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.

Access

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

EAN and NCAFC support February 5th anti-fascist protest in Luton

The student protests and nationwide days of action this year have been hugely successful not only in their resistance to the coalition’s plans to raise tuition fees and cuts, but also in being one of the most diverse student movements in history. Thousands of students and education workers across gender, ethnic, and religious divides have come together to send a clear message to the coalition that we will fight for our right to education and future generations.
 
The diversity of the movement must be cherished, particularly in times of economic crisis. The Education Activist Network and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts will support local and national anti-fascists groups on February 5 in Luton in opposition to the English Defence League. We would like to invite students and education workers to join us on the day to show our solidarity in the fight against racism.
 
We say
* Drive racists off our streets!
* Unite and fight – demand decent education, jobs and services for all!

Some (more) Press Coverage


ABC News (13 December 2010)


BBC News (11 December 2010)

Real & Fake NCAFC events (and how to get our support for your demo)

We are living in exciting times!

Everyone at NCAFC is really happy about how much is going on and the amazing response we get from people all across the country. We are constantly bombarded with questions and affiliations and people wanting to organise local events.

As we understand that for some a quick supportive reply might suffice to get NCAFC’s support, it needs to be said that things are not that quick & easy.

There have been some “fake” NCAFC events going around Facebook and being Twittered about so here are our guidelines:

HOW TO KNOW IF IT IS A REAL NCAFC EVENT?

.

HOW TO GET NCAFC TO BACK YOUR EVENTS?

  • Send us an email to [email protected] with your personal information (name and university/school/city) and a brief description of the event (type of event/date/location).
  • We will discuss it and vote it through in a local or national NCAFC meeting, which will be open for you and anyone else to come along and pitch in.
  • We will keep in touch with you until the big day (Note: the bigger the event, the more involved we will get with details such as security, materials, stewards, etc)

We hope this helps.

Don’t put yourself in danger – only attend events you know the organising body of. If in doubt contact organisers and ask them to explain what security measures have been taken. It is bad enough that the police is violent even after we meet with them, imagine how they can get if they know nothing about the demo you are thinking of attending.

Keep safe and… Merry Christmas!

PRESS STATEMENT: Met scaremongering ahead of tomorrow’s London protests

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts is concerned about the latest press release by the Metropolitan Police, which could discourage many students and other members of the public from taking part in tomorrow’s protests against the tuition fees rise.

We have met with the Metropolitan Police several times in order to coordinate the march to Westminster and have been helpful and forthcoming with information about the number of students expected and the route.

  • It is unacceptable that, in a democratic nation like ours, that elected politicians can turn their backs on promises they made.
  • It is worrying that, consequently, governmental institutions like the Met, proceed to restrict protests against such politicians via scaremongering and alarmism.

With several thousand students travelling to London to protest, it is the Metropolitan Police’s duty to engage with citizens andfacilitate non-violent protests. However, the latest statements by Commander Bob Broadhurst, head of the Met’s Public Order Branch, resemble rather scare tactics that tendentially lead to misinformation and silence the public.

We encourage parents, guardians, teachers and all other members of the community to join us in the march on Thursday, 9th of December 2010.

We encourage all to take an active role as stewards, guarding both younger children, as well as the democratic right of future generations to protest in this country.

We hope to see a more positive and cooperative attitude from the Metropolitan Police on their future public statements.

9 December 2010 March on Parliament Poster & Flyers

9 December 2010 – Shut Down London Poster

9 December 2010 Shutdown London Flyer

D Day!

This is IT people! The day has come!

The date for the parliamentary vote on fee increases has been announced!

9 DECEMBER 2010

We all need to start mobilizing, organizing, publicizing… the works!

Talk to your student unions, guilds, societies so you can come on a coach down to London and make some noise at Parliament!

They wanted big society? They’ll see big society!

Bring your friends, family, lovers, brothers, carers.
Bring your nan and your neighbours, bring noise and creativity!

Let us know if you need help organising people to come down (or up) to London.

FEES?
CUTS?
NO THANK YOU!

(more info HERE)

Statement on yesterday’s events (+The Guardian coverage)

Yesterday was a brilliant success!

Tens of thousands of students demonstrated, despite low temperatures all across Britain on the 30th of November against the tuition fee increase, the cuts to EMA and wider public sector cuts.

Students were joined by teachers, parents and general members of the public as the movement continued to broaden out, bringing in new people who want to join the fight against this government’s agenda.

  • Protesters have not been deterred by images of ‘violence’ in the media.
  • Protesters have not been put off by the ‘kettling’ of the 24th of November.
  • Protesters did not stay at home as a result of snow and the cold weather.

The movement continues to gain more support and gathers momentum – building up to the tuition fee vote in Parliament in mid December.

More national protests will take place on 9th and 11th December, as well as several local actions on the weekend of the 4th and 5th of December.

On the day that Parliament votes on the tuition fee increase the NCAFC will be working with other organisations to bring the greatest number of people possible down to London. We expect over 100,000 people to demonstrate in London, and many thousands more across the country.

