Wednesday, 3 December 2008

For a genuine fightback against fees, cuts and privatisation

Socialist Students statement on national protest on February 25. Anyways, must dash as i'm off to speak at a meeting in Manchester later on.

With the review of funding for higher education taking place next year, it is urgent that a campaign is built mobilising students to defend their rights. Already Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have introduced university tuition and top-up fees, and they currently stand at up to £3,000 a year. University vice-chancellors, through their organisation Universities UK (UUK), are keen to see this raised in the 2009 review, and are attempting to push the government to allow universities to charge up to £6,000 or maybe even more. Students need to build a fightback against this possibility, which would have devastating effects for tens of thousands of young people. But we also need to fight against the idea that education is a commodity and should be paid for. Socialist Students has initiated the Campaign to Defeat Fees, which has organised the most successful action on campuses against fees recently, coordinating action in over 50 universities and colleges in highly successful days of action. The Campaign to Defeat Fees has a wide range of support, including leading figures from the trade union movement including John McDonnell and Tommy Sheridan, students unions and over 5,000 individuals.

Unfortunately, the National Union of Students (NUS) leadership has so far not been prepared to launch a serious challenge to the demands of UUK. The leadership of the NUS are politically at one with the government of Brown, and in reality wish to allow the New Labour government free reign, with as little trouble from angry students as possible. They have had a conscious policy of constantly downplaying any action, and of promoting the idea that students cannot win against fees, but should restrain themselves to asking for slight improvements. Instead of battling against fees and for students, the policy of the NUS leadership has been to concentrate on destroying democracy in the NUS in order to insulate themselves from the demands of students.

This raises the question of how can a fight against fees be built on a national level. Socialist Students, as well as being involved in the Campaign to Defeat Fees, has argued for an organisation that brings together those who are opposed to the attacks of the government and the strategy of defeat from the NUS leadership. This should aim to involve as many students as possible, and bring together those students unions involved in fighting back and campaigning, alongside activist groups and individuals. This organisation would have to be based on building coordinated action, of aiming to involve and convince as many students as possible to get involved in campaigning, and on general demands of opposition to fees, cuts and closures and for a better education system for all.

To ensure that this works, it would also have to be organised along democratic lines, guaranteeing representation for those involved and allowing individuals and groups to put forwards different ideas and different strategies. No group should be allowed to dominate and there must be democratic accountability of the steering committee.

Socialist Students is in favour of a serious strategy in the campaign against fees, which should definitely involve national mobilisations and demonstrations. However, a serious strategy should be based on an assessment of a number of factors at every stage. What is the mood amongst students? What level of support could be gained for a national demonstration? What forces are involved in building for the demonstration? What is students' perception and awareness of those forces? How widely can we publicise our action? How many do we estimate that we will be able to mobilise? Will it be seen to represent a step forwards for students in our battles?

Socialist Students has called for and raised the idea with thousands of students of a national demonstration against fees called by the National Union of Students. Given the wide recognition of the NUS, the huge resources that are available to it, the big potential for media coverage etc, this would be the best situation. It would also open the door for genuine anti-fees activists to campaign and build as big a mobilisation as possible. This is comparable, although on a smaller scale, to the NUS 'students in the red' day of action earlier this term, which although organised around very limited slogans, presented an opportunity for activists to build action and gain broader support for those protests. This was an opportunity seized by Socialist Students, although unfortunately ignored by the Socialist Worker Student Societies (SWSS).

However, given the failure of NUS to call action and the urgency of the issues, it is correct that activists do not just give up, and that we take initiatives of our own. The Campaign to Defeat Fees has organised several days of action to mobilise students, building from below rather than waiting for the 'official' structures. However, where we have called protests and initiatives we have ensured that they are properly planned and built for. SWSS has so far called three national demonstrations this term, none of which have had more than a few hundred in attendance. To call a 'national' initiative without the means to mobilise on a national scale can give the impression that there is less of a mood to fight than is the case. Such unilateral action does not strengthen the movement.

Socialist Students want the event on 25 February to be as strong and positive as possible. We think that the best way for this to happen is for activists and activist groups to build support and to mobilise for this protest. But with the limited resources of those involved so far, this protest may not fully show the extent of students' opposition to the raising of the cap and education commercialisation. Nevertheless, it could be a step towards the national mobilisation necessary for a truly national demonstration. Therefore Socialist Students proposes that the main slogan of the protest should be 'for a national demonstration against fees, cuts and privatisation'.

This protest should also be organised along democratic lines. The most democratic way to do this is to allow everyone to have their say and to contribute to discussions, but to prevent any one group taking over. The planning meeting that has been called on 14 December should elect a committee to organise the protest, based on guaranteeing representation for students unions, strands of opinion and campaigning groups relative to their size and weight in the student movement. Unfortunately so far this has not been the case, primarily through the approach of SWSS who have attempted to impose their will on others, firstly at the Another Education is Possible conference, and now more recently in unilaterally naming a date for a national demonstration against fees, on the 25 February. In fact, there is an argument that a date later in the spring may give more time to mobilise support. But debates and discussions like this show precisely why there needs to be a more democratic structure than is in operation at present. A more democratic structure would also aid the protest in ensuring the best balance of speakers at the protest and different views and ideas being heard and ensure that the follow up to a spring protest is properly prepared.

For this campaign to be successful, it cannot just be limited to one action. The best way to ensure that effective opposition to fees is built for an alliance to be built that offers a fighting strategy that will bring together student activists, and inspire others that they can play a role in the fight for free education.

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