank-and-file networks emerging in the wake of the ballot result, a glimmer of hope appears in the darkness. It is a hope that springs from a single, potent realisation: we are the union.

Our Demands: Statement from the Occupations Summit

occupied

Activists from 13 campuses who had been in occupation have come together on Sunday 18th March to share our experiences, learn from each other and plan how we can unite together in support of UCU for the struggle ahead.

We stand in full solidarity with UCU and are demanding that:
1. Universities UK ends its attempts to push through this pension scheme and gives in to the opposition from UCU.
2. The strike is mediated by a genuinely independent body, not one appointed by Universities UK.
3. That Universities UK publish a gender impact assessment on the USS pension reforms.
4. Universities release reports on their institutional responses to the USS consultations to September Risk valuations, clarifying their decisions and the process behind them.
5. Universities should guarantee that students will not be awarded results lower than their predicted grade, in response to disruption caused by UUK. If students achieve results better than predicted, then that result will be accepted.
6. No pay is docked for staff taking action short of a strike. That hourly paid staff whose teaching hours all fell on strike days do not have their pay docked.
7. No-one, staff or student, face disciplinary action or other victimisation for protesting in support of the strike.
8. Strike days are not classed as “mandatory attendance” for students, especially international students.
9. International student visas be extended to cover delayed graduation dates
10. Workers on Tier 2 & Tier 4 Visas do not face legal threats for participation in strike action

We believe in education that is democratic, accessible and liberated, with living grants for all and no tuition fees, funded by taxing the rich. We want a radical transformation of our education system from the bottom up.

We are calling on our universities to: pay the living wage and provide in-house and secure contracts for all campus workers; cease all blacklisting of workers; implement a 5:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid staff on campus; divest from fossil fuels and arms companies; end all compliance with PREVENT; initiate rent caps and pass ownership and running of accomodation to students.

Read the report from the summit here.

Reclaim NUS!

market

13 million people voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2017. Amongst those aged between 18-25 62% voted Labour and 100,000 are members. Seats like Canterbury and Sheffield Hallam (bibi Clegg) were largely won by the sudden turnout of students who were enthused by radical politics. The Labour Party achieved all of this with a flagship policy of a National Education Service, providing universal free education for life.

This surge has finally hit the student movement on the ground. In the past year, the Higher Education sector has been swept with new waves of activists and activism. Student struggles up and down the country are challenging overpaid and corrupt University Management and governance structures, using direct action against the ever-rising cost of rent, fighting for fully funded mental health services and actively supporting staff in the largest wave of industrial action that Higher Education has ever seen. We are standing at a crossroads in the student movement and education sector where, if we lose, it may jade this new movement into paralysis. However, if we win, this emerging movement could change the face of our education system and UK politics for ever! But… where is the NUS?

The current NUS leadership has busied itself cosying up to parliamentarians, attempting to look and be ‘respectable’. Their failure in aims and strategy was highlighted by, Despite NUS’ best efforts, being laughably blocked from the board of the Office for Students by Downing Street SPADS leaving an unelected student at Surrey to represent us. Simply playing Select Committee doesn’t work, we can never win at their game. We must use collective power to force our wins, but NUS has consistently failed to support activists on the ground: from blocking a motion to support the national demo from even being discussed on NEC to their complete lack of effort to show mean solidarity with the UCU strikes.

There have been over 20 occupations in the last few weeks around the country, students risking their studies to support the UCU, has Shakira Martin visited any of them? Has Izzy Lenga been to a Teach-Out? NUS have put out nothing about the UCU pension dispute since February. After our members on the NEC passed a motion mandating NUS to support the strikes, the leadership didn’t even bother to produce their own material to distribute to SUs, instead they lazily uploaded UCU’s leaflets to NUS Connect and said goodbye. The Labour Students/Organised Independents slate this year is so out of touch with the membership that, at the high-point of Corbynism, they have still managed to run a candidate for NUS VP who will go on national TV and argue for a Graduate Tax.

