Higher Education

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!

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!

What should a National Education Service look like? Tell us what you think

Following our January conference, NCAFC is facilitating discussions in order to develop a vision for a National Education Service. We want to hear your opinions, ideas and arguments – please let us know if you’d like to contribute! In this article, Ben Towse from UCL Labour and Josh Berlyne from the Free University of Sheffield explain why we’re starting this conversation.

fist_pencil_square_borderNCAFC has always fought for more than just proper education funding and the abolition of tuition fees. Since we were founded in 2010, we’ve debated and developed ideas about what a democratic, liberatory education system would look like, and we’ve gone out and argued for those ideas.

It is easy for concrete ideas about the reform or transformation of our education system to be niche and wonk-ish, boring and difficult to articulate.  Indeed, proposals for education reform typically come from wonks in Westminster offices.  As a result, movements lose ownership over ideas, and it becomes difficult to bring proposals under a banner which can amass the kind of support needed to force them through.  The National Education Service has the potential to be that banner.

When he proposed it during the 2015 Labour leadership elections, Jeremy Corbyn spoke of an education system which would be free to access from cradle to grave.  He spoke about reversing adult education cuts by raising corporation tax; providing universal free childcare; abolishing tuition fees; and providing good, well-paid apprenticeships.

Almost two years on, the idea of a National Education Service is yet to be seriously developed.  This gives us, the grassroots, the opportunity to take ownership of it.  Through democratic debate and discussion across party lines, NCAFC can—and must—popularise the idea beyond the Labour left.  Only then will we see transformative ideas made real.

That’s why NCAFC is facilitating a conversation in which students and workers can put forward, debate and refine our ideas about a National Education Service. We want this conversation to lead to a set of democratically-adopted, concrete demands and proposals that we’ll campaign to for.

Our January conference included workshops to kick-start this discussion (reports from these workshops will be posted soon) and our members agreed a proposal that set out some basic ideas. We said that a National Education Service could:

  • Be universally accessible free of charge, with financial support through living grants/stipends for all.
  • Replace the chaos of market competition between institutions with an integrated service that is rationally and democratically organised to serve social good, rather the interests of the capitalist class.
  • Build on existing ideas about the “Comprehensive University” to break down arbitrary barriers within the curriculum and between streams of education, including between further and higher education, and “vocational” and “academic” study.
  • Be publicly owned and secular, and democratically governed by its students, workers and the communities it serves.
  • Through democratic control of the curriculum, allow us to overturn the sometimes overwhelming dominance of ruling ideologies in what is taught, opening space for radical, subversive, liberatory and marginalised ideas and perspectives.
  • Provide its workers with secure, decently-paid jobs and good conditions.
  • Include universal free childcare.
  • Be well-resourced, by taxing the rich and their businesses and expropriating the banks.

Now we want your thoughts. Do you want to write about a particular aspect of the education system? Do you want to respond to any of the ideas above, or any that were put forward at the conference? Have you read something in this debate that you disagree with, or you want to build on? Please write an article for us, or if you prefer, record a video or a podcast. We’re looking for contributions from our members, and more broadly too – in particular from education workers as well as students. You can get in touch at [email protected]. And for members, you can also debate and discuss on NCAFC’s webforum.

Over to you!

Solidarity message from an Ipsos MORI worker – boycott the NSS

destroy HE nssThis anonymous message came to NCAFC we received from an call centre worker at Ipsos MORI, the market research company that carries out the National Student Survey. Remember, when Ipsos MORI call you up to hassle you about the survey, the person on the other end of the phone probably don’t like it much more than you – so don’t forget to be polite when you tell them you won’t be completing the NSS and ask them to remove you from the contact list!

I have worked for Ipsos Mori (a market research company with call centres based in Edinburgh and Newcastle) for over 2 months now and to be honest I’ve worked for worse places. Most of the staff and management were nice with most of the people taking my quality control being very friendly giving constructive feedback but it’s a shame this wasn’t there right at the start. After apply for the job I was asked to do an assessment at the call centre. After a brief training period I completed the assessment and passed, only to be told by the trainer that if it was up to her she would have failed me which is always a nice way to be welcomed to a company.

After a few weeks of the joys of a zero hour contract we were assigned to the National Student Survey project. Before we began calling students up asking if they could take part we were given a 15 minute briefing. During this briefing we were informed of the most efficient way of getting as many surveys as possible. One of the things that came up in this briefing was the student boycott. It was described to us as a boycott being conducted by some Unions within the NUS as a misguided attempt to protest the fees and that the NSS ‘has nothing to do with student fees’ and ‘all the results can be found online’ and it’s simply a way of allowing students to make an ‘informed choice’ of which Uni to go to.  This was the response we were to give to students who told us they were taking part in the boycott in the hopes of convincing them to do the survey. There was no punishment for not trying to convince students to ignore the boycott but when your wages are determined by the number of successful surveys you complete in an hour there is a financial incentive to do so.

Although there is no active attempt to try and undermine the boycott the never nature of the market research means that some interviewers will attempt to persuade students to do so, this isn’t to blame them after all they are just doing their jobs, but if the boycott is to be successful it is important that every student knows to boycott the NSS and have clear arguments as to why it is detrimental to them and future students’ education.

Despite these challenges I know that with determination and courage a united student movement can mount an effective boycott that will force management to listen to us. To all students out there know that you have my full support and solidarity and wish you all the best with the boycott.

In Solidarity,
Mori Mole

Teaching Excellence Framework day of action #boycottNSS

Chelsea College of Art campus, University of the Arts London

Chelsea College of Art campus, University of the Arts London

On January 26th, the deadline for university submissions to the Teaching Excellence Framework, students coordinated cross-campus actions to protest against the Higher Education reforms.

Students at LSE, UCL, UAL, KCL, Queen Mary, Warwick and Bath Spa universities as well as City and Islington College put up banners calling for the Government’s plans to be dropped, and for a boycott of the National Student Survey (NSS).

The Teaching Excellence Framework is a Government scheme which is being introduced this year, aimed at measuring the quality of teaching in UK universities. It will rank universities Gold, Silver or Bronze according to metrics including NSS results, graduate outcomes and retention rates, and allow universities to increase fees by rates depending on their score. Despite major student-led campaigns on multiple campuses demanding that institutions opt out of the framework, most English universities decided to submit to the TEF.

The Higher Education and Research Bill, which is currently at Committee Stage in the House of Lords, also includes measures to make it easier for private providers to attain degree awarding powers and to become universities, as well as for established institutions to close down.

At the National Union of Students conference in April, students passed a policy to boycott the NSS as a means to disrupting the TEF until the Government backs down on its plans. The NSS is a survey given to final year undergraduates to rate their course and institution.

Ana Oppenheim from the National Executive Council of NUS, said: “The Teaching Excellence Framework has nothing to do with teaching quality, and everything to do with fee rises, marketisation and serving the interests of business at the expense of students and staff. The reforms are an attack on the very idea of public education, and we will use any means available to us to fight for its future.”

Monty Shield from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, said: “We are fighting the Higher Education Reforms because they are going to rank up the role of private providers in our education system, majorly harming the conditions of both staff and students. Statistics from the National Student Survey (NSS) are a key part of this new system. In our boycott of the NSS we are showing the government that we have the power to take away the data they need for these reforms, and will continue to do so until they are defeated.”

For more information, contact: 07895405312, 07546233426 or 07758948478.