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 [email protected]!

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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

NCAFC Candidates at NUS National Conference 2017

The National Union of Students (NUS) is holding its national conference in Brighton on 25th to 27th April, and there are a number of NCAFC candidates who are running in the elections. These candidacies were endorsed by the National Committee at our meeting in February.

As an organisation, we believe these candidates are the best people to deliver a fighting, strong, radical NUS which is accountable to grassroots activists and which builds and supports a mass student movement. These candidates are:

 

14434981_1245656745456312_8916817649291385348_oANA OPPENHEIM for Vice-President Higher Education

Ana is the current Campaigns Officer at Arts SU. She says: “I’m a socialist feminist, a Polish immigrant and I want your help taking the job of VP Higher Education. I’ve fought for students at my union in the boardroom and the streets, now let’s do it nationally. From rising fees to creeping marketisation to attacks on international students, I believe we need an unapologetic response. I will stand up for your rights, build grassroots activism and campaign for our radical vision of a free, democratic, accessible and liberated education.”

MANIFESTO: https://tinyurl.com/AnaVPHE

FACEBOOK PAGE: https://www.facebook.com/Ana4VPHE/

 

14484890_1414177388596595_137096563398685655_nJENNY KILLIN for Vice-President Welfare

Jenny is the current Welfare Officer at Aberdeen Students’ Association. She says: “Education can never be ‘free’ if it cannot be accessed by everyone; if it pushes us into debt, or destroys our mental health. It can’t be accessible if learning means we cannot afford our rent, or we have to miss class to pay the bills. It cannot be free when students do not feel safe to practice their faith. When they are under surveillance or threat of deportation. When students are faced with harassment and violence on campus. Right now, this is the reality for far too many; and right now, we need an NUS which can change that.”

MANIFESTO: https://tinyurl.com/JennyVPW

FACEBOOK PAGE: https://www.facebook.com/Jenny4Welfare/

 

15056336_10154111150893811_6222367053102884012_nHANSIKA JETHNANI for NUS Block of 15

Hansika is the current Education Offcer at Arts SU. She says: “As an officer and activist, I have campaigned against fees and TEF, and for the rights of international students and all migrants, on and off campus. When I moved to London four years ago to study Photography, I didn’t understand what activism was. My first ever demo in November 2015 quite literally changed my life. I realised the importance of resistance and the need for an unapologetic grassroots student movement. I’m standing for NEC because I want to ensure that our National Union of Students is at the forefront of fighting injustice and inequality across society.”

MANIFESTO: https://tinyurl.com/HansikaNEC

The National Education Service as a Radical Vision for Free Education

This blog posts explores some of the radical potentials of demanding a National Education Service within the Labour Party and beyond. It is based on a talk given by a Warwick For Free Education (WFFE) activist to the Non-Aligned Leftist Forum society on ‘What is the left’s vision for education?’. It was originally published on the WFFE blog.

The National Education Service (NES) was a policy proposed by Jeremy Corbyn prior to his election as Labour Party leader. It is now, nominally, Labour’s flagship education policy. However, little has been written about it beyond a couple of articles by Corbyn. The recent National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts conference, hosted at Warwick by WFFE activists, further developed those ideas, making them both clearer and more radical.

So what is the NES all about? There is an explicit analogy to the NHS and welfare state – the NES is to be ‘cradle-to-grave’ and ‘free-at-the-point-of-use.’ It is also sold as providing skills and lifelong learning in order to allow workers to adapt to economic and technological change. This is framed as both a way to give workers ‘opportunities’ and a way of providing skilled workers to businesses in order to boost productivity. Taxation to pay for the NES is justified on this basis; according to Corbyn, companies should be willing to pay ‘slightly more in corporation tax’ because they recognise the ‘business case for investing in staff.’

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The framing of the NES is a classically social democratic one: the state will deal with producing and reproducing human capital and social infrastructure which will benefit capital – in turn capital is expected to contribute to the costs of these policies. There is a tension here; education is described as a ‘collective good’ which provides working class people with ‘opportunities,’ yet the NES is also framed as an ‘investment’ designed to aid productivity and capital accumulation. Social democracy has been extensively criticised for its symbiotic relationship with capital; this relationship allows improvements for (some) workers to come at the expense of continued alienation and exploitation, and the exclusion of more marginalised groups from the settlement. Indeed, the NHS (which the NES is posed as analogous to), is a prime example – it has in large part relied on an imperialist ‘brain drain’ of healthcare professionals from the global south, and like all policies of the 1945 Labour government, was premised on the profits of the Empire. Thus, there is always a tension at work in radical anti-capitalists’ defences of social democratic policies and institutions. How can anti-capitalists defend policies which are explicitly designed to maintain the conditions for exploitation and accumulation?

