Protest at UCL: Fund Our Mental Health Services!

UCL FOMHS demo

By UCL Fund Our Mental Health Services campaigners

Last year, over 2000 students at UCL signed a petition demanding more funding for our student psychological services (SPS), this petition was ignored by management. Students seeking support from SPS have to wait a minimum of 6 weeks just for an initial consultation, and even then only one third of all students ever get seen; all this in the context of a mental health crisis in our universities and an underfunded NHS.

Since then we have met with management again to present our demands: We demanded an increase in funding for SPS by £340k per year so as to pay for an additional 6.5 FTE counsellors, and the removal of the arbitrary six-session cap on the number of sessions to which each student is entitled. We also wanted to see, in the allocation of these resources, specific attention be taken to ensure that SPS and its psychologists are culturally competent, and for all employees running this service to remain in-house UCL staff and for any new employees to also be put on secure, in-house and permanent contracts

Again, management refused. Asking politely has failed – our only way to get management to meet our demands is by direct and disruptive action. UCL is obsessed with its public image, so we targeted the graduate open day to show prospective students that UCL doesn’t care about their mental health services, instead paying for glitzy vanity projects and rapid expansion plans.

At a time when universities are being rapidly marketised while managers’ salaries rise far into the six-figures (196 staff members rake in a salary of more than £140,000) there’s more than enough money to fund our mental health services.

The demonstration had a strong turnout, bringing many new faces to the campaign, to fight for our demands – highlighting how deeply this issue has resonated with UCL students. The atmosphere was good, with not a moment’s silence throughout the couple of hours long march. The Open Day was thoroughly disrupted and essentially shut down through the areas the march went through. We distributed information on the current state of UCL student psychological services to those attending the Open Day and asked them to contact the university in support of the campaign, an idea many prospective graduate students were keen on.

If you’re interested in starting a mental health campaign at your university, message our FB page: facebook.com/FundSPS

Justice for University of London Workers!

Placard: "If outsourcing is such good value for money, outsource management!"Solidarity with workers at University of London who are going on strike on November 21 for in-house contracts, secure hours, and pay rises to various staff.

These workers, made up of security guards, porters, cleaners, and receptionists, are organized with their trade union Independent Workers of Great Britain.

Students from various London unis have started a solidarity campaign, Justice for University of London Workers, which has already been formally supported by Students’ Union UCL.

We call on students and others in the community to support this campaign and get involved!

What can you do?

More information about the dispute can be found here.


Motion: Justice for University of London workers

Please adapt this motion as appropriate for your union and propose it to a general meeting, council or other democratic decision-making forum in your union!

Students’ Union notes

  1. Workers at the University of London (UoL, of which [your university] is a part) are campaigning against unjust working conditions. They want an end to discriminatory outsourcing and insecure zero hour contracts, respect at work, and the pay rises UoL promised them 6 years ago.
  2. Most of them are on low wages, with some having to work 70-plus hours per week to get by. If UoL had kept its pay promises, security guards for instance would be earning 25% more.[1]
  3. These workers are disproportionately BME, women and migrants. Tackling low pay and precarity are necessary to closing the discriminatory gaps in our university.
  4. They have tried negotiating, and have now been forced to begin calling strikes as the university managers aren’t listening.
  5. Students from [your university] and other UoL institutions have come together to set up a student and community support campaign, Justice for University of London Workers.[2]
  6. Our union has a record of solidarity for workers at the University of London, and they have reciprocated with support for our campaigns against fees.

Students’ Union believes

  1. The workers’ demands are right and this injustice is a stain on our university community. It is wrong that senior managers get exorbitant salaries and outsourcing companies’ bosses get their pockets lined while poorer workers are subject to these conditions.
  2. Solidarity between students and university staff is a reciprocal relationship that vitally helps our own campaigns too.
  3. Workers fighting against low pay and precarity push up conditions in the whole labour market, so while students are also struggling in exploitative jobs we have an interest in supporting campaigns like this.

