Free Education and PhD students

ucl_ucu_strike_28jan2014_marchingFree education isn’t just a question of abolishing undergraduate fees, writes NUS Postgraduate rep Ben Towse.

PhDs exist in a grey area somewhere between being ripped off as students and exploited as workers. Free education is an issue for us, and that’s why PhD students will be marching alongside other school, college and university students on 19 November.


The hurdles begin with even qualifying for a PhD. Most PhD programs now require you to hold a Masters’ degree – but with fees skyrocketing and financial support drying up, this prerequisite is out of reach of more and more prospective students.

Masters funding could fill an article (or book) of its own, so for the sake of argument let’s say you make it through, and even get a studentship covering your fees and paying a maintenance stipend for you to live on (of course, you’d better be a UK resident – international students don’t have equal access to some Research Council studentships).

Stipend cuts

You’ve made it! Superficially, this is what we are demanding for everyone – non-repayable financial support and no fees. But even those on stipends are being squeezed by austerity. Mirroring the policies that have ground down public sector workers’ wages, the real value of Research Council stipends has been literally decimated – slashed by 10% since 2010*, cutting into our ability to support ourselves and our families.

And these are the lucky ones. The supply of studentships has long been too few for the number of students, and that situation is worsening. In 2011, the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council cut more than a third of its project studentships. It focussed remaining funding in programmes that harshly restrict the number of international student places and are limited to a smaller number of institutions, helping to further stratify our education system into tiers and potentially locking out those who can’t move themselves and their families to these hubs.

Academic freedom

Some research students find funding from private industry, but this comes with strings attached, as their profit-motivated funders have the leverage to stop them following the evidence if it leads to conclusions that are bad for business (for instance in environmental research), and can block students sharing their discoveries for the common good. Of course, government-sponsored funding too is yoked to the narrow interests of capital, determining what is cut and what is prioritised – it’s not only the arts and humanities being squeezed, but blue sky scientific research too.

Unfunded PhDs

The result is that huge numbers are left paying their own way through PhDs, scraping together savings, earnings, family assistance and borrowing to pay fees and support themselves. Universities don’t even bother to track students’ funding arrangements properly (perhaps they’d rather not collect data that would highlight the problem), but we know that 40% of PhD students’ fee payments are not coming from a funding body.

Many are forced to go part-time in order to work enough hours to survive (assuming they can find paid work). So despite financial precarity, they lose out on full-time student benefits such as Council Tax exemption and childcare grants. In a survey of London part-time PhD students, one-third of those reliant on personal sources of money reported sustaining fees and living costs on less than £10,000 annual income. The result? At my own university, about half the part-time PhD students are worried that funding problems will force them to drop out, and half report suffering moderate or extreme stress.

This situation ensures the continued domination of academia by those privileged enough to be able to make it through the system. And beyond access, this is also about the injustice of capitalist exploitation. By any reasonable assessment, research students are workers. We produce knowledge and innovations that improve our society and benefit our universities and industry more broadly, and we do it for pay that is falling or non-existent. Bluntly, we make lots of money for other people and get little or none of that money ourselves. From this perspective, an unfunded PhD begins to look rather like a several-year-long unpaid internship, placed as the gateway to a career which is itself desperately insecure.

Fair Play for TAs

As well as our research, PhD students bear an increasing share of the teaching work as universities seek to cut costs and shift to casualised workforces. If we’re not being cajoled or bullied into performing this labour for free, we’re being chronically underpaid. Wages that are often already insultingly low even on paper are further undercut as almost half the hours we work go unpaid: as a result, almost one-third of us earn less than the minimum wage per hour of labour. Basic rights agreed in law and universities’ own regulations are quietly forgotten when it comes to casualised workers.

To maintain these conditions, our employers rely on our transience and disorganisation, our ignorance of our rights, and our hesitancy to rock the boat in case it affects the academic patronage we desperately need to progress our careers. In some institutions, much like many cleaners, postgrad teaching assistants are even outsourced to private companies that contract us back to our own university on cheaper pay and conditions.

We are organising to fight back in a number of places – most notably right now at SOAS where an impressively militant, democratic rank-and-file campaign is recruiting members and fighting senior management over unpaid labour. This needs to be generalised to every campus.