We need national co-ordination of this emerging new grassroots movements and a leadership forged from the bottom-up more than ever. That is why NCAFC are running the following candidates for the NUS executive:

Sahaya James – President
Ana Oppenheim – VP Higher Education

NEC Block of 15:

Stuart McMillan
Justine Canady
Monty Shield

They are standing alongside other candidates from the broader left of NUS:

Eva Crossan Jory – VP Welfare
Zamzam Ibrahim – VP Society & Citizenship
Ali Milani – VP Union Development
Neal Black – VP Further Education

Conference will be full of excited Corbynista delegates, new activists from the campus grassroots and many will be buoyed from waves of activity on the ground all over the country. We are making clear that whilst the opposition at conference may wear the tokenistic badge of ‘Labour’, they are not the representatives of the movement spawned from and around Corbynism. They cannot lead students through this forthcoming era of change and radicalism, but the movement can.

Occupations Summit: Activists from 13 Campuses Come Together

occupied
National Committee member Monty Shield reports

Around 40 activists from 13 campuses who had been in occupation have come together to share our experiences, learn from each other and plan how we can unite in support of UCU for the struggle ahead.

Taking stock
After a hugely inspiring four weeks we had a collective discussion of the national situation. Leading off, Swansea UCU activist Cath Fletcher gave an overview of the recent history of the UCU and the context of the strike, and Cambridge postgraduate teaching assistant and UCU member Dan Davison spoke of the effect of the 2010 student movement on his current involvement in the occupation at Cambridge University.

National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) activist and NUS Presidential candidate Sahaya James, who played a key role in the occupation at UCL, called for the National Union of Students to orientate itself towards the emerging leadership of the student movement: the grassroots activists who have made these last four weeks as significant as they have been.

Activists from as far away as Scotland and other campuses a long way outside of London contributed to the discussion. And it is clear that there is a deep resolve from all activists present and across the country to build on the great upsurge of student-worker solidarity action until we win this dispute. Detailed notes of this discussion were taken and will be released soon.

Learning from the past four weeks
The second part of the day entailed skill-sharing workshops. Activists split into groups, first listing the successes of their occupations and other campus actions, then listing obstacles they had faced and mistakes made. Groups fed back to the whole room, and invaluable lessons were learnt that activists can take back to their local groups for future direct action. Notes were taken and a best practice guide to occupations will be produced and circulated soon.

Going forward
In the next few months we want to organise together to take this wave of student solidarity to the next level of effectiveness and national coordination.

We voted to release a joint statement of demands immediately following the meeting and want to work together to develop this further together over the coming months. And already local occupation summits are being planned for London and Scottish campuses.

NUS

The meeting also voted to endorse two candidates for NUS full time office positions: Sahaya James for President and Ana Oppenheim for VP Higher Education. Both these activists are running on a platform for transforming NUS into a bottom up grassroots organisation that fights with lecturers and campus workers for a free, democratic, accessible and liberated education system. The were also endorsed to a large extent because of their key involved in recent occupations they have been a part of.

Sunday’s summit has laid the groundwork for linking up even more occupations.

To get involved contact the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts on facebook or email us at [email protected] You can also reach us by tweeting or messaging @occupation_hub.

If you want help with setting up an occupation on your campus, you can read this short guide to occupations here and look out for the best practice document that will be coming soon.

A Brief Guide to University Occupations

occupied

Lots of students across the UK are shortly going to be launching occupations and sit-in protests in order to maximise the impact of the UCU strike, and build support for broader demands about justice in the UK education system.

If you’re one of them, or if you’re thinking about being one of them – hello! NCAFC have thrown together this guide as a check-list of things to think about before you occupy.

1) Making the decision
The first step is to have a discussion with people around you about having the occupation. This might seem obvious, but it is important that most people support the occupation and its aims. At this stage you want to make the decision about whether to occupy overnight, what your demands or the general political aims of the action are, and what you hope to achieve.

Work in concentric circles, rippling outward, including more people each time. Get a few people together who are up for it. That small group should get together everyone they know who might be up for it. And then that larger group should call everyone they know… and so on. Work rapidly and aim to launch within a week once this process begins. Don’t give things time to fizzle out. Be decisive; encourage those around you to be bold.

It is OK if not everyone is persuaded at once: but you need people to understand what they are doing and why. If your occupation isn’t democratic, it’ll fall apart at the first difficulty.

2) Why are you doing it?
Some occupations are serious long-term show-downs with management: you take over an important target whose occupation will call real disruption (like a management office, say) and stay there until the Vice Chancellor surrenders.

Other occupations are more about using the disruptive and spectacular power of an occupation to get everyone’s attention, get people talking about your demands, and change the atmosphere on campus, leaving while you are still fresh.

