NSS Boycott: Open letter to NUS Leadership

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The statement below is an open letter signed by a range of student activists and officers from across the country in relation to the NSS Boycott campaign and the role of NUS within that. If you wish to add your name to the letter then please send your name and position/affiliation to againstfeesandcuts@gmail.com, or message our Facebook page.

We, the undersigned students’ union officers and student activists, are pledging to continue to promote the boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS) until the latest round of the Higher Education reforms is withdrawn. We are also calling on the NUS leadership, in particular Vice-President Higher Education Amatey Doku, to follow its democratic mandate from NUS National Conference 2016 to lead a national boycott of the survey.

The threat posed by recent government reforms should not be underestimated. The HE Reforms will not only raise the cost of tuition, but also include the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework and making it easier for more private providers to award degrees. While the campaign against the HE Bill last year won some important concessions, such as delaying the link between TEF and fees and stricter regulations of private companies entering the market, our demands have not been met. The results of these reforms, combined with previous waves of marketisation, can already be seen with dozens of campuses announcing job cuts (some, including University of Manchester, explicitly citing government reforms as the reason). Unless radical action is taken, we will see more course closures and job losses, an even more unequal education system and staff working conditions further deteriorating.

The NSS is a key metric in the TEF, which means student feedback is directly used to raise fees, close courses and damage education. It is also the one metric students have control over. Boycotting the survey is more than a symbolic act of protest – withdrawing data gives us leverage by affecting the framework the government needs to implement its reforms. This ensures that we don’t come to the negotiating table empty-handed. Without any collective action by students, our position in fighting the TEF and marketisation will be significantly weakened. We know that the 2017 NSS boycott invalidated survey results at 12 institutions, further throwing into doubt the legitimacy of TEF metrics and putting pressure on the government.

As the largest democratic body representing students across the UK, NUS is best placed to to co-ordinate the campaign and negotiate with the government on our behalf. And while the HE BIll has passed, the fight to stop fee rises and marketization is not over. We are calling on NUS to start building now for NSS boycott 2018 and to learn from last year’s experiences to make it bigger and more effective. We are also calling on other students’ unions to join our campaign – the larger it grows, the stronger we are.

Signed by:

Beth Douglas NUS LGBT+ Officer (Women’s Place)
Ana Oppenheim NUS NEC
Amelia Horgan NUS NEC
Aliya Yule NUS NEC
Sarah Gillborn NUS NEC
Sarah Lasoye NUS NEC
Hansika Jethnani NUS NEC, Arts SU Education Officer
Deej Malik-Johnson NUS NEC, Manchester SU Campaigns Officer
Nicoline Kure Aberdeen Uni Student Association Women’s Convener
Lewis Macleod Aberdeen Uni Students’ Association Communities Officer
Tam Wilson Abertay Students Association
Leah Kahn Arts SU Activities Officer
Sahaya James Arts SU Campaigns Officer
Rebecca Harrington Brookes Union Women’s Officer
Claudia Cannon Carmarthen East & Dinefwr Labour Youth Officer HE
Taylor McGraa Education Officer Goldsmiths Students Union
Josh Chown Guildford Labour Youth Officer
Georgie Spearing KCLSU Disabled Students’ Officer
Rahma Hussein KCLSU VP Activities & Development
Douglas Carr Kent Union Ethics Officer
Rory Hughes Liverpool Guild Vice President
Sara Khan Manchester SU BME Officer
Rob Noon Manchester SU Trans Officer
Tyrone Falls NCAFC National Committee
Charlie Porter NCAFC National Committee, Free Uni of Sheffield Activist
Maisie Sanders NCAFC National Committee
Andy Warren NCAFC National Committee
Shula Kombe NCAFC National Committee
Ben Towse NCAFC National Committee
Nathan Rogers NCAFC National Committee
Monty Shield NCAFC National Committee
Zoe Salanitro NCAFC National Committee
Clementine Boucher NCAFC National Committee, Rent Strike Activist
Zac Muddle NCAFC National Committee, Bristol Labour LGBT+ Officer
Anabel Bennett NCAFC National Committee, Rent Strike Activist
Alex Booth NCAFC National Committee
Alex Stuart NCAFC National Committee, Surrey Labour Students Chair
Finn Northrop Non Portfolio Officer UEA SU
Tanju Cakar NUS Disabled Studnets Committee (Open Place)
Vijay Jackson Ordinary Members’ Representative, Scottish Labour Young Socialists
Tom Zagoria Oxford Uni SU St Anne’s College Officer
Krum Tashev President Canterbury Christchurch Students Union
Natasha Barrett Royal Holloway SU President
Chris Townsend Sheffield SU Education Committee
Charlotte O’Neil Sheffield SU Education Committee Chair
Josh Berlyne Sheffield SU Education Committee Vice-Chair
Stuart McMillan Sheffield SU Education Officer
Sarah Mcintosh Sussex SU Postgraduate Education Officer
Aisling Murray Sussex SU Society & Citizenship Officer
Lulah Brady Sussex SU Undergraduate Education Officer
Grainne Gahan Sussex SU Welfare Officer
Ayo Olatunji UCL SU BME Officer
Mark Crawford UCL SU Postgrad Officer
Justine Canady UCL SU Women’s Officer
Dan Davidson UCU Surrey Branch Secretary 2016-2017
Gary Spedding Ulster University Students Union Student Activist
Laura Tidd Undergraduate Academic Officer Durham Students Union
Mason Ammar Undergraduate Education Officer Bristol Students Union
Belle Linford University of Birmingham Guild of Students Disabled Student’s Officer
Jamie Jordon UWE SU Education Officer
Connor Woodman Warwick For Free Education Student Activist
Emily Dunford Warwick SU Postgrad Officer
Hope Worsdale Warwick SU President
Rida Vaquas
Young Labour West Mids Rep of Momentum NCG, NCAFC National Committee
Danny Filer Labour Students London Regional Coordinator, UCL SU Labour President
Dimitri Cautain SOAS SU Co-President Welfare & Campaigns
Nisha Phillipps SOAS SU Co-President Democracy & Education
Halimo Hussien SOAS SU Co-President Equality & Liberation
Mehdi Baraka SOAS SU Co-President Activties & Events
Flo Brookes Sheffield SU Sports Officer
Santhana Gopalakrishnan Sheffield SU International Students’ Officer
Celeste Jones Sheffield SU Women’s Officer
Megan McGrath Sheffield SU Development Officer
Tom Brindley Sheffield SU Activities Officer