Students’ Union resolves

  1. To support this campaign by the UoL workers through their union, the IWGB, and the student and community solidarity campaign, Justice for UoL Workers.
  2. To support campaign action by the workers and student supporters, including industrial action, protests, lobbying and direct action.
  3. To promote a fundraising campaign for the workers’ strike fund.
  4. To use our communication channels, including all-student emails, to inform students of the campaign and future campaign events, and to encourage them to get involved.
  5. For a representative of the Students’ Union to send an email to the Vice Chancellor of UoL, Adrian Smith, calling on him to meet the demands of the campaign.

References

[1] https://www.facebook.com/uoliwgb/

[2] https://www.facebook.com/JusticeforUOLWorkers/

Tories to chain university research even more tightly to business

Science for people not profitBy Ben Towse, UCL, NCAFC Postgrad Co-Rep

Universities minister Jo Johnson announced plans this month to develop a “Knowledge Exchange Framework”, to measure and incentivise universities’ commercialisation of research in England.

Johnson says he wants universities to do more to ensure that their knowledge and research is being put to use in the wider world. But of course, he’s thinking of a narrow set of social applications. Subversive or radical work that seeks to critically examine the powers-that-be, to transform the society we live in, to give a voice to the voiceless and to equip us with the understanding and the intellectual tools to dismantle capitalism and oppression, is hardly going to be at the top of the Tories’ agenda.

Serving capital

Instead the KEF will focus on ranking institutions, and rationing funding, according to how closely they serve private business. That means conducting research programmes under contract for businesses (who direct the research and own its product), offering paid consultancy services, and spinning out new discoveries and inventions for sale to the highest bidder.

Johnson can spout rhetoric about serving society, but what he wants is for universities to serve the needs of one small layer of society: the capitalist class. The KEF follows in the footsteps of the recently-introduced Teaching Excellence Framework, which demands that universities churn out graduates trained and prepared to generate more profit for their future employers, and the longer-standing Research Excellence Framework, which has already ramped up its weighting of research “impact” in such a way as to deprioritise “blue-sky” research and bring commercial interests to the fore.

Dictating priorities

What will be the impacts on universities and research?

First, it will obviously be easier for institutions with a stronger focus on science and technology to compete in these rankings, than those prioritising the arts and humanities.

But we should also worry about the sciences. The drive for business-friendly research outputs favours particular areas of scientific research over others, and it favours particular ways of applying discoveries in the wider world. For instance, rationing funding according to what research can be easily and rapidly commercialised might support the development of new building materials, but it is less likely to value uncovering the mysteries of the big bang.

“Knowledge transfer”: people or profit?

Finally, even in fields where business is keen to see advances, we have to ask – is commercialisation the best way to ensure that knowledge developed in academia is transferred to the real world to improve lives and improve society?

Johnson cites an example of “knowledge exchange” he wants our universities to emulate: Remicade, a medicine discovered at New York University in the 1990s. This one drug earned NYU more in one year than all UK universities made together.

Remicade is one of a class of modern medicines that mimic natural antibodies – the complex molecules used by the body’s immune system to target disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites  – and it is used to treat a number of disorders like Crohn’s disease and types of arthritis. Like most such breakthroughs invented by researchers in non-profit universities, this drug was sold off to the private sector. It is now manufactured and sold by two pharmaceutical giants: Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) in the US and Merck in Europe.

In 2013, it accounted for about 10% of JNJ’s revenues. That’s not surprising, because the treatment costs £12,500 per year. Patients in the US face hundreds of dollars a month in excess charges on top of their insurance (and that’s if the insurance company will sign off on it: some penny-pinching providers are shunting patients to older drugs with worse side-effects). In the UK, before Remicade’s European patent finally expired, it was the NHS’s fifth costliest drug, with nearly £200m per year going into Merck’s pocket for it. On top of all this, now that expiring patents mean two decades of monopoly are over, JNJ has been accused of dirty tricks trying to squash competitors selling “biosimilar” drugs mimicking Remicade.

Artificial antibody drugs like Remicade are an example of incredible human ingenuity that can change lives. But as long as the means to produce and distribute such medicines on a large scale rest in private hands, the only way for public and non-profit research institutions to translate their discoveries into wider-world benefit is selling them to those for-profit businesses, which ration and limit access to the product, and charge extortionate costs, in order to turn a profit.

