Occupy, Strike, Resist on your campus: 27/10 to 7/11

555092_10152064893696421_396765117_nThe National Campaign against Fees and Cuts is calling for students all over the country to take action on their campus between the 27th of October and 4th of November to demand “Free, just and democratic education”.

This follows decisions made at a series of democratic meetings during the past academic year. In January, 200 student activists met in Birmingham and democratically produced eight demands geared toward fighting for free education – funded by taxing the rich. In June, activists organised a meeting to coordinate that fight. It called for a wave of direct actions on campuses, under the banner of the demands voted for in Birmingham. The fortnight of action will precede the national demonstration for Free Education happening on the 19th of November in London.

We want you to get involved. You could:

  • meet up and organise with students on your campus
  • organise occupations, walkouts, blockades, demonstrations, rallies and open meetings during the fortnight of action
  • get in contact with us if you require any support and let us know if you are planning an action on your campus

The demands that were agreed at the Birmingham meeting on January 29th are as follows:

Free, just, and democratic education

  1. Education should be free with living grants for all. We demand that universities lobby for this, and that they should increase bursaries and pay them only in cash. We also demand that the government re-introduce EMA.
    2. We demand that the student loan book should not be privatised, and ultimately that student debt should be written off.
    3. We demand just pay and conditions for staff: a 5:1 pay ratio between highest and lowest paid staff. An end to casualised contracts, that universities should lobby the UCEA to accept staff union pay demands, no outsourcing of services, a living wage, and an end to the gender pay gap.
    4. We demand an end to the intimidation and victimisation of students: no disciplinaries for protest, cops off campus unless invited by students and management, no co-operation with migration enforcement and ejection of their officials from campus, no-cooperation with spying programmes such as prevent.
    5. Directly democratic education with all decisions made by, or accountable to, staff and students.
    6. We demand education for the public good: for financial transparency and accountability, against the influence of profit in education and research, against league tables, and for ethical investment and procurement.
    7. We demand that halls should be provided for the service not for profit, and should be provided in house.
    8. We demand equality, and an end to discrimination, in education.

 

555092_10152064893696421_396765117_n

 

 

New Labour proposals for higher education ‘feeble and reactionary’. We’ll fight for free education

Students protest in 2004, when the Labour government increased fees to £3000

Students protest in 2004, when the Labour government increased fees to £3000

For press contact, call 07900482427,  07964791663, 07821731481 or 07929317220

Student campaigners across the country have  condemned proposals from Labour to give big business a greater role in higher and further education, and to means test youth benefits. NCAFC and other organisations are planning a national demonstration for free education on November 19th, proposing a real positive alternative to fees and privatisation.

Liam Byrne, the Shadow Minister for Universities, recently released a pamphlet outlining Labour’s current thinking on the future of higher education. ‘Robins Rebooted’, which can be viewed here, pitches itself as an attempt to move forward the debate on HE funding and to transform the face of higher and further education.

In practice, the report focuses almost entirely on linking a new system of business-run vocational education with an attempt to use the benefits system to force young people into training and education.

Its proposals for vocational education and access include:

  • The creation of ‘Technical Degrees’ – courses run jointly by institutions and business, putting “entrepreneurs” and big business in charge of bits of the curriculum
  • Creating a large number of apprenticeships
  • An ‘earn while you learn’ rationale, solving student poverty by making students work, not by increasing state support
  • Hinting that post-graduate education is unaffordable and may have to change
  • Dismissing concerns that MOOCS may undermine or jeopardize teaching quality or jobs.

This is paired with a new benefits regime which:

  • Makes education and training compulsory in English and Maths until the age of 18
  • Abolishes Jobseekers Allowance until the age of 21
  • Replaces pre-21 Jobseekers Allowance with a ‘youth allowance’, which will be means-tested against your parents’ income

Hannah Sketchley, NCAFC national committee and UCL Union Democracy and Communications Officer, said: “These proposals are by and large feeble and reactionary. After years of privatisation and attacks on access and bursaries, the last thing we need is a Labour policy that pointedly evades any commitment to reversing any of it, and which in fact gives business more power in the sector.”

Rachel O’Brien, from Defend Education Birmingham and NCAFC, said “A lot of the proposals are even worse than the status quo: they’re an attack on young people’s right to basic benefits, hitting the victims of Tory policy with yet more poverty and sanctions. Labour’s vision for a “high skill economy” will make us dependent on our parents until we’re 21 – that’s not progress.”

