Free Education: Time to Seize the Moment | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Free Education: Time to Seize the Moment

Comment Writer James Moran argues a free university education is within our grasp

I have been a student for 4 years (the joys of studying part time!) and never in that time, and probably much longer, has free education felt so close.

For the first time since their introduction in 1998 a major political party fought an election, in May of this year, on a pledge to scrap tuition fees. And, on the back of an historic turnout among young voters, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour came within a whisker of winning. So why is it that, at this moment, our NUS and our own Guild of Students appear to be paddling backwards?

The answer began before the general election, in the NUS conference in March. The radical but controversial free education campaigner and incumbent president Malia Bouattia was beaten by the ‘moderate’, ‘centrist’ candidate Shakira Martin. But understanding the significance of this shift first requires an unpicking of some rather Orwellian use of language.

For the first time since their introduction in 1998 a major political party fought an election, in May of this year, on a pledge to scrap tuition fees

Malia’s controversy had, arguably, far more to do with her substantive positions as president than anything else; she was a free education campaigner, committed to supporting mass demonstrations on the streets; she was a tireless anti-racist campaigner and supporter of the hugely successful ‘Why is my curriculum so white?’ tour that exposed the racial biases throughout our education system; and, most controversially of all, she was a passionate supporter of the boycotts, divestments and sanctions movement (BDS) to protest the ongoing occupation of Palestine.

While the ‘moderate’ alternative represented a break from such ‘divisive’ political opinions, and promised to ‘unite’ the student movement, Shakira Martin was standing, in reality, on a platform organised by the Blairite right of Labour Students whose aim was to subvert the active politicisation of an NUS that had, until then, been a reliable gravy train of careerist politicians.

Six months later and any idea that the new NUS leadership represented anything other than the self-preservation instincts of the political right was exposed when Martin, now president of the NUS, in a rare move blocked the motion to discuss support for the 2017 free education national demo in London on the 15th November from the NUS executive.

Our own Guild council, that had held the officers of the Guild to account for over 85 years and given students the leading voice on Guild policy, was abolished in 2015

Similarly, the situation at our own Guild of Students mirrors this national picture in several ways. Our own Guild council, that had held the officers of the Guild to account for over 85 years and given students the leading voice on Guild policy, was abolished in 2015. This move bore a startling echo in the ‘democratic’ reforms at the 2017 NUS conference that were designed to safeguard against a repeat of Malia’s more ‘radical’ politics (you can read more about these reforms here).

At the centre of the both reforms was the direct removal of officer accountability. At the Guild we now have an ‘Ideas’ system (see the Guild’s website here) in which almost every Idea fails quoracy. Student policy at the Guild was previously detailed in the ‘Beliefs and Commitments’ document (last officially ratified by Guild Council in 2013), a document that held officers accountable to detailed discussion on how they actively support a wide range of positions.

Guild of Students, like the NUS, are right now doing approximately nothing to support political positions they nominally support such as free education

Within this document were three paragraphs of commitment to actively supporting and campaigning for free education, including the statement that the Guild ‘has the duty to play a significant part in the mobilisation for aforementioned demonstrations and protests’. Despite explicitly losing two consecutive votes on abolition of the ‘Beliefs and Commitments’ the document has been replaced on the Guild’s website by another document (twice voted against by students) called the ‘What we stand for’ document, in which ‘active’ support for free education campaigns was replaced by a passive ‘belief’ in free education.

Having been largely released from the chores of transparency our Guild of Students, like the NUS, are right now doing approximately nothing to support political positions they nominally support such as free education; similarly, industrial issues of casualisation, workplace victimisation and compulsory redundancies, opposing the racist Prevent agenda, the list goes on and on.

But, nonetheless, such a position is far from hopeless. Indeed, such moves represent little more than leaderships being left behind by their own movements. The historic youth turnout at the last election is just one example that exposes the right wing narrative that students and young people are alienated by radical politics. Two years ago, when threatened with mass redundancies in Modern languages, students here organised a petition of 2,000 signatories with no assistance from the Guild, and, together with strike action from staff forced the University to back down and keep the outstanding teaching staff in that department.

The historic youth turnout at the last election is just one example that exposes the right wing narrative that students and young people are alienated by radical politics

This Autumn gives us further chance to express our demands, and, if we are not supported at first by the Guild then we will force their hand. In recent weeks our staff announced a ballot on industrial action against ‘harsh and unfair disciplinaries, performance, management, and workload allocation’ in a move to expose bullying and victimisation in the workplace. Despite over 91% support in the solidarity motion raised in March 2017 the Guild have not yet publically supported or shared any information on the upcoming strike. Similarly, the Guild would not support the recent UCU Free Education Open Meeting on the 1st November despite invitations to speak and requests to share the event; and then again, the Guild have explicitly refused to support this year’s national free education demo.

But such organisations are only ever hanging onto the coat tails of change. Thanks to Unite Community, a coach to the Free Education national demo has been arranged (see here for details) and a protest in Birmingham is being organised for the following week (see here). Get involved, organise, and protest; show that you are prepared to stand up and demand what ought to be yours by right. If you are reading this wondering if you can make a difference, then so are many others.



Published

14th November 2017 at 9:00 am



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