NCAFC Summer Training 2017: REGISTER NOW!

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After the surprising Labour success in the General Election, on the most left wing platform in a generation, we are closer than ever to winning free education. Labour won seats on a manifesto that promised to scrap tuition fees, build social housing, and create a free National Education Service. The Tory leadership is increasingly becoming increasingly weak (and wobbly), and it is looking likely that we will kick out the politicians who brought in £9Kfees 7 years ago.

But even with though the left has made gains on a national level, the fight is far from over. The HE Reforms are in full swing. In June, the Teaching Excellence Framework rankings were released and already sweeping cuts are hitting our campuses. Moreover, even with the prospect of abolishing fees and restoring the Educational Maintenance Allowance in sight, is that enough? Free Education has developed beyond fees and EMA to mean public education which is free, yes, but accessible, liberated and democratic too.

The only way to stop the government’s reforms and win free, accessible, liberated and democratic education is to form a militant grassroots movement!

Join NCAFC 9-10 September for our Summer Training 2017, hosted in Sheffield! Followed by our National Committee meeting on Monday 11th which is open to all members (although only NC members can vote).

Whether you’re a student officer wondering how to challenge management or an activist wondering how to fight cuts on your campus this *FREE* training will equip you with knowledge and practical advice which will be fundamental in an undoubtedly pivotal year for UK education. Not only this, but it will be an excellent opportunity to meet other student union officers and activists from across the country and build essential networks.

JOIN THE FACEBOOK EVENT HERE!

REGISTER YOUR FREE PLACE HERE!

Teaching Excellence Framework Ranking Released

UCL students protesting TEF in December 2016

UCL students protesting TEF in December 2016

Today the rankings of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) were released. TEF is at the heart of the ruinous Higher Education and Research Act (HE Act) that was voted into legislation in April 2017. It’s important to remember why as activists we have rejected the TEF and how we can fight the HE reforms.

What is TEF?

TEF was prompted by the government’s attempt to artificially create competition between institutions of higher education. While TEF is suppose to encourage “teaching excellence”, the framework itself does no such thing.

Two major metrics informing TEF are (1) employment rates & graduate earnings and (2) the National Student Survey

(NSS) results, neither of which have any relation to “teaching excellence”. Graduate earnings have nothing to do with the quality of teaching a student received, but rather how much businesses value a certain skill. This means we could see mass closures of arts and humanities courses, subjects viewed as less “marketable”.

The NSS has long been an ineffective tool for rating student satisfaction, but TEF exacerbates these consequences. Uni management will now be more incentivized to focus on gaming the NSS for positive feedback and pointing the blame at over worked staff members, rather than materially changing the conditions of students.

The main goal of TEF is to make sure that universities are providing skills that businesses want, so that they will be driven to invest in these unis. TEF will not make students consumers, but to make students a product to be bought by businesses.

What should we do?

NCAFC and others in the student movement must continue to reject TEF and the HE Act and fight for a free and liberated education.

We will surely see a rise in cuts and redundancies over the coming year. University of Manchester management have already made sweeping job cuts, citing the HE Act as the motivator.

We need to be ready to resist the destruction of our education. Remember that the link between TEF and fee rises was cut because of student backlash and we can do more. Spend this summer and autumn forming anti-cuts and free education groups on your campuses. If there are job cuts or course closures at your uni, use direct action to stop them. Pass a motion in your student union to boycott the NSS and if the motion doesn’t pass, campaign to boycott it anyway. Only through radical grassroots action can we stop the effect’s of TEF.