Jo Johnson wants us to believe that the only way we can benefit from scientific advances is by going further down this route and whipping universities harder to gear themselves to the desires of capitalists.

Instead, we should be talking about taking those capitalists’ businesses, and the vital infrastructure like pharmaceutical factories that they jealously guard, into collective ownership and democratic control. No longer would public health services (or individuals struggling with health insurance bills) have to hand over millions to big pharma for medical treatments that could only have been produced with knowledge developed in public and non-profit institutions. Instead, science could genuinely serve society, not shareholders.

Next steps

The immediate task facing us is to stop the roll-out of the KEF. A crucial force will be the precarious early career research workers for whom this will mean yet more fetters and hoops to jump through in an already highly-pressured workplace.

Beyond this, we need to set our sights on a socialist alternative. We should be raising the call within Labour and elsewhere for big pharma and similar industries that leech off public research to be nationalised, and for them and research institutions like universities to be placed under the control of their workers, students and the communities they ought to be serving.

NSS boycott first year makes a big dent: bring on round two!

London College of Communications campus, University of the Arts LondonOn 9th August, the NSS results were released and it was confirmed that the NSS boycott had invalidated the data for 12 universities. This is something to celebrate and to build upon.

NCAFC have been advocating for a boycott of the survey for years; and in 2016, its proposed link to the Teaching Excellence Framework meant that the motion at NUS Conference passed overwhelmingly. NUS must stand by its mandate from National Conference and continue to push the boycott, not shy away from meaningful action – because in order to break the TEF, we will have to continue to build the NSS boycott until the higher education reforms are withdrawn.

We aren’t just campaigning against the increase of fees, but the wholesale marketisation of education which the TEF promises to usher in.

Surveys like the NSS help integrate competition into the heart of our universities. Universities have already been pushed to operate as businesses, incentivised to cut costs and spend more money on PR, advertising and big pay packets for management rather than on pay, teaching and support services for staff and students. The fight for free education lies not only in abolishing fees, but in the thorough eviction of the market from higher education; universities should be acting in the interests of students and staff, not money and big business.

The NSS boycott has been one of the most radical, far-reaching and effective campaigns have students and activists have pushed through in years. In mobilising students in the fight against the marketisation of HE, the boycott has already forced delays in fee rises – and even pushed the House of Lords to attempt to totally sever the link between the TEF and fee increases, with the boycott being quoted in the debate.

We have the power, the resources and the potential to carry this momentum even further. We should build upon our successes and push for an even stronger and bigger boycott next year. If we had 25 SUs boycotting it this year, let’s make it 100 next year – bring on NSS boycott 2018!

NUS NEC report – Ana Oppenheim

Ana OppenheimOn May 30th was the last NUS NEC meeting of the academic year. I haven’t been great at writing NEC reports so far, primarily because NEC meetings are rarely interesting. The majority of time is spent on reports and presentations. Accountability is mostly performative, with questions pre-written by officers and sent to friendly council members, many questions not being read out at all, and FTOs having as little as 20 seconds to respond. There’s no more than an hour, sometimes less, for motions at the very end of a meeting. Sometimes there’s a bit of outrage, genuine or manufactured, and the occasional passionate speech written for a 90-second Twitter video (useful during election season). But ultimately, the result of motions debate often depends on which faction can mobilise more of its members to turn up.

A lot of the real drama happens outside of meetings, during factional pre-meets and in WhatsApp groups. Nothing has made me more critical of some of the left in NUS than having experienced NEC. We’ve seen NCAFC reps being pressured to withdraw a motion on the basis that it would look bad in the media, a liberation rep being attacked for submitting a question on behalf of a member without consulting the “whip,” and many other incidents emerging from a culture where following an arbitrarily set “line” takes priority over healthy internal debate.

