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

NCAFC National Conference will be on 13-14 December – save the date!

ncafcdemo

This autumn we may well see a major wave of action from students for free education, against fees cuts and debt. We need action now to save education – demos, walkouts, occupations and more.

But action can’t happen in isolation. It needs to be co-ordinated nationally and it needs to be democratically agreed. That is why NCAFC exists.

NCAFC’s National Conference is where we students from all over the country come together to discuss the progress of the struggles for free, just and democratic education, and to democratically plan action in the months to come. We also elect a National Committee to coordinate things for the coming year. There will be workshops, discussions, debates and votes as well as caucus meetings of our liberation campaigns.

The date has been set for the weekend of 13-14 December, so put it in your diaries! Attendance, as ever, will be free of charge. More details will be released as the venue is confirmed and other arrangements are made.

In order to attend NCAFC conference, you will need to be a member. Joining costs just £1, and can be done online or by post.

Trade unionists support the demonstration for free education and donate to NCAFC

ucl_ucu_strike_28jan2014_marchingThis Thursday, a general meeting of the UCU trade union branch at UCL voted with no opposition to back November’s national demo for free education and to donate £300 to NCAFC’s work. We are very grateful to our trade union comrades for their support.

The UCU and other trade unions in education have long backed the abolition of tuition fees, even during the period when our own union, the NUS, abandoned this stance. Our campaigns, our protests and direct actions have always been strengthened by the solidarity of campus workers. Likewise, NCAFC has built for student solidarity with workers’ struggles in our colleges and universities and beyond. This is not just because it’s the right thing to do but because we’re stronger together.

It’s particularly apt that UCL UCU should offer its support, as it was at UCL that the NCAFC was founded in 2010. As we enter this next stage of the fight for free, democratic and just education, we are grateful for the continued support of campus workers is a real boost. And since NCAFC’s work is carried out entirely by the volunteered efforts of its members, and funded only by members’ and supporters’ donations, financial contributions like this are warmly received and very much needed. Organising and campaigning require resources!

NCAFC members will be approaching more trade union branches over the coming weeks, and we hope that this is just the first of many supportive branches. If you are a trade unionist and would like to propose that your branch support us and the campaign for free education, please get in touch by emailing [email protected].

Noam Chomsky supports Aberystwyth occupiers

Occupiers at Aberyswyth University have received a message of solidarity from Noam Chomsky. Aberystwyth University went into occupation on February 22nd in protest against the ongoing marketisation of higher education in the UK and the lack of transparency and political engagement of senior management at Aberystwyth University specifically. The full message can be read below:

“The attack on public education in the US and UK — higher education in particular — may bring short-term benefits to small sectors of concentrated wealth and power, but it is a very serious blow to the population at large, and to prospects for a decent society in the future. The protestors [sic] in Aberystwyth — like those in Tahrir Square, Madison Wisconsin, and many other parts of the world — are in the forefront of global struggles for basic rights, freedom, and democracy, and merit full and committed support.”

http://aberoccupied.blogspot.com/

Fb: Occupied Aberystwyth

Aber Students Against Cuts

Aberystwyth Re-occupied! Day 5

We have occupied Hugh Owen A12/A14 in opposition to the decimation of higher education in the United Kingdom. We act in solidarity with all those facing the barbaric and unnecessary cuts across society. We reject the idea that the cuts are necessary and recognise that they are motivated out of political choice rather than economic necessity. 

We recognise that the space we occupy is ours and as such we have made it a place where critical thinking and dialogue occurs, involving all in the university and the general public. As part of this we are committed not to disrupting the ongoing lectures happening. We occupy in solidarity with future generations, fellow occupiers and movements across the globe. 

We recognise a burning need for participatory democracy within the university, and many students feel marginalised by the management. We feel this occupation raises awareness of our campaign not only to students, but to senior management. We believe that in the spirit of academia the university management should engage in open and public dialogue and debate willingly. This will ensure that the students see the university management as acting in their interests and not following the government in market-driven policy.

We reject the idea that “we’re all in this together” when the ideologically driven cuts will affect the poorest and the vulnerable the hardest, while large corporations and the rich avoid taxes successfully. 

We reject the idea that knowledge is a commodity, and believe these austerity measures are neither progressive nor just.

Please send messages of support and solidarity to [email protected]

Befriend us on Facebook: Occupied Aberystwyth
Find us on twitter: http://twitter.com/AberUncut

‘Teenage Riot’ Part I

VICE’s TV production arm VBS.tv have put together a new film about the student protests entitled Teenage Riot. In the film VBS followed the progress of the largest period of civil unrest in England since the 80s, available in 5 parts all this week, the full length film will be available next week at VBS.tv. Check it out here

Stop the tuition fee increase! Join the march on parliament 9 December

This Thursday, 9 December, tens of thousands will come to London to march on parliament as the tuition fee increase is being discussed and voted on. School, college and university students will be joined by supporters from across the country to take a simple message to the government: “no to fees, save EMA”. This protest will be massive – make sure you come along and join NCAFC and other student campaign groups in our opposition to the cuts agenda of the Condem cabinet.

The protest will be starting from University London Union (ULU) on Malet street, gathering at 12 and setting off shortly afterwards. Bring whistles, coats, food and gloves!

If you cannot come to London then organise protests in your local area. Go to town halls, target tax dodging shops on the high street (Vodaphone, Topshop) and shut them down for the day.

Join the facebook group http://www.facebook.comevent.php?eid=136567579732280

Humanities and Social Sciences Matter

Following the mass protests and occupations of the last few weeks, a group of academics – some of them very senior – have come out against the government’s plans for HE, particularly its plans for Social Sciences and Humanities.

While not in the radical direct action tradition of the NCAFC, the Humantities Matter campaign is an important indicator of the breadth of the emerging  discontent. The letter, published today in the Telegraph of all places, calls for a Public Enquiry into the future of universities – and attacks the government for attempting to “rush through changes, the far-reaching consequences of which are potentially so damaging.”

If the waves of direct action manage to force the government to back down, they may well do so through mechanisms like this.

http://humanitiesmatter.wordpress.com/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/8166244/Deep-unease-in-universities-at-dangerous-haste-of-supply-and-demand-reforms.html

30 November – Second Day of Action!

After today’s success it is important to keep it moving!

We shall not stop until we break the government’s cuts programme or we break the government.

What will you do?

30 November – Join Us!

Press Release 24 November 2010 Walkout and Day of Action (Latest Updates)

STOP PRESS Last Minute Press Release 24 November 2010 Walkout and Day of Action