After the General Election, let’s keep free education on the agenda

This is a comment piece written by NCAFC National Committee member Ana Oppenheim.

students 4 labour 4 free ed

In the 2017 General Election, over 40% of voters backed parties which committed to scrapping tuition fees. The biggest of these was obviously Labour, which after almost two decades of supporting student fees (indeed introducing them in 1998), made a U-turn and made free university education a key manifesto pledge, alongside extra funding for schools and re-instating maintenance grants.

Free education was popular on the doorstep, and anecdotal evidence is backed by polls showing that nearly half of the British public thinks that scrapping fees is a good idea (37% are against.) While early reports claiming huge increases in youth turnout have not yet been confirmed, we know that Labour unexpectedly won seats in areas with high student population: such as Reading, Canterbury, Warwick, Leeds and Sheffield Hallam, where Nick Clegg lost his seat. These successes cannot be attributed purely to Labour’s education policy – other pledges, like £10 minimum wage and banning zero-hours contracts no doubt also appealed to young voters – but it’s certain that the vision of debt-free degrees inspired many.

For years, it felt like free education could not be further from the political mainstream. After the LibDem’s infamously broken promise in 2010, few politicians had the courage to speak out against the consensus on education funding. Labour toyed with ideas like reducing fees to £6000 or replacing them with a graduate tax – but these proposals failed to challenge the logic of making students and graduates pick up the bill for their degrees, and ultimately convinced no one.

It was years of sustained student activism that kept the demand for free education alive. Dismissed by many – even within the student movement itself – as unrealistic daydreamers, we kept organising on our campuses and nationally, spending days in meetings, occupations and demonstrations, winning the arguments in NUS and finally also in the Labour party. Following years campaigning which put free education on the political agenda, Corbyn’s Labour brought it back into the realm of possibility.

Now it’s our job to make sure it stays there, and becomes reality.

Why free education?

But despite the long columns written by pundits about Labour’s HE policy, the manifesto contains no more than a few short paragraphs. It doesn’t go into detail about the reasoning behind the policy, or what the proposal to create a National Education Service would mean in practice.

“No one should be put off educating themselves for lack of money or through fear of debt” says the manifesto. Critics were quick to point out that numbers of English 18-year-olds applying to university, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are at a record high. But these numbers don’t show the whole story. Numbers of mature and part-time students have collapsed since the last fee increase, meaning hundreds of thousands of predominantly working-class students giving up on higher education. Applications for arts courses fell by 17% after the tripling of fees and never quite recovered, as many students abandoned their creative dreams out of fear of debt. Recently, we’ve seen applications for nursing courses fall by 23% as soon as the NHS bursary got scrapped.

A recent study has shown that the prospect of debt does indeed discourage working-class students from going to university. While a growing number of student places combined with widening participation/marketing efforts by universities as well as the pressures of the job market mean more young people in HE, many are still put off by high fees.

However, access is not the only argument. It’s important to remember that tuition fees, in a wider landscape of marketisation, influence decisions made not only by students but also by universities. An institution constantly chasing the bottom line cannot be truly democratised. The interests of the market need to be prioritised over the needs of students and workers, pushing institutions to invest in marketing, shiny buildings and vanity projects while cutting courses that are costly to deliver and saving on staff. It’s no coincidence that since the last increase in fees, lecturers’ pay has been falling and casualisation is on the rise – while management salaries skyrocketed.

Presenting a degree as a product to be bought and sold changes the dynamic between students, staff and institutions. The customer relationship adds to the stress faced by both students (who worry about the debt they’re in) and staff (who are under increased pressure from management), which is a likely factor contributing to the university mental health crisis. The system also reduces education to a form of individual investment, rather than a public good that benefits society as a whole. Fundamentally, tuition fees are a tax on learning and aspiration – instead of income or wealth. Free education is not “the poor paying for the middle classes” if funded from the pockets of the very rich, for the benefit of all.

Let’s demand more.

These arguments were not put forward by Labour. The manifesto also lacked a broader idea for what education should look like, who and what purpose it should serve. The idea of a National Education Service is an exciting one, promising to make education truly accessible for all, from cradle to grave – but we can build on the idea and be even more ambitious in our vision.

Let’s demand universal living grants, so that no student has to get into debt or rely on their parents to afford food and rent while studying.

Let’s demand democratic institutions, accountable to students and staff – not ran by unelected management.

Let’s move towards abolishing hierarchies and league tables, challenge elitist admission processes, rethink how and what we’re taught.

Let’s debate and develop these ideas and spread them on our campuses, in Students’ Unions, in Labour clubs and CLPs, in activist groups or anywhere else we organise, in meetings and in the streets. There is a long way to go but we’ve never been closer to making them reality.