Decide what you want to do before you go in – and prepare yourselves accordingly. Might you wind up being dragged out by security? Will your studies take a back seat for several weeks? Or will you be back in lectures by Monday? Within sensible limits (don’t tell anyone who you think might tell on you!) people need to know what they are getting themselves in for.

3) Where to occupy?
Choose a location to suit your objectives. Are you going to choose a really disruptive and heavily-fortified place to occupy; or a very visible location with lots of windows and access points? Has your university splurged stupid money on a flashy conference centre that is no use to staff or students?

There are some non-negotiable things that you need in an occupation. Don’t occupy anywhere without these things:

a) It needs to be safe to sleep in. Rooftops are not a good idea for overnight stays.
b) You need a toilet. You, gallant reader, might be ready to shit into a carrier bag for the cause; but sadly most students are not. Make sure you’ve got enough loo roll and hand sanitiser gel.
c) Wi-fi and/or phone signal. If an occupation happens and you can’t tweet about it, has it really happened?
d) Windows or balconies. People need to be able to see you! Also, on day 3 you’ll be glad of the natural light.

Look at the venue beforehand. Look at the doors and ask yourself: will we need to lock them shut? How can we do that? What are the access points; how many toilets are there, where will we get tapwater from? Is it easy for people to find?

4) Springing the occupation
If you have a strong and motivated group, you will be able to simply storm the target location: all turn up in the management corridor or Presitigious Conference Centre, lock the doors shut, sit down, and issue your demands online. But that requires secretly organising a big-ish team to converge at the right time and place, or leading a rally or demonstration indoors “by surprise”. You can’t very well set up a Facebook event advertising the time and place of the sit-in, or the building will be locked down.

Another method is to call a public meeting in the room you intend to occupy (or nearby) and launch your occupation at an appropriate moment in the proceedings, by having the chair explain the plan and asking the meeting to approve it.

The start of an occupation is normally pandemonium. That’s OK – don’t stress over a little chaos – but try to get things under control. Make sure that people have jobs to do, so that people can get active right away. As soon as you are securely in the space and you’re not about to be run out of the building, hold a meeting to endorse your demands and establish a division of labour.

What kind of things need doing?
a) Security – post a watch on all the doors and make a rota through the night
b) Food, water, hygeine – sort out a clean food preparation area, a clean method of distributing tap water, and make sure that the loos are clean, accessible and well-stocked.
c) Online propaganda – let everyone know where you are! Set up a blog and social media accounts for your occupation. Post on them regularly – your demands; practical information and requests for help; political statements like messages of support from the local trade unions or other occupations; videos of people having fun in the occupation (security considerations permitting); and memes.
d) Turning the occupation inside out (see below)
e) Organised fun: show films, provide board games – you’ve got a big group of people living crammed together in an uncomfortable space. Do things to keep people happy and relaxed.

5) Security and repression
You are not likely to be expelled, disciplined, arrested or beaten up for occupying.

Since 2008, thousands of students have taken part in dozens of occupations in the UK. In that period, very small numbers of students have been taken through disciplinary cases or suspended. Small numbers have been arrested. To our knowledge, perhaps half a dozen people have been expelled, in exceptional circumstances. At some campuses the police have been called to clear buildings out (Sussex Uni in 2010; Senate House, London 2013; Birmingham University 2014; Warwick Uni in 2014) – but while serious, these are rare incidents in a decade that has seen many, many sit-ins.
All the same, it is important not to take silly risks. Don’t brawl with security guards, damage buildings, light fires, smoke, drink booze, or take drugs in an occupation. Be careful about revealing occupiers’ names to university management. Observe a sensible level of secrecy when preparing.

If any of your people are victimised: fight back! Support them through disciplinary procedures, tell the world what the university is doing, organise anti-victimisation protests and petitions. Contact alumni (universities care about their image amongst alumni, who are a source of money). Contact NCAFC for advice on how to proceed: we have been involved in fighting victimisations of student activists since 2010.

Security guards need to be treated with respect. University security staff or porters are workers like any others. In London, university security guards have been going on strike and facing up to management bullying. Do not fight them or insult them.

They will try to obstruct you, because that is a condition of their employment. They will be worried that if they just let you have your way, they will get in trouble.

The best way to overcome security is to be numerous, quick and well-organised. Try to move decisively and in overwhelming numbers. Security know that if they are deployed on their own or in a small group, they will not be sacked for failing to thwart a group of many dozens of students. Keep an eye on them, and let them know that they might be being filmed, as this will discourage any “unprofessional behaviour” from the odd Rambo type. But in general you need to reduce, not increase, confrontation and tension with university security.

