A feminist perspective on the free education movement

Kelly Rogers

There exists a tendency amongst most left-wing political organisations and groups to make women and the needs of women invisible in their campaigns. This is the case even in groups that on the surface show a commitment to gender equality by imposing quotas, strong chairing in meetings and the creation of women’s caucuses. They do this by failing to recognise the gendered  nature of the inequalities and oppressions that they organise against.
The free education movement should recognise that the people we are organising for are largely women, who disproportionately feel the impact of the austerity-based, neoliberal agenda emanating from our institutions and the state. We should  interrogate our own groups, both nationally and locally – and ensure that our structures reflect our politics, and that our political support for liberation is far more than just a nominal tick against a checklist.


Our discussions around education ought to include a critique of the neoliberal university from a feminist perspective, and a critique of our own movement: misogynistic practices on the left, and the failures of feminist groups and organisations like the NUS Women’s Campaign, whose distorted application of safer spaces politics is leading us squarely towards inaction. The demands that have formed the centrepiece of our occupations, demonstrations, and campaigns over recent years are:


– Education should be free at all levels – Living grants for all in sixth forms, colleges and universities

– Not for profit halls accommodation, provided for the service and in-house


These are demands that relate to the economic well-being of students during their studies and after they leave university. While it goes without saying that if implemented they would benefit people of all genders, and that economic inequality is a problem that we should fight against for the benefit of all, to declare these demands genderless is to obscure the very real poverty felt by women, because they are women.


The gender pay gap is a critical problem. In 2012, comparing all work, women earned 18.6% less per hour than men. Work traditionally carried out by women ‘Women’s work’ tends to be devalued and low paid: almost two-thirds of those earning £7 per hour or less are women. Women also tend to take on part-time roles, partly due to the disproportionate burden of caring responsibilities, which offer lower pay, fewer opportunities for promotion, and typically comprise more precarious contracts. Discrimination rests at the heart of the labour market, especially with respect to women of child-bearing age (a category into which the majority of graduates fall). Our prospects are particularly bad at present, with government policy leading to the mass migration of women out of the workforce and back into the home. All this means that when women leave education they are faced with a hugely inhospitable job market.


Put simply, women are faced with a set of obstacles that make is far more likely they will end up living in poverty. The labour market is even more inhospitable to women of colour, disabled women, lesbian, bisexual, queer and trans women whose intersecting oppressions mean they face discrimination from many corners. Our debts will be paid off slower. The threat of a lifetime of debt hangs most heavily over women, and the benefits promised to graduates, in the form of economic freedom and social mobility, fall largely into the laps of men.


Living costs while in education are also a gendered issue. Women take on the brunt of caring roles – for children and/or elderly or disabled relatives. During the 2010/11 academic year, 5.5% of the total student population declared themselves as having caring responsibilities, with the majority having dependent children. Most of these, as in wider society, are women. These are responsibilities that carry with them financial burdens which will be made worse by the expensive costs of education and living imposed by our institutions, which rake in vast profits and enjoy multi-million pound yearly surpluses. Research by the NUS has found that the second largest barrier to lone parents entering higher education was financial problems relating to childcare costs and fees.


Any demands relating to living costs, then, are intertwined with these aspects of the real lives of women; increasing the quantity and generosity of bursaries and living grants would offset the financial problems that students face, which   dissuade women from entering higher education.


– Fair pay and conditions for staff: 5:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid staff and an end to casual, precarious contracts.

– No outsourcing of services

– A Living Wage for all workers

– Closure of the gender pay gap


These demands relate to non-management staff at our education institutions, and women would disproportionately benefit from their implementation, relative to men. In Higher and further education institutions the gender pay gaps are abysmal; relating not only to discriminatory pay but to the roles that women and men occupy. The overall HE full-time gender pay gap is 18.5% and the part-time gender pay gap is 22.5% both of which are higher than average public-sector pay gaps. At 12.7% gender pay gap between full-time HE teaching professionals is higher than all other teaching professional groups. Women are far more likely to be working part-time than men in most occupations within HE institutions. Finally, women are also underrepresented in senior positions; only 19% of full-time professors and 14.4% of university vice-chancellors are female.