Free education

So what is free education for PhD students? At every level of education we demand the abolition of fees and the provision of stipends for all – not ground down by inflation but maintained at a level allowing us, and our families if we have them, a decent standard of living. We demand that as teachers, our wages are increased, we are paid for the hours we work, and we are granted secure, decent terms of employment. And we demand academic freedom: the liberty to pursue our research and challenge the interests of capital and the state, which means freedom from the control of industry funders who can cut off our studentships or determine the priorities of public research councils.

That’s why we will be marching on 19 November, and why beyond the demonstration we need to organise on our campuses and in our workplaces, to build ourselves into a force capable of fighting and winning this struggle in the long-term.


* Calculated using these figures and this RPI calculator

Free education is a feminist issue

Comité-femmes-GGIWomen’s access to higher education may initially seem like a non-issue in Britain; especially considering that women undergraduates now outnumber men. But this comforting statistic masks the particular injustice of the fees and repayment system to women, writes Rida Vaquas.

The existence of fees themselves is a proliferation of gender inequality. Women will accrue a greater debt burden over their lifetime than men, due to the graduate pay gap which leaves women earning thousands less than men. Repaying their loans over a longer period of time necessarily means that for women, there will be a greater cost in interest. Every hike in fees is an attack on women, every penny of debt is one that women will feel more, and for longer. To make the demand for the abolition of fees is therefore to demand financial equality between students of all genders. It is no wonder that when the Australian Gough-Whitlam government abolished tuition fees in 1974, after demands from feminist organisations, enrollment of women students more than doubled.

But even with abolition of fees, more needs to be done to make free education ‘free’ for all women. Women are more likely than men to be primary carers of children; yet the support provided for student parents is highly limited at best.

The maximum childcare grant, which only full time students are eligible for, is £150.23 a week. The weekly fees of the on site nursery at the University of Warwick are between £269.50 and £276.00. In other words, the childcare grant doesn’t even cover childcare, let alone anything else a child may need. Support for part time student parents is virtually non-existent, being entitled to neither the childcare grant nor the Parental Learning Allowance. This renders university education unaffordable for many women who are mothers, left without means to support their children or their studies. Free education must entail free on-site nurseries and childcare support and a better grant for all parents, regardless of whether they are part-time or fulltime students.

Support for primarily women will always be viewed with suspicion among those who believe education ought to be restricted to an elite of their own. Boris Johnson revealed a little more than he would care to admit when he suggested women attend university ‘to find husbands’. It reveals that education, won by women after protracted struggles, is still seen as not vital to women’s lives. Moreover, it devalues the educational labour of women, a devaluation that exists hand-in-hand with the devaluation of the paid and unpaid labour women are compelled to do for capital. It’s not new either; the Open University, when it was first set up, was lampooned for being a ‘housewives’ university’ – a criticism made because it seemed to be benefiting women who otherwise could not enter higher education. Removing financial obstacles constructed to keep women out of education is an attack on capital; it asserts that women’s education is of equal value to men’s, not subsidiary to it and is a part of uncovering all the ways capital more or less covertly takes advantage of women’s labour.

Education can and must do more for women than it does currently. Jennie Lee, on the establishment of the Open University spoke of “a great independent university which does not insult any man or any women whatever their background by offering them the second best, nothing but the best is good enough.” The concluding words should be what propels us onwards, against the tide of neoliberalism, to building a truly exhilarating education system that everyone can participate in equally and one in which every circumstance is sufficiently provided for.

I support free education as an action of solidarity in the worldwide struggle for education for women on equal terms as men. And that’s why I’ll be marching on November 19th as a first step in making this happen.

Free education is about more than abolishing tuition fees

To consider free education debate solely in terms of the abolition of tuition fees indicates the poverty – in more ways than one- of the education debate, writes Nathan Akehurst

Tuition fees are important. The repayment scheme may be more progressive, but the reality is that fees do deter undergraduate applicants and make postgrad study unthinkable for most. University applications have sloughed off significantly in the post-2010 world, and anyone that tells you higher fees don’t damage access departed the real world a long time ago. The abolition of fees is sustainable, just and necessary, but that’s not an argument to principally enter into here.

One of neoliberalism’s defining features is the willingness of the right to appropriate the language of the left- and thus we have heard shrilled from the podiums of Labour Students the refrain that fee abolition benefits the wealthy disproportionately. I strongly disagree that this is the case (as did hundreds of NUS delegates when the free education vote was won) but that discussion only needs to be had if you have already stripped the substance of free education down to an argument about where the burden falls for the cost of courses. If we’re at that point, it may already be too late.