We must always point to possibilities beyond what we are ‘defending.’

We can see this at work in the experiences of student activists. As activists, we ‘defend education,’ protect ‘public universities,’ and fight cuts to services. However, we have also found it necessary to point out major structural problems with universities as they exist now. This is why ‘free education’ has come to encompass much more than abolishing tuition fees. I would argue it has more often come to mean a set of critiques of the university; to call for ‘free, democratic, liberated, etc.’ education is to point out how the social democratic and neoliberal universities have systematically failed to meet those criteria. Campaigns like ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ have revealed curricula to be Eurocentric and calls for a liberated curriculum have shown how they regularly exclude the work and perspectives of people from the global south, women and non-binary people, people of colour, disabled people, and LGBT people. In practice such demands mean a very significant reorganisation of universities’ teaching, admissions criteria, hiring practices, etc. Other activists critique the university as a capitalist enterprise – one at the forefront of exploitative labour practices, landlordism, and the creation of lifelong debt. Free education activists have been at the forefront of labour struggles within universities and many are now helping organise rent strikes. I will return to these critiques of the university later and suggest how they relate to the NES.

National Education Service – some key concepts

Several important aspects of a National Education Service come out of Corbyn’s writing on the subject and subsequent discussions.

  • The Comprehensive University – this would mean ending the division between higher and further education institutions and the selective and exclusive nature of universities. This is similar to the principle of comprehensive schooling – the same education, for everyone, with no entry requirements. In practice this means abolishing universities as they currently exist. For example, Oxford University would merge with Oxford Brookes as well as local further education colleges; in their place would be a single institution open to, and democratically accountable to, the local community and students. It is clear how this would start to break down the elitist concentration of capital and resources in institutions like Russell Group universities.
  • Modular learning – based on the idea that you don’t have to be a student and study a particular degree course in order to learn about something. This becomes possible with the breakdown of HE/FE divisions to form the comprehensive university; anyone can study a module offered by any local teaching institution. In my opinion the implications of this for mass, working class education are massive, much more so than the entry of – some – working class people into universities. If, for example, you’re doing a course in plumbing or carpentry at an FE college in Coventry, why shouldn’t you be able to take a module in history, English literature, or sociology at the University of Warwick? Is there any good reason for this absolute division of mental and manual labour which says that a carpenter or plumber can’t also take an interest in history, poetry, or feminist theory?
  • Lifelong learning – strongly related to modular learning. A move away from the ‘student’ as something you are full-time for a few years – people should be able to access education as a significant part of their life, alongside other things, at any stage in their life. Importantly this should not just be framed as a way to ‘retrain’ workers in the face of ‘economic change’ but as a right to education as a transformative, creative, political, or even ‘just’ an enjoyable activity.
  • Ending ‘elite’ education – alongside the comprehensive university there would be a parallel process at the school level to provide a truly comprehensive education. This means no more grammar, free, academy, or private schools. Further, schools should not try to model themselves on the cultural and academic norms of (former) private and grammar schools.
  • Universal access and childcare – arguably one of the most laudable parts of Corbyn’s proposals for the NES is his focus on providing childcare as well as financial support for those wishing to study. As with many other activities, many women’s ability to access education is limited by childcare responsibilities. Patriarchal society imposes the burden of social reproductive labour mainly on women. Social reproduction is the labour of maintaining the household, raising children, supporting (male) workers – it is vital to the continuation of capitalism but generally not recognised or paid for as such, forcing women to take a ‘double shift’ of waged ‘productive’ labour alongside unwaged ‘reproductive’ labour. Free childcare is thus a vital feminist demand and the NES is an important framework in which to raise it.

Critiques of the university and of students as a ‘privileged’ group

It is important to begin this section with the caveat that students are by no means a universally privileged group and that universities can be sites of impoverishment and oppression for many of us. However, at an institutional level there are ways in which students are privileged over non-students. I was struck by this when I recently visited one of the main public libraries in Sheffield. The sociology section was one small shelving unit which was pretty small and contained mostly entry level or popular works (including Russell Brand’s ‘Revolution’!). We can compare this to our university library at Warwick which has more on any given aspect of sociology than the Sheffield library had on the subject as a whole; and that library is only serving around 25,000 people.

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Security barriers in the library – the installation of similar barriers in Bologna was cause for a student occupation and clashes with the police

Universities must be understood as fulfilling a particular function in class society. They exist to produce knowledge necessary to the functioning of the state, capitalist corporations, cultural institutions, the military, etc. They also reproduce class divisions by producing the next generation of managers, administrators, and technicians of capitalism. Older elite universities like Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham have always been ruling class institutions and have accumulated huge pools of capital on that basis. For example embodied in their endowments or in grand old buildings. Newer elite universities like Warwick have forged their identities as ‘business universities;’ here the link to capitalist industry is explicit and, in many departments, includes direct corporate input into curriculums.