#GE2017 Debate: the case for voting Labour

This is an opinion piece on the 2017 General Election, written by NCAFC activist and UCL sabbatical officer Mark Crawford. You can read an opinion piece presenting the case for voting Green here.
Want to join the debate? Send your opinion pieces to againstfeesandcuts@gmail.com!

polling station

Something rather remarkable has happened over the last two years.

 
The abolition of tuition fees and as well as the much broader cause of free education – as championed by NCAFC and other activists since 2010 and before – is now the flagship policy of the largest political party in Europe.

 
Jeremy Corbyn’s twice election to the leadership of the Labour Party represents an unprecedented shift in mainstream political thinking – and with the party’s manifesto littered with so many bold promises for young people, at its core is our best offering from a major political party in a generation.

 
Our Shadow Education Secretary’s pledge to construct a National Education Service, with all the sound echoes of our now pained NHS, is truly radical in potential; as well as abolishing the highest the tuition fees in the industrialised world, it promises universal public childcare, well-funded apprenticeships and adult education for all from cradle to crave.

 
For higher education, scrapping fees – from as early as this year if Labour are elected to office – would in a stroke bring the market forces currently ensnaring our universities to a grinding halt. It would represent the wider realignment of higher education as a social utility, accountable and accessible to the public as a whole.

 
Our communities would still ultimately be governed by undemocratic managements; neither staff nor students would have the final say over how our learning and work spaces are run. But such a shift in how are universities are funded and supported would make so much of what we as students want and need – from better pastoral support, to better pay for academics and fully-funded research – not only possible, but immediately achievable.

 
It’s easy to think, perhaps, that we’ve been here before. In 2010, free education came in the polish of Nick Clegg; and it was cautious support from young people that helped bring the Liberal Democrats their modest share of seats in the Commons, whereupon they proceeded to form a Coalition with the Tories and treble university tuition fees. It was a betrayal for which they paid sorely.

 
But there’s a difference here that can’t be understated. The Lib Dems have never been a party of working people, the majority of our society; the austerity they rolled out across our society came from a decision to harm millions rather than tackle the interests of banks and the rich. Even now, their proposal to fund the NHS they wrecked is through additional taxation on the working people whose wages and welfare they cut.

 
Contrast that with the proposal immediately before us. A Corbyn government will nationalise the railways and bring utilities under public service; it will introduce inflationary rent caps, save the NHS and fund state welfare. And it will do all of this, crucially, through taxation where it belongs – by raising corporation tax on big business and income tax rises for the very wealthy.

 
To be sure, Labour’s refusal to back freedom of movement in Brexit Britain make for a worrying capitulation to the right. But it’s also unnecessary and plainly out of step with the rest of the party’s manifesto, which identifies the real culprits of our unequal society; under a Corbyn government, we will have to continue to fight for the rights of migrants and international students, but we’ll have far more scope to call out racism than we would under the xenophobic nationalism of the Tories.

 
Ultimately, the entire political shift now embodied by the Labour Party is one whose programme, if enacted, would take serious steps to reduce inequality and return much of our country’s economic prosperity to those of us who actually generate it.

 
By the measure of some opinion polling, the short few weeks of this general election campaign have brought this newly revived Labour Party from irrelevance and mockery to the most popular political party in the country. But that will only count if we get out, campaign and vote.

 
Let’s make June 8th the day the tide turned – the day that that the Western world’s unthinking lurch rightwards froze, and in its place a politics that fought racism and inequality was returned to power.

#GE2017 Debate: the case for voting Green

This is an opinion piece on the 2017 General Election, written by the Young Greens Equality and Diversity Officer Georgia Elander. You can read an opinion piece presenting the case for voting Labour here.
Want to join the debate? Send your opinion pieces to againstfeesandcuts@gmail.com! 

polling station

It has never been more important for young people to make our voices heard in politics. Under this Tory government, we’ve seen our futures snatched from us: in rising tuition fees, the scrapping of grants and the cuts to further education funding; in the callous decision that under-21s don’t deserve a minimum wage – or housing benefit, for that matter; and in Theresa May’s reckless approach to leaving the EU and throwing away the benefits of free movement and international co-operation. From where we’re standing, the future can look very bleak.

But the Green Party has a different vision. We know Britain can only succeed if we invest in young people – which is why we would scrap tuition fees, write off all existing student debt, reinstate the Education Maintenance Allowance and invest far more in education.

We also want to tackle the mental health crisis currently facing young people in this country. It’s a crisis fuelled by poor quality housing, financial stress and academic anxiety, and compounded by this government’s utter failure to invest in mental health services. One in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives – and yet currently, less than one pound in every hundred spent on the NHS goes towards tackling these issues. We’d address this inequality, ensuring parity of funding between mental and physical health, and guaranteeing that anyone who needs psychological therapy can access it within 30 days.

But our universities, our health service and far more is at risk if we don’t get a good Brexit deal. British academics and institutions are already losing out on collaborative research projects with EU partners, and highly skilled EU citizens who staff our schools and hospitals are leaving the UK because our government refuses to provide them with the certainty they deserve. The Green Party will fight to keep free movement, to urgently guarantee the rights of EU citizens living here, and to retain the vital workers’ rights and environmental protections the EU has given us. We also think people have the right to a say on the final Brexit deal – we’d back a ratification referendum at the end of the negotiations so we don’t end up with a deal that nobody voted for.