Having said that, I have no doubt that the right/moderate faction organises in a similarly undemocratic way but it’s not unreasonable to hold the left to higher standards. We need an NUS where diversity of opinion is seen as a good thing, where representatives elected on their own individual platforms are not expected to just pick one of two sides and blindly follow, where an accountability question is not interpreted as a personal attack. A major culture shift is necessary to build a strong movement that can discuss ideas and challenge itself to effectively fight the government. During my second year, I’m hoping to make more of a conscious effort to challenge informal hierarchies and dodgy behaviour, alongside fellow NCAFCer Hansika Jethnani who was elected on an excellent platform of democratising NUS, and other sympathetic NEC members.

Moving on to the last meeting. Firstly, the meeting was moved from March 31st to 30th just a couple of weeks before the date to avoid clashing with the holidays of Pentecost/Shavuot. This meant a number of members were unable to attend. Then it was announced that staff would withdraw their labour from the meeting, due to breaches of staff protocol. There was a long email thread about whether the meeting should be cancelled or not, which only finished on the morning of the 30th. The meeting went ahead, having just about reached the quorum of 15 members – majority of whom were representatives of Labour Students and Organised Independents.

More time than usual was dedicated to motions – partly because many officers weren’t there to present their reports. First we debated motions remitted from National Conference UD and Welfare zones, most of which passed. I was pleased that a motion about trans and intersex inclusion finally got heard – at Conference it was prioritised worryingly low, after #LoveSUs and discount cards. We also passed good motions on students’ rights at work, promoting evidence-based drug policies instead of a “zero tolerance” approach and resisting the far right, among other more or less useful ones.

A motion to fight landlord cartels fell on the basis that it didn’t specifically mention FE and apprentices. There is an unfortunate tendency in NUS for motions to be voted down not because of what they propose, but because someone isn’t entirely satisfied with the way they are written (let’s recall the infamous amendment about free childcare which fell at LGBT+ Conference this year because it didn’t mention carers of adults.) As if a nice motions document which ticks all the boxes was more important than real work that NUS should be doing in the real world, in this case on the burning issue of student housing.

A decent motion on student hardship passed, however a line about supporting living grants got removed after VP SocCit gave a speech saying that the government should not be giving money to the rich. I got up to make the argument that no adult should have to rely on their parents for financial support, especially since not everyone has a good relationship with their family and not everyone’s parents choose to support them during their studies (“we should be helping not only those whose parents are poor, but also those whose parents are dickheads.”) I also pointed out that NUS already has policy from conference in favour of living grants, so removing it from this specific motion would be meaningless. The parts then passed, changing absolutely nothing about NUS’ position on living grants.

Then we got to new motions. First I spoke on a motion to make the NSS boycott next year more effective by starting early and facilitating SUs to share best practice. The motion was then amended to say it shouldn’t be heard on NEC given that it was deprioritised by Conference, and subsequently fell. It was then misreported by VPUD that NEC voted to end the boycott. This is incorrect – NUS has a mandate from 2016 to boycott the NSS, and the right simply voted down a motion proposing to learn from this year’s experiences and run it more competently. Existing policy was not reversed. We will be holding VPHE to account to make sure the boycott is maintained.

A motion on commemorating the Slave Trade passed, with NCAFC’s amendment to celebrate grassroots resistance. A number of other motions, including Solidarity with the Palestinian People, were withdrawn to allow for a fuller debate at a bigger meeting.

I’ll be writing more reports from the strange world of NUS bureaucracy throughout the next academic year. In the meantime, NCAFC members and all students are welcome to contact me regarding any NEC matters at [email protected].

Occupation at Chelsea College of Arts: CCW Rethink the Restructure!

By Marianne Murray, a student campaigner from University of the Arts London (UAL)

UAL CCW occupationOn Wednesday 24th May 2017, a meeting of students was held at Chelsea College of Arts to discuss a plan of action to oppose a ‘restructure’ of UAL colleges Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon (CCW). The planned restructure was first brought to our attention in a video sent out to students by Pro-Vice Chancellor David Crow less than two weeks ago outlining his ‘vision’ for the three colleges: most worryingly he stated that my college, Chelsea, will be about ‘international markets’. The video gives a glossy, corporate insight in to the plans to change the universities without student or staff knowledge or input. 8 Fine Art research staff have been told they’re at risk of redundancy, and university management have been emailing all staff offering ‘voluntary redundancies’. This has created an atmosphere of fear amongst staff, who are scared to speak against the changes for fear of losing their jobs. Many of these staff are on rolling contracts, effectively zero-hours contracts, with little job security. Still more staff have been left in the dark about the changes. Much of the information we have about the ‘restructure’ is from a document leaked to the Student Union by a staff member in the UCU.