The University of Warwick has a long history of collaboration with local business elites, including historically monitoring of students’ and academics’ links with local worker struggle.

When coming across large accumulated pools of capital we should always ask where it came from and what social relations – indeed, violences – allowed it to be accumulated. Marx wrote in Volume 1 of Capital that ‘capital comes [into the world] dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.’

Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford, for instance, highlights that libraries and even whole colleges at Oxford are literally built on the proceeds of slavery and colonialism. More broadly this is true of many ruling class institutions and of social democratic institutions which are largely funded by the accumulated profits of imperialism.

Universities largely began as elite institutions for the children of the ruling class. The picture has been complicated now by mass entry of working class young people into Higher Education – in many ways a genuine and important victory for the class. However, access to university is still stratified by race and class. More fundamentally the rollout of universities is based on an expansion of elite institutions to be more ‘inclusive’ – they are still selective and the ‘best’ universities are only looking for the most ‘bright’ and ‘talented’ working class youth to bring into a middle and upper class institutions. Working class experience of entry into university often reflects this, and graduate earnings map more closely to social class prior to university than to the fact of being a graduate. One study found that:

“Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities.”

This is where the idea of a comprehensive university comes in. It would be non-selective and not oriented purely to producing ‘employable’ graduates but to lifelong, flexible learning for all. It would effectively mean the abolition of the university as a distinct institution. Thus universities’ often state-of-the-art facilities and extensive academic libraries would be open to the community at large and control of universities’ capital would be democratised and shared with chronically underfunded FE courses.

No more highly securitised libraries and study spaces, no more key-card access! Access to academic libraries and online journals for everyone!

Working class education, the NES, and grassroots struggle

The NES, as I have conceptualised it here, is more than a policy proposal – it is a potential theoretical approach analogous to ‘free education’ which relates to many struggles, demands, and principles. As such I think it is important to think beyond the Labour Party and policy-makers so I’m going to highlight a few struggles which I think point towards the principles of the NES.

Students in Bologna have sought to put into practice the demands suggested above about free access to libraries and study spaces. When management sought to set up barriers to further enclose their library they physically removed them and reclaimed the space through occupying it. As our statement of solidarity with the students states:

“The occupation was an absolute success: the space was crowded and busy, and people were even seen studying in the corridors. Without notice, the Chancellor called the police a few hours after the occupation started, who immediately charged the people inside, destroying tables, chairs and other studying material. To resist, the students started a demonstration around the University which was also violently dispersed by the police forces. Nevertheless, assemblies continue to take place, and the fight will continue.”

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the fight against enclosure of study spaces and police presence on campuses the statement noted that:

“Warwick’s own first occupation was in the library in 1969 in solidarity with students at the LSE who were fighting against the installation of metal gates around their campus. These gates were designed to increase management control over the LSE and create a more exclusive gate-kept community. Warwick stood against such moves then, and we stand against them today.”

The borders between ‘university’ and ‘community’ are not fixed, and how porous they are is a matter of struggle as the examples of the Bologna and LSE occupations demonstrates.

As was already highlighted above, Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford can be seen as advancing a critique of the university. The campaign is seeking to get the statue of British colonialist and racist Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College. They have also points out other parts of Oxford built on the proceeds of colonialism – e.g. the Codrington Library, built using funds left in the will of a notorious slave trader. This campaign is important in advancing a critique of elite universities as they relate to capitalism, the ruling class, and colonialism; it is also telling that Oriel made the decision not to remove the statue after an incredibly wealthy individual threatened to cancel a £100m donation.

Such institutions really ought to be abolished and their control by wealthy individuals broken. Let’s expropriate racist multimillionaires and tear down their beloved statues.

In this context, I would argue, dissolving Oxford University into a city-wide comprehensive would be a profoundly radical expression of class and racial justice which no amount of greater ‘inclusion’ of working class students and students of colour into the uni could match. The occupation of an empty Wadham College building by student activists and its conversion into a homeless shelter is a good start!

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Finally, if we see the NES as promising a right to free, universal, lifelong education then the labour movement has a vital part to play in realising this. The length of the working day has always been a central part of class struggle – our labour-power is a commodity which capitalists purchase and then use to produce value. What this means is that they want to get as much out of us as possible for as low wages as possible. If it was possible they would like to pay us barely enough to live on and to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Of course, there are physical limits that prevent this, but the question of how much a worker needs to work in order to earn enough to live is also a question of the relative power of workers and bosses.

Bearing this in mind the labour movement can assert a right to lifelong intellectual development and education in a concrete rather than abstract sense – the right to sufficient free time to take courses alongside work, and of work that does not take so much out of us that we have no capacity to think, reflect, or read outside of work hours. Struggles over the working day, wages, and perhaps even a basic income can provide the material basis of this right.