It’s no secret that the Green Party isn’t likely to be forming the next government. But for the last seven years we’ve had just one MP, the amazing Caroline Lucas, and on her own she’s done more work than half of the House put together. Electing a strong team of Green MPs to join her in the house of commons would mean an even louder voice for young people, for marginalised groups, for the most vulnerable in society. And whoever forms the next government, we’re going to need it.

NCAFC Summer Conference 2017 – democracy deadlines

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At this year’s NCAFC Summer Conference in London there will be democratic sessions where members will discuss, debate and vote on policy put forward by our members, which will set the political and strategic direction of our organisation.

Motions can be submitted by activist groups affiliated to NCAFC or alternatively by a group of at least 7 NCAFC members, whilst amendments can be submitted by individual members.

The deadline for motion submissions is Sunday 4th June at 5pm. Following this the submitted motions will be published and then the window for submitting amendments will open, closing at midnight on Thursday 15th June.

Please send all motions and amendments to againstfeesandcuts@gmail.com

And don’t forget to register for conference – it’s completely free.

See you at conference!

Identity politics: the possibilities and limits

This is an opinion piece written by a NCAFC activist who wishes to be named as Sleepy Commie. If you want to write an opinion piece for the NCAFC website, get in touch with us via againstfeesandcuts@gmail.com!

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I am a queer, disabled woman of colour, and I want the left to talk about identity politics.

I have always experienced life in terms of failure: failure to be beautiful (the criteria are set by whiteness), failure to be socially graceful (the criteria are set by neurotypicality), and so on. As a result of this constant negative branding of my existence, my mental health completely disintegrated by the time I turned 17.

To then discover vast online communities of people fighting to promote alternative criteria, people who confidently defined identities like mine as not only acceptable but desirable, was a complete revelation. I immersed myself in these communities, made friends and grew in confidence. I no longer had to think of myself as faulty – instead, I explored the various facets of my identity without inhibition and managed to construct an understanding of who I am, rather than admonishing myself for who I am not.

I discovered language to articulate every aspect of discrimination that I faced. I was finally able to explain why everyday racialised interactions were hurting me so much, and to understand that although these microaggressions were indeed relatively minor, they had a name. I wasn’t just imagining them, and I certainly wasn’t imagining the impact they were having on me. For the first time, I could name and begin to unpack my trauma, instead of berating myself even more for having it.

This was my first experience of left-wing politics, and it is certainly not a unique one – many have entered activism via this route. I had always had some vague ideas about wanting to create a world where everyone could genuinely thrive, but had never been able to relate these to any political wing or movement. The rhetoric of the left – equality, community, justice – is increasingly co-opted by the right, and before I discovered identity politics it was hard to distinguish between the two. By first defining my experiences in terms of identity, I began to see how they were politicised. I began to see that I identified more closely with left-wing values.

Remembering the racialised bullying I had endured throughout school, I considered the ways I had been silenced in a new, political light. Memories of being told by teachers that I was ‘making it about race’ had clear parallels with the disingenuous right-wing narrative that any protest against racism is creating problems, rather than highlighting the fact that they exist. I am certainly not the only person for whom consciousness of identity has led to consciousness of the need for serious change to our society – not only for me, but for others too.

It follows, then, that I was highly invested in the politics of representation. I studied popular feminist websites, spoke in favour of quotas and looked out for tv shows with queer characters. I achieved a level of personal fulfilment I had never enjoyed before.

But an effective movement must move beyond questions of ‘I’ – we must work together in collective, grassroots struggle, with the ultimate goal of rendering identity categories irrelevant.

This will not take place overnight, so there is still significant value in identity politics. We live under the conditions of capitalism – we cannot expect our views of and interactions with others to somehow take place outside this context of power, and so sometimes we need to actively intervene. Choosing to ignore the fact that categories of identity are used to oppress will not make this oppression disappear. We need quotas, we need to acknowledge and discuss why the left has a sexism problem, and we need to practice identity politics.

The issue at stake here, then, is not whether identity politics have merit, but how.

There is immense value in the lived experience. Rather than emulating the very capitalist conditions we are trying to resist, in our spaces we must give people who are otherwise silenced the opportunity to express the nuances of their oppression, and we must listen, resisting the instinctive urge to invalidate what is being said simply because it threatens some particular benefit we enjoy from upholding the status quo.

However, identity should never be honoured to the point that any individual becomes unassailable. Here, the impossibility of building a strong, collective movement based solely on a politics of identity becomes visible, for no one person could never hope to effectively represent the views of everyone they share a given identity trait with. We should never switch off our ability to critically analyse, and we should recognise the genuinely incredible contributions made by oppressed people instead of adopting a condescending, dishonest, uncritical stance.