Likewise, the use of police as storm troopers to flush you out with gas and batons is, while not unknown, extremely rare. If the university tells you that the cops are on their way, remain calm. They are doing it to freak you out. Take sensible precautions: but the likelihood is that two bored coppers will turn up, tell you that the occupation is none of their business, and take off again.
Bring bicycle locks and ropes.

6) Turn the occupation inside out!
The most successful occupations are not barricaded-off fortifications. They are present across the whole campus and local community. Lots of local activists and ordinary students, staff and residents pass through, talk to the occupiers, find out about the message, and tell their friends. During the occupation, the campus should be alive with your message. Teams should be out doorknocking, postering and leafleting every day, and attractive events should be advertised throughout the day, to keep bringing new people in and developing the political education of the people inside.

It is possible that the security situation will be such that you don’t have easy control of access: if getting in and out is hard, then you’ll need a dedicated organisation on the outside in constant communication with the people inside. Plan for this. And be creative about solving access problems.

– Have an “outside” working group – they should organise people to knock on doors, chalk slogans, leaflet and poster. That will need a lot of printing, every morning. Plan how and where to do it!
– Set up a rota of attractive talks and activities every day. Plan it several days in advance.
– Get in touch with the local trade unions and the left. Invite them to come and speak. Have them bring their banners!
– Set up visual displays inside the occupation, or plastered to the windows if access is a problem.
– Make the occupation look good from the outside; and make it clear what you are there for.
– Launch sorties: do banner drops in as many different locations as you can, as often as you can; stage little noise demos away from the occupation. Be present everywhere!
– When you need to get numbers up, have everyone drop what they are doing and hit the phones. Organise a mass call-round.

7) Learn when to let go
Some people want to call the occupation off at the first sign of trouble, or after a few nights of sleep deprivation. Others go the other way: they’ve been through a lot, carried only by a feeling of determination and political will. Isn’t it a betrayal to call off the occupation? People with that mindset will resist leaving, under any circumstances.

It is not good to keep an occupation going when your numbers are very depleted and the participants are exhausted. Small groups get victimised. Very tired people make mistakes or get ill. But at the same time, in a long show-down with management, the moment when you are most exhausted is also probably the time when their patience is at its end and they’re ready to make a concession.

Try to make a dispassionate judgement about when to call off an occupation. Remember your original objectives: is it an up-down fight, or are you there to raise awareness? Is your activist group getting stronger by the day, or weaker? How are numbers holding up?

When the time has come to get out, don’t dither, but prepare your exit. Call one last big demonstration so that when you step out blinking into the sun, you get a big cheer. Don’t scuttle off in the night. Release a statement and call a follow-up event. Write down what you have learned and contact the NCAFC: if you feel up to it, we’ll help you take your message to other campuses about how you did what you did. If you need experienced activists to talk to about rallying your group after an exhausting effort, or resisting victimisations, we will help.

Marketisation Must Be Abolished, Not Adjusted

By NCAFC National Committee member Dan Davison.

market

On Monday 19 February, Theresa May launched the latest funding review for higher education. Acknowledging that the UK now has ‘one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world’, May put forward that the review would ‘examine how we can give people from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance to succeed’. Such promises follow Education Secretary Damian Hinds’ suggestions last Sunday that students might be charged variable tuition fees according to their specific degree’s economic value. Indeed, the themes of ‘meritocracy’ and greater ‘value for money’ infused May’s speech, which floated such options as adjusting the repayment period for graduates and bringing back maintenance grants, but excluded abolishing fees altogether.

These shifts in position from Government figures almost certainly reflect pressures brought first by the student movement in the wake of the 2010 anti-cuts protests and later by the Corbyn-led Labour Party, which has committed to abolishing fees, reintroducing grants, and setting up a new National Education Service to allow people to access education throughout their lives. Nevertheless, such concessions from the Conservatives mean little without directly tackling the underlying problem of marketization. In other words, such tinkering around the edges of tuition costs and debt repayment not only comes across as a ‘too little, too late’ gambit after years of slashed funds, course closures, and fee hikes, but also explicitly reinforces the very education-as-commodity logic that gave ideological cover to this systematic gutting of the sector.