To my mind, students are worrying less about fees and more about how to get through day-to-day living. I just graduated from the University of Oxford, where those on the maximum student finance grant and loan receive over an extra £3000 per year, plus additional support schemes in the form of hardship funds, academic prizes, subsidised food, and so on. To my knowledge no other university in the country provides a similar level of financial backup, and yet I still struggled to make it through the year.

The costs of halls alone can hit around £1800 per term in places, i.e. almost all of even the maximum loan and grant. If we confine the maximum provision to being spent over a ten-week term alone, you’re looking at roughly £200 a week of which at the very minimum, half will end up going on rent. Then there’s energy bills, food, academic resources, travel…and dare I say it, clothes, phone bills, drinks or the odd evening out. And through all this we’ve assumed that those on the maximum grant and loan are either fully supported by the nation’s poorest families the whole way through holiday periods, or can simply walk into adequate jobs as soon as each term finishes. ‘Get a job in term time’ is another piece of advice regularly dished out. Firstly, it’s not that easy, and secondly, degrees are hard and time-consuming; having to work long hours can be a strain on academic work, or is hard for students with caring responsibilities.

I don’t especially like using the term ‘squeezed middle’, but it doesn’t get any better even when you creep up the wealth chain a bit. The means-tested grant gets whittled away until finally only the basic £1100-odd termly loan is remaining. That’s fine if you’re an only child to very generous parents on about £50k a year. It doesn’t take into account that families might have numerically reasonable incomes but multiple children, other costs to meet, or just might be a bit stingy, or indeed actively hostile. The student finance system is predicated from top to bottom on the notion of a stable, nuclear family. I hope I don’t even need to go in to how this isn’t the case for a very sizeable number of students, or that it’s the already vulnerable who are most likely to suffer as a result of Student Finance’s assumptions.

To be very clear, students are not being paid enough to survive. So as part of the call for free education, we have to be very clear in demanding a grant at the level of the living wage, paid for the whole year round. It’s a difficult demand to make because the deluge of Daily Mail editorials about the state haemorrhaging our hard-earned money into the pockets of scrounging students is so easily foreseeable. But it is one that would be fair, and also economically useful for the same reasons that raising welfare benefits or introducing a citizens’ income would. It comes down to the simple economic truism that poorer people recycle their income more quickly.

Of course, given the barriers involved in accessing higher education, and the demographics that tend to go, such a policy in isolation wouldn’t help those at the bottom effectively enough. It works when standing alongside the return of EMA, fair funding and pay in HE and FE institutions, school reform, stronger unions, freer curricula and the provision of a place in HE for anyone who wants it. That is what free education has to mean. We can argue the minutiae of policy points all day, and I’m the sort of person that would be happy to, but primarily we need to be keeping in sight a wider vision. Not just the abolition of fees, but a society that values the democratisation of learning. I will be marching on 19th November for a future in which everyone has equal and complete access to education, self-enrichment and development; a future in which we are free from hardship and free to empower ourselves through learning.

Students out in force for free education on TUC demo: one month to go until 19 November

Students perform a banner drop on the TUC national demo

Students perform a banner drop on the TUC national demo

Students mobilised in significant numbers for the Trade Union Congress (TUC) national demo on Saturday 18th October. A large number of them marched with our free education bloc, which was one of the loudest and most visible blocs on the demo.

Between 80,000 and 100,000 people marched on Saturday in the biggest demonstration for two years, under the banner of ‘Britain Needs a Pay Rise’.

Protesters also occupied Parliament Square, where a number of NCAFC activists joined in a stand-off with the police to hold the space. For more on that, click here.

There is now just under a month until we march in central London for free education on November 19th. NOW IS THE TIME TO ORGANISE!

  • For the facebook event click here.
  • For all the materials you need to mobilise, click here.

FREE EDUCATION BLOC: march with us at the TUC demo



Since the introduction of fees students are having to work harder to fund their studies, from long nights in a bar before early morning lectures, to Saturdays and afternoons in a shop to make up for the destruction of EMA, the freezing of maintenance loans and sky-rocketing masters’ fees.

This does not stop in postgraduate education; postgrad teaching assistants are exploited on precarious, low wage contracts and stipends for research have been cut on real terms just as salaries have. Women and migrant workers bear the brunt of this, with a sexist gender pay gap and racist discrimination rife in the workplace.