Frequently, I have been called upon to weigh in on disputes simply because I am deemed to fit into a relevant box. Aside from not always wanting to give my emotional labour, I have often found that I am not actually as knowledgeable as my identity apparently suggests I am, which can be awkward to admit – it makes me feel as though I am letting people down. At times, my identity speaks louder than I could ever hope to, and I have to question whether people are actually interested in engaging with what I have to say or if I am merely there as a token to give them social capital in leftist spaces.

The phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’ (and its variants, such as whitesplaining) definitely exists – but I do not believe that it is best counteracted by us constantly and disingenuously deferring to the person with the most (and most visible) axes of oppression, no matter the situation. This is not only exhausting to those it ostensibly benefits, but also limits political growth. It would be better for so-called ‘allies’ to a cause – those who do not experience a particular form of oppression but are committed to fighting it – to feel confident in exercising their own judgement. We can (and should) unite across lines of identity, but we can also, productively, unite on the basis that we share common goals. The former should not have to preclude the latter.

The binary between oppressed identity and privileged identity is also rather simplistic. Although it would not be desirable to do away with any analysis of power dynamics completely, we should certainly reconsider the binary terms we tend to frame it in. Non-binary people frequently find that they are totally absent from discourse about ‘men oppressing women’; often, when they are acknowledged, it is through awkward attempts to fit them into this binary, which tend to involve misgendering them as ‘more man’ or ‘more woman.’

This suggests that we need to take a more nuanced approach. We need to critically examine how our static view of identity is limiting our activism – we often discuss how we will not assume gender from someone’s clothes or mannerisms, then do it anyway, treating everyone as cis until we are corrected. The way in which we so hastily assign everyone a place in the privilege/oppression binary also fixes people in these boxes permanently, making it difficult for people to explore their gender once they have been initially assigned their role as oppressor or oppressed.

The limits of identity politics are perhaps best illustrated with reference to purportedly ‘feminist’ advertising. When representation is the only goal, it is easy to fall into the neoliberal marketing strategies which use our own language of liberation against us to profit. Many are quick to praise the supposedly progressive brand and rush to buy the featured product, for an analysis which views class as merely another category of identity is inadequate to help us understand what is really going on.

Racism upholds capitalism – casting people of colour as lazy (and therefore responsible for their own poverty) deflects blame away from the vast inequalities created by the system. The fundamental role of police is to act as the state apparatus; to defend capital. This, amongst other reasons, is why the police are fundamentally racist. Therefore, merely increasing the number of people of colour in the police force will not solve the problem.

Grounding the politics of identity, then, there must always be an anti-capitalist critique. We cannot identify the true material impact of changes to representation – that is, we cannot work out if reform is viable – if we do not first analyse the function of what we are trying to reform. At a time when our language of resistance is increasingly being appropriated, bled dry and sold back to us, we urgently need this framework to help us to make sense of what we are facing and to tackle it head-on.

There is still an undeniable need for identity politics in our movement – I do not seek to diminish this in any way. However, we must ensure that we make it work productively in our favour. In order to attain the liberation we desire, we must ensure that our analysis of identity is always underpinned by a critique of capitalism.

Positive Visions for Education – End Learning Factories

This is an opinion piece written by a NCAFC activist who wishes to be named as Flavius McFlavourdale. To contribute to NCAFC’s discussions building a vision for a National Education Service, take a look here and get in touch!

An illustration of the “monitorial education model” where older students instruct younger students and the teacher monitors the whole class at the back. The history of public education is often symplistically told as a story of the Prussian public school system being extended throughout the world although despite their being competing models. However, this model was developed by a British priest and a Quaker in the 19th century and became very widespread.

An illustration of the “monitorial education model” where older students instruct younger students and the teacher monitors the whole class at the back. The history of public education is often symplistically told as a story of the Prussian public school system being extended throughout the world although despite their being competing models. However, this model was developed by a British priest and a Quaker in the 19th century and became very widespread.

Education everywhere, all the time.

When it comes to radically changing our education a really significant issue is how our education system works as a place of social reproduction1 and a place where people are filtered for obedience. In many ways it works as a factory. Not in the sense that students and those engaged in learning are workers in the same way as workers in factory or production line are – students don’t produce things that are then sold in the market. Instead students are trained in various tasks: calculation, deconstructing texts, writing essays, programming, regurgitating “facts”. Students are put through curricula, made to learn things off by heart, learn a certain methodology for solving problems or writing an essay and are subsequently tested. Learning is done as a 9-to-5 routine. Your classes on certain subjects (whose divisions are in many ways arbitrary) begin and end at certain times. Moreover, the criteria for progressing through the system depends on how well you do on a marking scale and whether or not you can adapt to these routines and metrics or see much point in doing so. Of course, there is some “support” to help you through this but it is altogether quite marginal and tends to just reinforce the status quo. This is a rough description of what our education system is like. It’s not totally bleak and not everyone’s experience is the same – you can find amazing teachers who do great work or a subject and ideas that really change your perspective but these are exceptions not the norm.