During the student meeting we discussed the likelihood of huge cuts to workshops, courses and staff – with some specialist courses possibly being scrapped altogether. For these reasons, we decided to occupy a space at Chelsea. 10 people from across CCW, the Arts Students Union, UAL and other students acting in solidarity secured the space and occupied overnight. The following day we were met with increasing hostility and aggression by security staff, who would not allow fellow students to pass us food. Security physically blocked students from entering the occupation, grabbing one student. We were unable to exit the room to use facilities and re-enter the occupation, as more and more security staff were brought in and a metal barrier was placed around the door. Despite being unable to let more people in to occupy, we received huge support from those outside – including anonymous messages of support from workers at UAL and banner drops orchestrated by fellow students. Due to the difficult conditions of the occupation, we decided to end 24 hours after we started with a statement, after speaking to management and securing a 2-week extension to the decision to cut any jobs. We will continue to take direct action against these cuts as well as negotiating to save jobs and facilities for all future students and staff.

ccw rethink the restructure (small)

Labour’s manifesto: free education and a National Education Service

In this article a NCAFC activist explains why the Labour Party’s Manifesto commitment to free education and a National Education Service is important and badly needed. But a free, democratic and emancipatory education is something we’ll need to fight for to win whatever the outcome of the general election.

Got an opinion and want to share it? Get in touch and write for anticuts.com!

o-CORBYN-STUDENTS-facebookCurrently, England is the most expensive country to study in the world. Since the 2010 Tory-LibDem higher education (HE) reforms there have been cuts to government funding, an expansion of the student loan system and of course the famous trebling of tuition fees to £9,000. These sets of changes have been come together with an overall neoliberalisation of universities: more casualised labour and decreased pay  and pensions for workers in HE, higher salaries for university managers, and more private institutions getting their foot in the door in the HE market. In turn there is now a lower proportion of working class students going to university and those leaving HE leave with massive amounts of debt. The current Conservative government is pushing the neoliberalisation of universities further by implementing a set of Higher Education Reforms which will result in universities being ranked according to a Teaching Excellence Framework, and these rankings allowing some universities to raise their fees and those who are seen to “fail” be closed down or taken over by private businesses. As it stands many universities across the UK from Aberystwyth, to Manchester, to Durham are announcing a wave a job cuts citing the pressures of marketising reforms as their reason. The current system desperately needs to be overhauled.

The call by the Labour Party in their manifesto to abolish fees and implement a National Education Service is a welcome event. This is a massive change from New Labour which implemented tuition fees back in the 1990s, as well as from a Labour Party a couple of years ago which only promised a cut in tuition fees to £6,000.  An NES would mean a cradle-to-grave system that guarantees access to learning for everyone: free childcare, comprehensive schooling, abolition of fees and valuing properly those who do the work. Furthermore, establishing an NES and deprivatisation of education creates the potential for a more democratic education where those who are doing the work and study call the shots and make the decisions, rather than managers.

Education at all levels is necessary for a democratic society. It allows people to discuss and think creatively and critically about the world they live in, and is important to allow society to flourish by giving people the means to learn, discuss and teach whatever it is they might want to do. Because education benefits all of us it the costs should be borne by those who have the means to pay for it. Despite the backlash Labour will get from the press and right wing parties, the abolition of fees and a NES is necessary and totally possible. HE funding is currently not sustainable and is coming of the back of student loans, much of which cannot be paid back and which the government continuously tries to sell-off. If we restructure how education is currently funded and tax the rich in our society who hold the wealth that is created by working people – bear in mind that the richest 10% in our society hold half of the £8.8 trillion pound wealth in the UK – then we will have enough money to fund not only the NES, free childcare and Labour’s other pledges, but much more. We need to argue beyond what Labour is currently guaranteeing. Maintenance grants must not only be reinstated, but increased to a decently liveable level and extended to all students, and living costs eased by not just restricting rent rises, but reversing them in halls and beyond. Labour should clarify that its pledge to abolish fees will be applied to international as well as British students.  And graduates should receive an amnesty on the student loan debt that should never have been imposed in the first place.