There is vast wealth in our society, but we who produce it see very little of it.
We demand:
• Taxation of the rich to fund education and decent jobs for all.
•An equal living wage for every worker, regardless of age, including apprentices and interns.
We must:
•Join trade unions and agitate for uncompromising industrial action for better pay and conditions.
•Organise in our workplaces, communities and campuses.
Use protest and direct action to win free and funded education which is accessible to all.

Meet under the red Free Education Now banner, Blackfriars, 10.30.

Statement by Roza Salih, writer of the motion on ‘Iraqi/Kurdish solidarity’

This is a statement by Roza Salih, NUS Scotland International Students Officer, and the writer of the motion ‘Iraqi/Kurdish solidarity’ that was proposed to NUS national committee, and which passed at NUS Scotland executive. The motion passed by NUS Scotland is below. You can view the NUS NEC motion here.

The recent attacks on the NUS from right-wing extremists is disgusting and must be opposed, I will be happy to work Malia and the NUS Executive Council to promote the issue of ISIS brutally attacking Kurdistan – and I am happy that this will be coming to the next NUS NEC with broad support. But I feel the need to address some comments made about my motion and its supposed islamaphobia.

As Vice President of Diversity and Advocacy at the University of Strathclyde Students’ Association and NUS Scotland’s International Students Officer, I proposed a motion to stand in solidarity with the Kurdish people. Whilst I am happy to write a new motion, I am disappointed that many people have said that the motion was written by ‘some student who made a mistake’, and it has been suggested that we’ll be working with them to make the motion ‘less islamaphobic’.

As my job titles and record show, I work on liberation and it is my priority, nobody has shown me what specifically in the motion is islamaphobic, and I feel that it is unfair to tag that to my name. I come from a Kurdish Muslim background and the motion that was submitted was for NUS to speak out in defence of my people – as they are brutally murdered by agents of the “Islamic State”. What the Islamic State is doing is wrong, and I look forward to our national student movement coming together through the politics to support these people fighting for survival.

The Scottish Executive Committee Notes:
1.The on-going humanitarian crisis and sectarian polarisation in Iraq – which has resulted to thousands of Yazidi Kurds been massacred.

The Scottish Executive Committee Believes:
1.That Iraqi citizens have suffered for years under the sectarian dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and in the US/UK invasion and occupation of Iraq.
2.That rape and other forms of sexual violence are being used as weapons against Women in IS occupied areas against minorities to ethnically cleanse.

The Scottish Executive Committee Resolves:
1.To work with the International Students’ Campaign to support Iraqi students in the UK.
2.To campaign in solidarity with the Iraqi people and in particular support the hard-pressed student, workers’ and women’s organisations against all the competing nationalist and religious-right forces.
3.To support Iraqis trying to bridge the Sunni-Shia divide to fight for equality and democracy, including defence of the rights of the Christian and Yazidi-Kurd minorities.
4.To condemn the “IS” and support the Kurdish forces fighting against it, while expressing no confidence or trust in the US military intervention.
5.Encourage students to boycott anyone found to be funding ISIS or supplying them with goods, training, travel or soldiers.
6.To meet with Iraqi and Kurdish organisations, in Iraq and here in the United Kingdom, in order to build solidarity and to support refugees.
7.To issue a statement on this basis.

Defend Malia Bouattia – a statement from the NCAFC national committee

This is a statement from the NCAFC national committee.

A recent motion entitled “Iraqi/Kurdish solidarity” (which can be viewed in full here) was debated and consequently voted down at the second NUS NEC meeting of this academic year. The motion was written jointly by Roza Salih, an Iraqi Kurdish independent (who sits on the NUS Scottish Executive Committee, where a very similar motion has since been passed), and activists in the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Because NUS NEC motions can only be put formally by members of the NEC, it was proposed by NUS NEC and AWL member Daniel Cooper, and seconded by International Students’ Officer Shreya Paudel and Young Greens co-Chair Clifford Fleming.

Shreya Paudel spoke in favour of the motion, and the speech in opposition was given by the NUS Black Students’ Officer, Malia Bouattia. The motion was voted down.