Kirsty Haigh, NUS Scotland Vice President  and NCAFC said: “Byrne is offering us a technocratic insider policy when what we need is an ideological alternative to what the Coalition are doing. If Labour offers piecemeal reform when the Tories have spent years installing an ideologically-driven vision of a privatised system, the Tories will get to define higher education for a generation.”

NCAFC has been fighting for a real positive alternative to fees and privatisation for almost five years: for free, democratic and accessible education funded by taxation of the rich and big business. Join the national demo for free education on November 19th.

Early day motion in Parliament: ‘tuition fees and the funding of education’

portcullis1Ahead of an autumn of action and mobilisation, we have managed to get an Early Day Motion put down in parliament. Early Day Motion 294 is up and running, and is available here.

Get your MP to sign it!

It reads:

That this House notes the introduction and rapid increase in tuition fees in further and higher education since 1998 and acknowledges with concern the findings of the Third Report of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee session 2014-15, on Student Loans; further notes that tuition fees and associated marketisation have decisively failed to create a sustainable funding system for universities; further notes that, in order to fund tution fees, the Government can now expect to loan in excess of £10 billion per year, much of which it will never recover; further notes the extreme negative impact of fees and privatisation on the stability of universities and colleges, access to education, student poverty and the conditions of academic and other staff; further notes that the number of people studying part-time has dropped by 40 per cent since the tripling of home undergraduate tuition fees in 2010; further notes that tuition fees no longer exist in Germany; believes that the choice being presented to the public, between an inaccessible and debt-driven market and a free system open only to a social elite, is no choice at all; believes further that progressive taxation is the only fair and workable way to fund education; supports the conclusions of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s report that an overhaul of the system is needed; calls for an urgent review of education funding led by those who work and study in education; and further calls for the abolition of all tuition fees in further and higher education.

Don’t let bureaucracy get in the way of democracy

This article is part of a series written by an NCAFC activist and student union officer, about some of the issues new student union officers (especially full-time officers) face as they are starting in their roles. The other articles published in the series so far can be found here. These questions are just one part of the wide range of issues in the student movement that will be discussed at NCAFC’s Summer Training & Gathering. This is an annual gathering for campus activists and student union officers alike, consisting of workshops, discussions and debates for the student movement to equip itself for the battles of the coming year. It will be held 29-31 August, Sussex University and will be free to attend – more info here.

It helps to think of there actually being two student unions. There’s the political union, which is a platform for students’ collective expression and action; and there’s the bureaucratic entity that’s legally recognised as the union, which may employ staff, hold bank accounts, maintain physical premises and so on. In most cases this is a charity, under the oversight of various laws and the Charities Commission.

The latter can be thought of as a shell for the former. The real union, and the political agenda set more-or-less democratically by its members, is what matters. The bureaucratic entity is a tool we can use to help pursue that agenda, because it allows us to wield important and powerful resources.

The legal structures aren’t suited to democratic, effective student unionism – in fact some of them were imposed to hold back our work. There’s an agenda and a set of values that you’re supposed to adhere to, that comes with the charity model, and none of it is very compatible with democracy. And in your induction as a union officer, someone may try to convince you that this model and its agenda are a good thing that you should embrace and buy into! Your job here becomes a balancing act.

Many officers succumb completely to this agenda, and happily take on their new role as a “responsible” trustee of an “apolitical” charity. The leadership of our movement, in the form of the NUS, does little to oppose this, and at worst it often actively embraces the constraints imposed on us by our institutions and a state both eager to hold back any political threat from organised students.

There is also a subtler problem, where officers don’t see themselves as buying into the agenda, but in practice become overly concerned with maintaining the shell and conforming to the model that’s expected of them, at the expense of democratic, activist student unionism. Recently, we’ve seen student union Trustee Boards quash democratic decisions, and officers who see themselves as radical leftists haven’t been immune to this either.

Some activists would rather sacrifice the resources to which these shells give us access rather than give an inch. Or they may respond to the bureaucratic nature of it all by trying to completely avoid the (sometimes mundane yet still necessary) tasks of maintaining and administrating the union. There’s an appealing spirit to this, but this would be a very serious loss that would ultimately make us weaker and worse off. Yes, the student movement desperately needs to put together a coherent challenge to the agenda that’s been imposed on us and fight to expand democratic rights for unions. But until we start – and win – that fight, we’re better off maintaining our shells and the resources that come with them, as long as we push the legal and bureaucratic envelope as far as possible to uphold democracy – and resist buying ideologically into the anti-political agenda.