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts is happy that most actions were taken non-violently and were able to truly show that students will not stand still and let the government take these savage cuts imperviously.

The NCAFC will continue to organise students and plan future actions in order to defeat this constrictive governmental education agenda and, if necessary, bring down the government, itself.

Thank you once more to The Guardian for their incredible coverage and support.

Press Coverage Along the Day + Updates

See all further press coverage on our Facebook page. And feel free to “LIKE” is too!



New Statement out as police kettles protesters at Trafalgar Square:

Despite the Scotland Yard’s statement saying:

We have set up cordons around this area, with police at exit points. In small groups the protesters are being encouraged to leave the area via these exit points.
The agreed protest time was between 12-2 and this is now over, so we are encouraging protesters to leave Trafalgar Square enabling Londoners to get back to their normal routine
.

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts was alerted that police is only allowing protesters to exit via police cordon’s one at the time!

This is what is considered by the police as “containment”, in other words, “kettling”, which was several times guaranteed to organizers it would not occur this time.

It is with indignation that the NCAFC sees itself, once more, being betrayed by police officials, who we were keen on cooperating with from the start.

We are denouncing and condemning the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard for intimidating students and general protesters and their right to free association and organisation, as well as the clear victimisation protesters. We reprove any disciplinary actions taken by any institutions against students for exercising their democratic right to protest.

We heard that NCAFC’s Simon Hardy is giving an inflamed speech from Trafalgar’s Sq on bottom of Nelson’s column! We’ll try to get it filmed. — Most London protesters back at Trafalgar Square now

— The London Student reports on our stewards:

Police have been overheard speaking to NCAFC organisers, saying that they will not kettle the main protest at Trafalgar Square, so long as protesters agree not to head towards Parliament or Buckingham Palace. Students will be allowed to rally at Trafalgar Square, but should advances be made towards Whitehall then the Police may decide to kettle the protest.

— The group now turned right to Leicester Square to avoid kettle! — And protesters going down Charing Cross now (Trafalgar Sq next one would imagine…) — Picture sent by our Deputy Press Officer, Patrizia, who’s in the scene — Statement from the Met arguing the block of Whitehall:

However, today’s march set off at an earlier time than agreed. This meant that the march began without a police escort. The police escort was essential due to gas main works on one side of Whitehall.

Well we saw the police cordon there even before anyone started marching!!! — Bigger group of protesters in London now going down Chancery Lane… — NCAFC and University of the Arts London SU (SUARTS) Robyn Minogue reports:

Thousands of students shut down London with passers by clapping and waving, bus drivers hooting their horns. Chants of ‘Students and Workers Unite and Fight!’ Police seem pretty bewildered.

— Also: King’s College London and University of Nottingham occupied! — Meanwhile in Cambridge: Hundreds of sixth formers and school students are holding a sit-down in a shopping centre in Cambridge town centre — Thousands of students in London (something now getting close to 8000+) running around in orderly line across the centre. Now close to St Paul’s but planning to go on running, letting police follow up with them. Race of young students vs police officers? We wonder who’ll win… <grin!> — The London Student reports:

A police officer told a London Student reporter to move away from a group of protesters being contained by police or else they would put her in to the containment as well. The London Student reporter was trying to listen to the conversations between police and protesters.

— Our statement just got read out on BBC News LIVE! It reads:

After, in good faith, having provided thorough information and help to the London Metropolitan Police yesterday, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts is appalled with the police aggressiveness towards students protesters in London today. Whitehall had been, despite the Met’s agreement with the route to follow, pre-emptively blocked. Several police vans (including one with horses for the mounted police) have been deployed in such a manner that can only be described as conspicuous bullying. Such misleading actions on behalf of a state institution are deplorable and unacceptable. There are rumours of tear gas, unreasoned physical violence towards very young people and general victimisation of protesters. Preventing the public from their democratic right to protest peacefully is a shame to any country describing itself as liberal and democratic.

— Protesters scattered around central London, after running away from police charges, around 4000+ group in Picadilly Circus. In our central we can hear sirens all over London. —

And in Manchester…

— Matthew Taylor in the Guardian: “There is a big police presence around Westminster, scores of vans parked up the side streets on Whitehall including at least one carrying police horses. A couple of hundred people gathered in Trafalgar Square, with a very vocal group gathered underneath Nelson’s Column chanting “give us back our EMA” as well as some rather rude things about Nick Clegg. The march set off down Whitehall as agreed, but half way down was a line of few hundred police. Demonstrators turned and ran back up towards Trafalgar Square, sprinting across Horse Guards Parade and generally scattering everywhere. Police are now giving chase across Horse Guards Parade. The demonstration is much smaller than last time, but there’s definitely two or three thousand here. There are very large numbers of police in central London today – as this picture from @filkaler on Twitter shows.” — In London Trafalgar Square as abandoned pre-emptively and students started marching down Whitehall… police seems to be blocking the way but it is uncertain. Here is a spot of coverage at BBC News – unfortunately we could only able to record the last few seconds, but here you go…

Ideas and Advice for tomorrow (video)