However, it will not be enough to vote Labour in and hope for them to make good on their promises. This is not how positive social change happens: a left-wing Labour-led government would face obstructions and immense pressure to retreat on its policies. We will need to continue building a strong student and workers movement in education and beyond which will provide the political pressure for these promises to be made a reality. One of the many reasons why it has been possible for the leading opposition party to take on these proposals is the pressure that has come from the grassroots movements. The seven years of protests, occupations, actions, boycotts, solidarity with striking workers, and convincing people of the necessity of free education has put these issues on the table – it is worth recalling that up until a few years ago the NUS was one of the only student unions in the world not to have any policy on free education.

Going forward it will mean continuing and increasing the pressure – whatever the results of this election. Quebec, Chile, South Africa, Germany and many other countries have managed to resist and reverse attacks on education by having organised and militant struggles through direct action and student strikes. NCAFC and education activists have been pushing student struggles in higher education, making the argument for free education, coordinating national demonstrations and pushing nationwide actions like the boycott of the National Student Survey. Join us to keep it up.

Tory “Teaching Excellence” in action: UoM cites TEF as motivation for massive cuts

Manchester students & staff protest cuts to catering jobs last year

Manchester students & staff protesting cuts to catering jobs last year

Just days after the passage of the Conservatives’ higher education reforms through Parliament, the University of Manchester has announced plans to axe 140 academic jobs and 31 support roles, placing 926 workers at risk. You can read the UCU trade union’s press announcement about the cuts here.

UoM isn’t facing a financial crisis. In 2015-16 the university made a £59.7m surplus, and it holds reserves of £1.5bn (including £430m in immediately available cash). They have also cited Brexit and economic uncertainty as creating a need to expand what they call their their “financial headroom”. Yet their headroom is already substantial and their most recent financial statements say that there are “no material uncertainties” posing a threat to their ability to stay afloat. The UCU has called this out as opportunism – university managers are using wider events as excuses to make these cuts.

Sackings on this scale are unprecedented for a UK university in good financial health. So why are they doing this?

UoM’s managers (including the Vice-Chancellor who was paid £296,000 as of last year) have cited the HE Bill passed by Parliament just 2 weeks ago. They say they can raise their score in the Teaching Excellence Framework by cutting staff and student numbers. As the UCU branch put it: “the aim is to become a smaller but more elite university, regardless of the costs to staff or the impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

This is a damning indictment of the government’s reforms, and a sign of things to come if we don’t reverse them. Universities are being incentivised to reshape themselves, not to benefit students, workers or communities, but to game TEF ratings and play the market.

Workers and students at Manchester are already gearing up to stop these cuts in their tracks. NCAFC sends its solidarity, and in the weeks and months to come we’ll be ready to take action to support them. At the same time, we’ll keep up the fight to reverse these ruinous reforms before they can do any more damage.

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.

Higher education reform bill passes: we’ll fight to repeal it

Hard-won concessions have blunted and delayed some parts of the ruinous reforms, but they’re not enough. Now we fight to reverse it and win a democratic National Education Service.

Graffiti reading "What Parliament does the streets can undo"Parliament has rushed through the Conservatives’ Higher Education and Research Bill – the legislative vehicle for their ruinous agenda of fee-raising, university-privatising reforms – in advance of the snap General Election. But that doesn’t mean the issue is closed – we will keep campaigning until they’re reversed!