Since then, the right-wing media, as well as and right-wing and fascist individuals, have launched viciously abusive, anti-Muslim, racist and sexist attacks on Malia Bouattia. These attacks are vile and we condemn them unconditionally. Leftists and student activists should defend Bouattia and other targets of racism against bigotry, whether or not they have political disagreements. Some attacks also grossly misrepresented Bouattia’s politics to claim that she supports ISIS, and this is a disgrace. The attacks are reflective of much wider racism in our society against Black and Muslim people, and we stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight against racism and fascism.

NCAFC’s representatives have not and will not respond to media requests for comments on the matter other than to restate this condemnation. We ask our members to do the same.

The NCAFC has not taken a formal position on the text of the motion. We published a report of the NEC meeting by Daniel Cooper, which included political criticism of the opposition to this motion, which was clearly labelled as an individual perspective. We routinely host reports of meetings and events on our website, and believe it is right and important to do so. Equally, we believe it is vital to offer a right of response, which Bouattia exercised.

This report and its author have been criticised as intentionally inviting the abusive and bigoted attacks on Bouattia. We did not and do not believe that Cooper’s article intended to invite such abuse – we would not have published it otherwise. There remain a variety of views among members of NCAFC and its national committee about the motion and report, and we welcome debate on the issues they contain.

We will continue to oppose the press outlets and individuals responsible for racist attacks. The abusive, islamophobic and racist attacks from the right-wing press and individuals on social media sites toward the NUS Black Students’ Officer cannot be tolerated. When people in our movement come under these kind of attacks, we should close ranks.



On Monday NHS workers went on strike. On Tuesday FE lecturers demonstrated for their right to strike. Today civil service workers are on the picket lines and right now people are protesting for social housing in Kensington and blocking Boris Johnson from entering the world’s largest housing fair.

Meanwhile students are mobilising for Free Education on their campuses. Successful motions have been passed in places from Royal Holloway to Stirling University; coaches are being booked from Birmingham to Warwick to Scotland; debates and events held in Falmouth, Plymouth, Cambridge; and supportive motions being passed in trade unions such as the UCU and the RMT.

The fight for Free Education is not an isolated one. It is part of the bigger fight against austerity, the fight for fair pay, the NHS and social housing. That is why this Saturday we will be marching together with the trade unions in London and ask you all to join us.

We will be meeting at 10:30 on Blackfriars Embankment. Look out for our massive “Free Education NOW” banner. (Facebook event here)

However, we obviously all know that this demonstration is only one step in the long struggle against austerity and for Free Education. That is why we will be meeting up after the demo from 7pm at London College 1964935_10152843698493408_9050376829880739828_nof Communication to have some fun and get to know each other better. (Facebook event here)

Finally, on Sunday there will be a meeting of the NCAFC NC to organise the next month in the run-up to the 19th of November, talk about the organisation and plan our national conference. This meeting is OPEN to all NCAFC members ! The meeting is happening at UCL (near Euston station) from 12 pm. (Facebook event here)

Have you have been convinced that London is the place to be this weekend, but don’t have anywhere to stay? Then please get in touch with us ([email protected]) and we will find some lovely students who will hook you up with a spare mattress or sofa in their living room.

Students turn out to support health workers’ picket

nhsstrikeStudents from University College London and other London campuses turned out to support members of Unison at University College Hospital on strike on Monday 13 October over pay. An activist with UCL Defend Education told NCAFC:

“Impressive numbers of nurses and supporters alike withstood horrible weather conditions to send a clear message to Cameron, Hunt and co ­ cuts to the NHS have to stop. The anger and betrayal the nurses (and midwives, on their first strike in 133 years) were feeling was clear to see in the passion and commitment with which they picketed, chanted and even marched around the hospital. With further industrial action to come in the week ahead, it’s clear hospital workers won’t give up the fight for the fair wage they so obviously deserve.”

ONE MONTH TO GO: London-wide organising meeting for the national demo

1384160_784198524973396_6805873319543349541_n***IF YOU’RE IN LONDON MAKE SURE YOUR CAMPUS IS REPRESENTED***

7-8pm Thursday 16 October
Ben Pimlott Building Lecture Theatre (the squiggly arts building!), Goldsmiths University
Click here for Facebook event

It is now just ONE MONTH until we march for free education. Mobilisation is going well across the country, but a large proportion of the turnout will have to come from London. That means that Londoners need to take responsibility and get the turnout out – and to do that, we need to co-ordinate.

On the agenda will be:
– linking up FE and HE in London: working with school students
– what we’re doing about the TUC demo
– what we’re doing for strikes
– sharing resources
– co-ordinating direct action