Conclusion

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he [sic] wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” – Karl Marx, The German Ideology

I want to end by highlighting the radical implications of a system based on lifelong modular learning rather than universities as 3-year degree factories.

In my mind it points to a post-capitalist society, one in which divisions of mental and manual labour are broken down, as are the class divisions which enforce this divide. A society which truly enables people to be well-rounded, free human beings. A National Education Service, in social democratic or radical form, will not give us that society – but it does point in the right direction. As student activists in California wrote in their Communique From An Absent Future:

“We demand not a free university but a free society. A free university in the midst of a capitalist society is like a reading room in a prison.”

I would argue that a creative rethinking of the institutions we take for granted in capitalist society, even superficially progressive ones, can help us fight for that free society.

REPORT: Winter conference – January 2017

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This weekend, approximately eighty students from all over the UK gathered to once again discuss the future of the free education movement at NCAFC’s annual winter conference. The conference was held, for the first time in all its 7 years, at the University of Warwick, where local free education activists had just won a series of key concessions following a two-week-long occupation of a corporate conference facility.

This two-day event started with an inspiring opening plenary addressing the question “what have radical students ever done for us?”, with a series of three speakers putting forward the student movement’s radical and exciting history all the way from the 1970s to 2010. Such historical context provided strong motivation looking forward, as the need for the kind of grassroots education activism that NCAFC engages in was strongly stressed. More broadly, the conference was focussed on developing our vision for the National Education Service; a policy put forward by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. There were three workshops throughout Saturday which focussed on what such a service would look like, both structurally and with regards to its methods of teaching in a liberated way, which all fed into a valuable discussion at the end of Saturday about our vision for the NES. This was the beginning of an ongoing discussion that all NCAFC members are strongly encouraged to participate in going forward. On Sunday, a series of political and organisational motions were passed and the block of 14 on our national committee was elected. Throughout the weekend, there were also several autonomous liberation, sectional and regional caucuses held, with a variety of officers elected to represent these groups on the national committee.

What conference voted for

The full text of the motions passed by conference can be found here. In short, conference voted to:

– Support the right to education and complete free movement for all migrants, not just students
– Challenge the “good migrant vs. bad migrant” rhetoric that has become normalised in society, including parts of the student movement
– Continue fighting against HE reforms through protest, direct action and campaigning regardless of whether the bill passes or not
– Develop and promote our vision for the National Education Service (NES) in harmony with workshops held at conference and affiliated education workers
– Open up the submission of motions to not only local anti-cuts groups affiliated to NCAFC, and any organised political grouping within NCAFC, but also the National Committee, or a group of at least seven NCAFC members.
– Abolish the NCAFC Secretariat, which had been deemed a redundant role by the National Committee
– Maintain our organisational commitment to direct action, and encourage and support it where relevant
– Integrate new NC members through an initial training brief and implementing a ‘buddy system’
– Implement a new safer spaces policy

Election results

NCAFC has a national committee consisting of a Block of 14 elected by Single Transferable vote (with 40% reserved for women and non-binary candidates) and reps from liberation caucuses, regions and other sections.

The new Block of 14 are:

Ana Oppenheim (UAL)
Hope Worsdale (Warwick)
Sahaya James (UAL)
Jenny Killin (Aberdeen)
Clementine Cherbou (Bath, currently based in London)
Anabel Bennett (London)
Dan Smitherman (Warwick)
Savannah Sevenzo (Sussex)
Julie Saumagne (Warwick)
Stuart McMillan (Sheffield)
Andy Warren (KCL)
Ben Towse (UCL)
Lina Nass (Aberdeen)
Kat Hall (Warwick)

Other new reps are as follows:

Women and non-binary:
Maisie Sanders (KCL) and Justine Canady (UCL) [Jobshare]

Black:
Shula Kombe (Manchester)

LGBTQ:
Julius Jokikokko (UAL) and Zac Muddle (Bristol) [Jobshare]

Disabled:
Nathan Rogers (SOAS) and Freddie Seale (Queen Mary) [Jobshare]

Further Education:
Alex Booth (City & Islington College)

Postgrad:
Mark Crawford (UCL)

International:
Hansika Jethnani (UAL)

South East:
Alex Stuart (Surrey) and Lily MacTaggart (Oxford)

These new reps join existing regional reps elected in Summer:

Scotland:
Lewis Macleod (Aberdeen) and Jennifer Sweeney (Aberdeen) [Jobshare]

North:
Josh Berlyne (Sheffield)

Midlands:
Connor Woodman (Warwick)

London:
Monty Shield (Queen Mary)

The South West rep position (previously held by Zac) will be filled at the next regional meeting.