Be prepared to fight university and college managers

This article is part of a series written by an NCAFC activist and student union officer, about some of the issues new student union officers (especially full-time officers) face as they are starting in their roles. The other articles published in the series so far can be found here. These questions are just one part of the wide range of issues in the student movement that will be discussed at NCAFC’s Summer Training & Gathering. This is an annual gathering for campus activists and student union officers alike, consisting of workshops, discussions and debates for the student movement to equip itself for the battles of the coming year. It will be held 29-31 August, Sussex University and will be free to attend – more info here.

You represent students, not bosses. One thing it’s vital to understand is that the various people with power over the things you want to change – from the director of your student well-being department, to a Vice-Chancellor, to a local councillor – are mostly working to fulfil different goals than the interests and desires of students (or education workers). That’s not to say they are consistently opposed – in some cases, our interests and goals more or less align with theirs. In these cases, you may be able to secure wins just by talking to the right people and saying the right things – or lining up the institutional powers that do agree with you against those that don’t. But if those things were the only things we wanted to win, we wouldn’t need unions.

We can’t win by sending a silver-tongued union officer into back-room chats with managers. It is naïve to think – as some of the student union movement seems to – that authority figures are so incredibly impressionable and incompetent that a few clever words from a student officer will make them act contrary to their goals and material interests. In these situations, the main power we can bring to bear is coercive, not persuasive. We have to force their hands, against their will, by making it more difficult to continue to oppose us than to do what we want. Tactics like occupations, disruptive protests on open days, strikes and other industrial action, and creating PR crises and negative media attention – most of which are based in collective action – are the key weapons in your arsenal. And you can’t just conjure these out of nothing when they’re needed, nor can you take them out of the box when you deem it tactically appropriate and then just put them back again – you need to nurture and maintain grassroots political organising among students constantly, and put them in control of action as much as you can.

You don’t work for the college or university. Senior managers often seem to think that they can treat a student union as some sort of “student experience department” that works for them – you exist to provide entertainment and maybe some individualised welfare support, and to tick a box saying they listen to the “student voice” (just so long as it didn’t disagree with them). Unfortunately, that’s what university and college bosses often mean when they talk approvingly of “partnership” with student unions.

There’s nothing wrong with cooperating with management when their interests align with students’. But the student union doesn’t work for the institution. You may rely on the university or college for resources and possibly space. But in a democratic education system, all those resources would be under the control of students, staff, and the community. Senior management’s control is illegitimate, so the fact that they give some of it back to students in the form of a union block grant doesn’t mean the union legitimately owes them anything. Your work to maintain and increase that grant might include a presentation exercise of playing up those aspects of the union’s work that align with the interests of the people holding the purse-strings, but managers cannot be allowed to set the agenda.

Suspended Birmingham students: We have paid a heavy price for our peaceful student protest

Protest against Student Suspensions at the University of BirminghamThis article was originally published on Comment is Free here.

We have both just been suspended from the University of Birmingham for nine months because of our part in an occupation that took place last November.

This year the university has collectively had us arrested three times, taken out an injunction banning us from occupational protest for a year, put us through a stressful nine-month-long disciplinary process,suspended us for two months, reinstated us briefly just to suspend us again only one month away from graduation.

Another student, Hattie Craig, has been given a six-month suspended sentence, meaning that if she breaks any university regulation between now and when she graduates she will immediately be suspended for six months. Publicly stating opposition to the actions of the University of Birmingham could end up with her being suspended on the basis that she brought the university into disrepute.

The University of Birmingham is trying to hide behind the quasi-legal process that it uses to conduct disciplinary actions. We were denied access to legal representation, despite us submitting multiple requests. The hearings were not held to any of the same evidential standards that would be required in a court: decisions were made on the balance of probabilities, and the outcomes shielded from scrutiny because the university does not allow recordings or take full notes.

Higher education in the UK is changing fast. The distinctions between universities and the private sector are being eroded by the government and university managers. The University of Birmingham has played a central role in this ongoing marketisation. The vice-chancellor David Eastwood (paid £400,000 for the privilege) sat on the Browne review that led to £9,000 tuition fees and a market in higher education; and he has restructured the university to the demands of business. Successful and famous courses such as archaeologysociology and biological recordinghave been closed down when they don’t fit with a narrow business logic.

The university’s statement says that “robust action” has been taken to maintain the university’s “duty of care” to its students and staff. These are the students and staff who have resisted changes at the university, and have condemned the attacks on academic autonomy, workers’ rights and student protest. Staff unions at Birmingham have complained about heavy-handed management, leading them to successfully ballot for a strike in 2012. Last year a court found that Thelma Lovick, a prominent neuroscientist, was unfairly dismissed in a process described byProfessor David Nutt as both “cock-up and conspiracy”.