What needs to be questioned and what was put really well in the previous NCAFC article is that our education system as it runs today is not this way through rigorous scientific research into education or some “natural progression” of society but it is very much this way by design and put together by those who have an interest in maintaining the economic and social status quo. Our education system is put together so that we become obedient workers and citizens and that we have the skills that business and elite interests require. Schools and universities have intellectual monopolies and try to give the impression that the people who go to these places and do well are “intellectually significant people”. Moreover, the education system is alienating and reinforces whatever hierarchical structures already exist with regards to marginalising people of colour, disabled people, women, queer, trans and non-binary people. The many aspects of the current education that need to radically change, however in this short article I will look mainly at how grading and routinisation of learning filter people for intellectual obedience.

The problem with grades

The practice of graded assessments and testing are both nonsensical and have really bad effects on people’s self-esteem and psyche. They are nonsensical because human beings are so complex and your abilities are some much more than something that can be ranked on a scale of A to F or 1 to 10. To put it into perspective, I remember having a maths tutor in my first year of university who refused to grade our work (he’d still give feedback and say what was correct and wrong). He put it this way. In physics one of the simplest systems is a pendulum, however, if you wanted to measure the period on a pendulum by taking one swing or even just a couple any scientist would just laugh at you. However, with humans this is basically what we do. Of course this is not to say what we need to make more tests and measures. It just exemplifies that any endeavour to measure a human’s ability to learn is far too complex. Importantly, this grading system has a bad effect on our psyche because we internalise this grading system. For example, I tried for a while not to look at my grades for university. Consciously what I think is “what should really matter when I am learning something is the ideas that I come across, the discussions I have and to have my views and perspectives challenged. I should question and think about things in a critical and creative way.” However, I find this difficult to do in practice – especially if I am worried whether I have passed or failed my course. I know consciously that how I do in an exam or essay doesn’t reflect on my value as a person but it nevertheless ends up being a source of validation or failure and this has an effect on my self-esteem. This grading system pervades our whole working and education lives. It is so much a part of our lives that in many ways it is difficult to imagine an education system without it. How many times have you sat around with friends at school, college or university comparing grades and coming up with rough calculations of what to focus on.

This grading system also results in bad intellectual approaches. The most important thing in a university, the thing that the institution either praises or fails you on, is how good your grades are. If you write something that is outside of the norm, that is not liked by your given examiner or simply styled in an unorthodox way you risk doing “badly”. As a result, many people will be put off exploring and writing about something that is outside of the academic norm or that you are less knowledgeable about. Zoomed out and looked at on a larger scale this dynamic of grading, routinisation of learning and regular disciplining ends up being a filtering system of intellectual obedience.

Despite all this people may think okay, yes there drawbacks for having a grading system, but we need them because (a) we need a way of assessing how well someone has mastered something, and (b) whether you like it or not the current economic system requires. In response to (a) I can only really say that there are many other ways to give people feedback than just a grade, the most obvious being narrative feedback – that is you give people learning constructive feedback in words to show what they can improve on and what they are doing well. Many teachers observe day-to-day the bad effects of graded assessment and many teachers try to avoid and get rid of it being used in their classrooms. In many ways getting rid of grades is a positive step in and of itself, because grades do more harm than good. Grades set up an artificial stratification of ability between children (which often serves to make children who are “failing” not engage with learning anymore), they damage our self-esteem and we end up internalising an attitude to learning where you are taught to be motivated by high numbers rather than wanting to be creative, critical, sociable and have fun by learning. In response to (b) (we need a grading system because our economic system requires it) I would say that we need to seriously rethink the way economics works and if the result of it is that systems of education get set up that undermines people’s internal motivation to learn and turns them into automata then that’s just another reason to resist it.

There are more subtle, and arguably more significant ways, that the education system filters for intellectual obedience. This is through the way the educational system crushes people’s ability to think independently. Children are taught what things are important to learn and important to say and what things aren’t. The examples that come most immediately to mind is the way in which history and politics, especially in the way it is whitewashed. Not many of us were taught the way in which Mahatma Gandhi very much supported the caste system (many of us are taught that he was someone who fought against caste) and that he supported racial apartheid in South Africa. And in many ways Winston Churchill is hailed as a hero, despite his racist, sexist and homophobic views and the his responsibility of over 1 million deaths in Bengal in 1943. Britain and Europe’s violent and bloody colonial history is conveniently sidelined in the curriculum and as well as working class and indigenous people’s resistance to state violence and oppression. The histories of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mother Theresa, Winston Churchill, etc. are now taught in such a way that coheres with an anti-socialist and pro-nationalist framework – histories of resistance are whitewashed or left out, and simplistic narratives where those in power call the shots are emphasised. When it comes to less ideological subjects such as maths and the sciences these are often taught in a very formulaic and standardised way and they end up being some of the most disliked subjects as a result.