The implementation of the Living Wage for all staff in all institutions would go some way to improving the lives of women employees, bringing them up to subsistence-level salaries. Reducing the gap between the highest and lowest paid to 5:1 would substantially reduce the pay gap. If this is achieved by topping up the incomes of the lowest paid, using the savings shaved off the highest paid, we would witness a net shift of wealth vastly in favour of women. Across the board men tend to be over-paid senior managers, professors and senior lecturers, while women are more likely to be researching and support staff. In most cases women are the first to be made redundant, the first to have their hours and contracts hacked, and the most likely to be paid less than subsistence-level wages. Therefore, defending and campaigning alongside education workers is a feminist project. – Fair pay and conditions for staff: 5:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid staff and an end to casual, precarious contracts.


– An end to the intimidation and victimisation of students: no disciplinaries for protest; #copsoffcampus; no co-operation with migration enforcement and ejection of their officials from campus; no co-operation with spying programmes such as Prevent


All activists are at risk from the growing repression from university managements and government we’re currently witnessing. Last academic year saw a frightening shift in the level of repression that university managements are prepared to use against their students, and this year we only have to look to the University of Warwick, where police deployed tasers and tear gas, for this point to be demonstrated. Once again, however, liberation is central to the issues at hand.


There are numerous reported cases of harassment and degradation of women by police when in custody, including the frequent cases of sexual assault and of the denial of basic needs, such as the provision of sanitary products. Of brutality and violence against disabled protesters – the awful treatment of those under ‘suicide watch’ and the denial of medication. Of racial profiling and violence towards black individuals both in and out of custody, and the deportation of dissident immigrant citizens. And trans and genderqueer individuals being misgendered, mistreated and harassed as a result of their gender identity.  Freedom to protest remains a right that is most often enjoyed by the most privileged, even when our freedom is being so systematically eroded and withdrawn.

– Directly democratic education with all decisions made by, or accountable to, staff and students – Education for the public good: for financial transparency and accountability, against the influence of profit in education and research, against league tables, and for ethical investment and procurement

Demands for democracy have been at the heart of recent education activism, and these too have benefits specific to women and to those from marginalised groups. For equality to exist in our education institutions, it is necessary that power and wealth are distributed more equitably. Democratic structures that give students and staff meaningful oversight of decisions such as the restructuring of departments, are crucial in a context where, across our institutions, young women academics tend to be the first to be made redundant, or to have their contracts casualised. As many activist groups are beginning to recognise, democracy often involves affirmative action that deliberately platforms and affords greater power to those belonging to liberation groups. It is necessary that democratic reforms incorporate means of engaging and platforming women, so that we can begin to address the overwhelming silencing of women taking place in universities and all workplaces day-to-day.  

– We demand equality and an end to discrimination in education

Across the board education activists and activist groups are failing to talk about liberation. This failure is related to a crisis across left-wing activism where support for liberation on the left continues to be nominal rather than meaningful. The above analysis only scratches the surface, especially with regard to the intersecting identities and oppressions that women in Higher and Further education embody and experience, and yet even this limited analysis makes it clear that the demands being put forward by education activists are certainly not genderless, and have liberation at their core. Learning to understand our campaigns and slogans from a feminist and intersectional perspective is an important step in ensuring that our activism is truly liberating. However, in the meantime we are letting our education institutions and our government off the hook, because deep-seated discrimination and inequality between genders, races, disabled and non-disabled people, people with different sexual orientations, and British and migrant student and workers is going unchallenged.

Kelly Rogers is on the National Committee of the National Campaigns Against Fees and Cuts (Women’s Place). She is also a member of Left Unity. To find out more about the work that NCAFC does visit anticuts.com or follow @NCAFC_UK.

NCAFC is open to all students: full-time or part-time; school-age, Sixth form, Further Education or Higher Education; undergraduate or postgraduate; and mature students. Get involved!

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