What is happening at Birmingham is an example of the kind of education system that is being created in this country. The idea that university should be a critical place where students and staff can and should interrogate and challenge the status quo is under attack. At the same time, more and more students and workers are realising that our interests are opposed to those of a neoliberal higher education system. This year saw the biggest wave of action that we have seen in universities since 2010. Staff at universities had a wave of national strikes, while students across the country went into occupation. Next year – with the main parties soon to announce their manifestos for the next election – the student movement is only going to get stronger.

The changes to higher education that the government implemented in 2010 were supposed to usher in a new era of student choice and student control. Though we never asked for them and actively resisted the changes, their supposed intention was to empower the student consumer. Instead, marketisation has created universities that are increasingly intolerant of dissent, will use the power of the police and the courts against their own students, put us through long stressful kangaroo courts, and will ultimately give out draconian sentences to try to scare others off from protesting. Just as the police had to violently beat students away from the fees vote in parliament, universities are using every means at their disposal to prevent students from interfering with their new logic of neoliberalism. We didn’t go away then, and we are not going to give up now.

PRESS RELEASE: UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM STUDENTS GIVEN 9 MONTH SUSPENSION FOR PEACEFUL PROTEST BY “KANGAROO COURT”

1426487_736568923039685_164713782_n-530x353FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT NUMBER: 07821842831, 07821731481

 Two students have been suspended from University of Birmingham for their involvement in an occupation in the autumn term. Simon Furse (22) and Kelly Rogers (22) have been suspended from their course until March 2015. Hattie Craig (21) was given a formal reprimand and a de facto ‘suspended sentence’ warning her of immediate suspension should she breach any university regulation. All were put through a panel which ended on 23rd June, but have had their outcomes withheld until today.

In an unprecedented move, University management intervened during the hearing and issued a recommendation to the disciplinary panel that one of the students, Simon Furse, be expelled. This would have been the first protest-related expulsion from a British university since 1974. The University recommended that Kelly Rogers be suspended for a full year, while Hattie Craig had a recommendation of 6 months.

The occupation was in relation to a set of ten demands, including that staff should be paid a living wage and the university should stop lobbying for fees to be increased. Since the occupation two of the demands have been achieved: the university have agreed to pay Living Wage for the next two years and have stopped fee waivers. The students were found guilty of a number of minor charges which in the past have warranted only a reprimand.

Simon Furse said “I have been suspended from the university despite the fact that the only evidence against me is a ten second video of me telling other protesters that they can go into a peaceful occupation. The protest was peaceful and lawful, but the university can just set up its own Kangaroo Court and do what it wants. University management have clearly decided that they don’t want any more protests against their policies, and have decided to victimise us to try and deter others from voicing dissent.”

Kelly Rogers said, “We protested peacefully to call for a better education for ourselves and future students, and for better working conditions for staff at the University. As a result, we have been punished for expressing our right to freedom of protest and freedom of speech. These rulings are vastly disproportionate and came as a massive shock”.

The 3-day hearing followed a 7 month disciplinary process, which we consider to have been politically motivated and lacking in impartiality. The disciplinary hearings themselves were marred by a failure to observe basic principles of procedural fairness. For example:

The students were denied the right to legal representation, despite the legal and factual complexity of the proceedings, the length of the hearings and the fact that their right to education is at stake

  • The University of Birmingham admitted to having identified the students from an internal ‘blacklist’ of around 30 student activists

  • Students were denied access to minutes of the disciplinary. When they requested them, they were told that they could only acquire them via a Subject Access Request “if they still existed” at the time. No verbatim minutes were taken at all, with the University citing “data protection” reasons.

  • Students were not given proper access to all of the allegations against them, with many of the allegations being raised in the course of narrative commentary and conjecture by University management.

 The students have noted each instance of unfairness and failure of due process. They are actively considering all avenues of appeal, including a challenge in the High Court.

Student loan sell-off abandoned: now we fight to abolish fees and debt

Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills, has announced a U-turn on plans to sell the remainder of the higher education student loan book into private hands. This is a victory for students who have been fighting this threat over the past year with a campaign of protest and direct action. A combination of pressure from this campaign and changing financial assessments, as well as a likely desire to separate the Lib Dems from their Coalition partners in the run up to next year’s election, appears to have pushed Cable to move against the wishes of others in government who wanted to keep pursuing the sale as part of the wider agenda of privatisation and marketisation in education. Now we need to keep up the pressure for the government to make this announcement official, and go further to demand a public education system that serves society and is free and accessible to everyone.