Looking forward…

Activists in Germany scaling buildings to put up a banner. The banner reads: Träume brauchen Freiräume statt Lernfabriken (“Dreams need free/liberated spaces not learning factories”)

Activists in Germany scaling buildings to put up a banner. The banner reads: Träume brauchen Freiräume statt Lernfabriken (“Dreams need free/liberated spaces not learning factories”)

It’s this sort of disciplining through routinized, monotonous learning, and arbitrary metrics that mark out the way the education system operates as a factory – where it is students and the skills they are trained which are the products. In German they have a word for it called “Lernfabriken” and in Germany they also have a movement opposing the reality that education runs in this way called “Lernfabriken meutern” (mutiny to learning factories). The main slogan of their campaign is “Selbstbestimmt Leben und Lernen” which roughly translates as “self-determined living and learning”. In Germany there is current push by the government to reinstate tuition fees which were abolished in 2009 after large-scale student strikes and actions. The movement of Lernfabriken meutern advocates a positive vision of education where it is free at all levels, where those in working and learning in kindergartens, schools and higher education and people in the local community have a democratic say and place in the way education is structure.

The wave of occupations in the UK since 2010 have been as much about trying to resist neoliberal2 education reforms as trying to create spaces where we engage in education in a totally different way. Groups like the Free University of Sheffield and the Free University movemet in London a couple of years back as well as Warwick For Free Education’s occupation point to ways in which we can reclaim our spaces that are becoming increasingly privatised and only accessible if you take on large amounts of debt.

Education should not be seen as something that is done at a specific place by specific people and which starts and ends at specific years in your life. It should not be seen as something that can be put on a scale and graded and people’s continued access to it stopped or continued depending on this scale. It is not something you can neatly divide up into 50 minute chunks or even in age-cohorts. A radical positive vision of education, and by extension a National Education Service (or even better an Anti-national Education Service3), needs to include the abolition of graded assessment (or at least a large scale abolition of it), it needs to question the very idea that we have specific spaces where education is done (school, FE, HE). It should work as a place to liberate minds and to engage with the world and with people in a creative and sociable way. Good well-resourced education and places for learning should be available everywhere, all the time.


1 “Social reproduction” refers to the way in which current inequalities and structures are transmitted to the next generation.

2 Neoliberalism: an economic ideology that sees democratic choices as being best exercised through consumers buying and selling and which holds that privately run services in a competitive market based system are the best ways of running the economy.

3 I will try to expand on what I mean by this in another article but if other people feel like doing this that’s also great.

NUS National Conference Priority Ballot

NUS national conference 2017 is taking place on 25th to 27th April in Brighton. At the conference, delegates will vote on NUS’s strategy for the coming year. However, only a minority of motions submitted to the conference will be discussed – and it is very important that delegates vote in the priority ballot (which is open NOW until midday on April 7th – check your emails for details) so that left wing and progressive motions get heard.

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) is recommending that delegates vote in the following way: 

IN THE ORDER OF ZONES:
Education
Welfare
Society & Citizenship
Union Development

ON THE ORDER OF MOTIONS WITHIN ZONES:

Education Zone

Motion HE215 | Continue to Boycott the NSS
Motion HE216 | A national demo as part of a strategy to stop the HE reforms
Motion HE217 | Education Service
Motion HE203 | Postgraduate Teachers Against Marketisation
Motion FE206 | A New EMA
Motion HE218 | No To Fit to Sit
Motion HE214 | Partnership is (almost) dead, long live student power!

Welfare Zone
Motion 411 | NHS Bursaries
Motion 412 | Housing
Motion 402 | Mental Health and Hardship
Motion 409 | Mental Health: A Culturally Competent Framework
Motion 427 | The far-right is alive and well; we must unite to stop it
Motion 405 | Work work work work work
Motion 426 | It’s Time To Combat Anti-Semitism
Motion 429 | Gendered Islamophobia
Motion 420 | It Stops Here/Sexual Violence
Motion 423 | Right to Pray

Society & Citizenship Zone
Motion 511 | Defend migrants and support free movement
Motion 510 | Support Picturehouse Living Wage strikers
Motion 512 | Fight Climate Change!
Motion 504 | Scrap Trident
Motion 513 | NUS supporting the Abortion Rights Campaign for free, safe and
legal abortion in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Motion 519 | Pay Inequality in Higher Education and Employment Rights of
University Staff
Motion 506 | Movement in Turkey
Motion 508 | Stand in Solidarity with Students Around the World
Motion 503 | Solidarity with the free West Papua cause
Motion 515  | Solidarity with the Palestinian People
Motion 505 | Abolish the Monarchy
Motion 509 | Solidarity with #JobstownNotGuilty

Union Development Zone
Motion 305 | Make University Sports Inclusive For Trans And Intersex Students

The Annual General Meeting (AGM) zone is always at the bottom of the agenda, but delegates do have the power to order the motions. We would recommend that you vote as follows:

AGM
Motion 602 | Make NUS Events Accessible to Disabled Students
Motion 606 | National Postgraduate Representation