This is perhaps most obvious from the suggestion that tuition fees be varied by the subject’s economic value. Education is far more than a financial investment in one’s future: it provides a substantial benefit to society as a whole by fostering skills and knowledge, as well as individual fulfilment by allowing people to seek new personal and intellectual horizons. One cannot reduce this worth to a price tag based on whether the private sector happens to consider a given skill or field of knowledge vital for its internal operations. Whilst many students’ experience of the current system may well be a monotonous grind to gain a set of numbers on a sheet of paper that will hopefully find them a job, the only manner in which we can break people free from such a life-sapping existence is by radically altering the way we have come to conceptualise education itself. It calls for us to be able to see and treat education the way we see and treat healthcare: as a public good that everyone is entitled to access, supported by the redistribution of wealth. This is why I advocate a free education system based on taxing the very richest so that anyone can go to university, as opposed to treating those who complete their degrees as obligated to give back money through student loan repayments or a ‘graduate tax’ for the ‘privilege’ of receiving a special service.

We most clearly see the spectre of marketization lingering above the funding review when we consider it alongside the ongoing industrial action by education workers organised in the University and College Union (UCU) to defend their pensions. On 22 February, a wave of pickets hit 61 universities, with a further 13 strike dates to follow in an escalating pattern. These strikes are over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. The proposed changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, effectively spelling the end of guaranteed pension benefits. The significance of this dispute cannot be overstated. Academic staff are posed to lose up to 40% of their retirement income – which for the typical lecturer could amount to as much as £200,000 – and other pension schemes will almost certainly follow in USS’ wake. Put bluntly, if UCU loses the dispute, it would sound the death knell for financial security in retirement across the entire education sector.

The role of marketization in all this is simple: the reforms to USS are driven by the felt need to shift as much financial risk as possible from the universities to the individual workers, which in turn is driven by the felt need to make universities more attractive to commercial investors. In other words, senior management are cutting staff pensions in order to maximise profits. This means that student hardships, such as extortionate rents, rising fees, funding cuts, and overcrowded campuses, and staff hardships, such as the proliferation of casual employment contracts and the stripping of pension guarantees, are symptoms of the same underlying problem.

Indeed, there is a striking thematic parallel between the suggested differentiation of fees according to economic value and the infamous ‘excellence frameworks’, which outline artificial metrics for success in the education sector. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) ostensibly evaluates the impact of academic research, the newer Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) does likewise for teaching quality, and the recently proposed Knowledge Excellence Framework (KEF) will purportedly ensure that knowledge produced by universities is put to good use. All these frameworks are deeply flawed. In the case of the REF and KEF, commercial interests largely determine whether produced scholarship is ‘impactful’ or ‘useful’. Moreover, the pressure on academics to keep churning out and submitting articles to keep their jobs or gain promotion perpetuates and deepens a ‘publish or perish’ culture amongst staff, to the detriment of well-being and research quality alike.

As for the TEF, its two major metrics are employment rates and graduate earnings on the one hand, and the National Student Survey (NSS) on the other. Even on their own terms, these are wholly unreliable metrics. After all, a student could very easily have the most skilful and understanding teachers imaginable, yet still struggle to find a well-paying job after graduation, whilst NSS results are basically junk data. More fundamentally, the TEF was established with the ultimate aim of allowing high-scoring universities to become more expensive than low-scoring universities, thereby making education even more hierarchical and commodified. This is why the National Union of Students (NUS) passed policy in 2016 to boycott the NSS until the higher education reforms are withdrawn, and why Students’ Unions and activist groups across the country are continuing the boycott this year. In short, like the pensions cuts at the heart of UCU’s dispute and the proposals in the higher education review, the ‘excellence frameworks’ demonstrate the grave effects of marketization upon staff and students alike.

Until and unless we overhaul the entire education system to prevent managers from running universities like businesses, May’s promises will continue to ring hollow. This is why the call for staff-student solidarity must fall upon receptive ears. This is the point at which the common struggle of students and workers on campus is most starkly apparent. Much of the sector has already withered in the malignant presence of marketization. Nevertheless, if staff and students realise how viewing education in terms of ‘value for money’ has led to the predicaments they face today, they can organise to fend off the latest wave of attacks upon education and to lay the foundations for a radically different system. Only by noticing their shared material interests can students and workers form the kind of solidarity needed to defend the education sector we have, and to bring forth the education sector that could be.