NCAFC and other student groups and unions have been campaigning against the plans since they were revealed by leaked documents a year ago. NCAFC warned about the threat in 2011, when we fought David Willetts’ Higher Education White Paper, some of which was then shelved. The sell-off could have resulted in a retroactive change to repayments – forcing graduates to pay back more than they originally agreed in order to make the sale more attractive to private investors.

But we won’t stop here. We stand for free education – the abolition of all tuition fees and an amnesty on all existing student debt. This includes the pre-1998 loans that have already been privatised, with worrying results for the graduates paying them back. And we stand for decently-resourced education, made accessible to all – funded by taxing the rich and putting the wealth of the banks to democratic use, not by selling off public assets for a bit of quick cash.

From this defensive victory, it’s time to go on the offensive. Along with other student groups, we’ll be fighting for free, funded, public education with a campaign of protest and direct action over the coming months, including a national demonstration in London on Wednesday 19 November. Be part of that fight: build the campaign on your campus and in your community, and join the national movement.

BREAKING: Lib Dems ditch student loan sell-off

vcxA year ago, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts launched a campaign to stop the privatisation of the student loan book. The government planned to sell off all student debt accrued between 1998 and 2012 – estimated to be around £12bn.

Student debt is an unattractive investment for most companies, as there is so much of it that a large proportion will never be paid back.  Because of this, there are only two ways to make a profit: either the government has to effective subsidise the sale of the loans via a ‘synthetic hedge’, or repayment rates and conditions on the loans would have to rise. The latter option would have meant a vast and retroactive hike in tuition fees.

In September 2013, we wrote an open letter from the campaign to the Lib Dems on the eve of their party conference. We demanded a guarantee that they would not sell off the loan book.

When we received no such assurance, we occupied the constituency offices of numerous Lib Dem MPs – including a hilarious incident involving Vince Cable himself.

After a year of being slowly discredited, the policy has now been dropped, according to the Guardian. However, it is important not to be too triumphalist about this u-turn: it is clear that the Lib Dems are attempting to re-brand themselves ahead of the 2015 election, and we must not allow them to do so. Cable’s tone in dropping the policy focuses on its economic aspects – but then again, politicians never admit being scared of public pressure and protest.

You can read the full story here. 

Callout: march with the student bloc at the Tory Party conference

student bloc profile

FACEBOOK EVENT HERE.

From 28 September to 1 October the Tories will be in Birmingham for their Party Conference. TUC Midlands have organised a march and rally on the conference for the 28th. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) together with the Midlands groups – Defend Education Birmingham, Warwick ASN, and Leicester Defend Education – are calling for a student bloc on the demo. 

Since coming to power in 2010, the Tories have: 

  • Tripled tuition fees with no democratic mandate, making a university education in Britain the most expensive in Europe
  • Abolished Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and attacked access funds, cutting millions of working class students out of post-16 education; 
  • Ordered and celebrated brutal attacks on protests: kettling, horse charges, mass arrests, police violence, and the authorisation of rubber bullets and now water cannon. Undermined and attacked teachers and the public education system: freezing pay, scrapping pensions, casualising the workforce and selling out schools to creationists and big business;
  • Embarked on a chaotic experiment in turning higher education into a market, creating a tiered education system with elite institutions for rich students, and underfunded universities for the rest of us. They have taken teaching quality, the needs of society, working conditions and the right to access education as collateral damage;
  • Fostered a system in which universities can call on police brutality to repress students, like those involved in Defend Education Birmingham, where the university has collaborated with the police to brand peaceful protests as domestic extremists and arbitrarily arrest them, and has suspended and disciplined students and attacked the right to protest;
  • Drowned us in debt. They are currently attempting to privatise the Student Loan book, selling our loans to private holders at low cost and leaving students facing unsurmountable debt, potentially insecure repayment conditions, and a future determined by profit rather than by concern for society.

The men who masterminded this dirty work over the last four years – Michael Gove and David Willetts – have been sacked or demoted in the Cabinet reshuffle. But there is no sign of a policy change in education. Further neo-liberalisation is presented as the only way forward.

We are calling on students from all over the country to march with us on 28 September in Birmingham to oppose the Tory Government. 

We want the fight for education to be part of a broader fight by working class people in Britain.

We want to stop its assault on education and demand that it be accessible to all free of charge; that educational institutions be democratically run by those who work and study within them; and that this be publicly funded with no strings attached.