The battle so far

Over the past eighteen months, we’ve fought a major battle against the reforms. We have argued the case against the misleadingly named Teaching “Excellence” Framework (TEF), presented our alternative vision of a free education system governed by democracy not the chaos of the market, and through protest and direct action – most notably the boycott of the National Student Survey, which closed for 2017 last weekend – we’ve generated pressure that has extracted concrete concessions from the government. Despite attempts by some student union bureaucrats to wreck the union’s democratically-agreed strategy, the NSS boycott was taken up in large numbers on many campuses, and despite substantial spending by many universities to cajole and bribe(!) students into giving them good marks, participation at a number of institutions is expected to come out below the crucial 50% threshold that makes the data unusable.

The goal of the NSS boycott is leverage. By disrupting a mechanism that is crucial to both the future implementation of the TEF, and the current management of the HE market through league tables and disciplining workers, departments and institutions, we gain power. Instead of coming to the negotiating table empty-handed, hoping (as some student union bureaucrats naively seem to do) to convince an implacably opposed and powerful enemy with a few nice words, we say this to the government and university managers: until our demands are heard and satisfied, you will not be permitted to continue with business as usual.

And our political strategy, including the boycott and many other activities, has indeed begun to win concessions. Many amendments were passed in the House of Lords, and though the Commons reversed many of them, we retained a number, including a tightening of regulations on new private universities, and a delay in the link between the TEF and tuition fees until 2020.

What Parliament does, the streets can undo

But these compromises are not enough. Fees are still set to rise (if only with inflation), the TEF is still coming, and measures to ease and accelerate privatisation will be put into place.

However, the story is not over. Everything the government does, we have the power to resist and reverse. History is littered with failed right-wing initiatives, passed but then withdrawn in the face of protest, direct action and industrial action. Famously, Thatcher’s poll tax was scrapped after enormous numbers refused to pay it and marched in militant demonstrations across the country, making it impossible to implement.

We can and will reverse the higher education reforms by continuing and stepping up our campaign. The NSS boycott begun this year must – as the vote at NUS conference last year mandated – continue until the reforms are dead. To make the 2018 boycott bigger, we should be preparing now, in particular assessing our local campaigns to learn from what worked well, and convincing and signing-up next year’s boycotters as far in advance as possible.

We also need protest and direct action, locally and nationally. Actions should be part of a coherent drive to add to the pressure, win hearts and minds to join the campaign, mobilise and organise activists, put the issue on the public agenda, and issue a show of force to our institutions and the government. We need discussions with education workers, whose trade unions supported our boycott enthusiastically, to see how we can cooperate and how their industrial muscle might be brought to bear on the issue.

And our movement and NUS need to organise all this under the banner of an unequivocal political demand. No fudging and no tinkering round the edges – let’s be crystal clear that we won’t settle for less than the complete reversal of the reforms.

Vision

The campaign also needs to offer a convincing, concrete alternative that can inspire and win people to the cause. We’re not simply asking for the old status quo back and we shouldn’t pretend it was good enough. Instead we want to revolutionise education and build a democratically-run, free-to-access, cradle-to-grave National Education Service, open to everyone and serving people not profit. And we will fund this and other social measures by taxing the rich and taking over the banks. So please keep contributing to NCAFC’s big debate to build our vision of what that would look like.

The General Election

Finally, the results of the upcoming General Election will have a massive impact. As well as the smaller parties on the left, now the Labour leadership supports free education too. We want opposition parties to pledge that they will reverse the reforms and build the free and democratic education system we are demanding. If Labour or a Labour-led coalition forms the next government on such pledges, that will be excellent but even then we can’t sit back and rely on leaders to solve our problems for us. They’ll face resistance and pressure to compromise, and we’ll need to stay active to demonstrate support and generate pressure in the opposite direction for the Left to follow through on its promises. And if the election results in a Tory government or a Tory-led coalition, we won’t give up. So either way, protest and direct action will be needed.

Educate, agitate, organise!

We have a big battle ahead of us, but it’s one we can win. So let’s get out there and educate, agitate, organise – keep spreading the word about what is happening, raising our demands and arguing to convince people of our cause, and getting democratically organised for discussion and action. That means both in local groups from campus Free Education campaigns to Labour Clubs, and on the national level – come to NCAFC’s Summer Conference to discuss and decide our next steps.

See you on the streets to reverse the reforms!