I am sure I wasn’t alone on 8th May when I woke up and immediately wished I could go back to sleep, that this was just a nightmare and that soon I would wake up in the real world. The thought of another 5 years of brutal austerity, cuts and privatisation, and this time with a full-blown Tory government, almost made me miss the Lib Dems, wet and spineless though they were. Whilst in 2010, the Lib Dems served as a focus and deflection for much of the hatred and vitriol over the trebling of tuition fees, most identified them as the weaker, pathetic side-kick to the arch-villains of the Conservative Party.
And now that they have a majority, what does the next 5 years hold for students? We are already seeing 24% in cuts to adult Further Education courses, with the Association of Colleges arguing that “Adult education and training in England will not exist by 2020 if the government continues with its swathe of cuts.” With adults already having to pay to access courses, the ability to retrain or learn new skills or interests might become a distant dream for many working people. Women make up a disproportionate amount of those returning to education, so as usual, will be hit the hardest.
Prospects are looking grim for EU and international students as well, with universities once again coming into conflict with a government who wants to reduce net migrations to “tens of thousands”. Visa clampdowns are also in the pipeline, with more deportations expected. And for those from the EU, claiming benefits will now be impossible unless you’ve lived here for 4 years, along with the added uncertainty over their future status that the EU referendum brings.
In Higher Education, the selling off of the student loan book has already been announced: a superficial exercise in appearing to reduce the deficit, which economists agree makes no financial sense and which could lead to further pressure to change the terms of loan repayments. Measures which increase the amount of time until the loans are paid off, increase interests rates or monthly repayments, or even just the refusal to raise the threshold at which people must start to pay back loans (currently at £21,0000 p.a.) will again affect women who are more likely to be in lower paid jobs and to have taken a career break to raise their family.
Further privatisation might also be back on the cards. The 2011 White Paper was defeated after fears of further student unrest and opposition from many quarters. Whilst many of its proposals have already been snuck in through the back door, with a Tory majority, Greg Clark might try his hand at some of Willets proposals once again, spelling greater outsourcing, privatisation and the erosion of public education.
And The Big One: tuition fees are almost certain to rise again. We have known from the beginning that the current funding regime is unsustainable and Hague has refused to rule out another increase. Our own Vice-Chancellors have been calling for £16,000 as the upper limit, whilst others would rather see fees uncapped. But the right isn’t stupid: tuition fees are also an ideological assault, furthering the commodification of education which serves to keep students focused on their degrees and their job prospects as opposed to other activities. And Cameron may well have learnt lessons from 2010, avoiding a confrontation over fees in autumn term, which generally coincides with the best period for high levels of student activism. We shall see.
With the further destruction of education as a public good, you’d be forgiven for feeling despondent. However, in many ways, the student movement has learnt its lessons too and is in a stronger position than it was in 2010. Whilst occupations had taken place in 2009 over Operation Cast Lead, and a number of anti-cuts groups had sprung up throughout the course of 2010, campus activists experience of organisation around higher education issues was often limited. Today we have many flourishing, radical, left-wing activist groups, a number of which have existed in some form for the last five years, with students who have been through the mill of campus organising.
Our national structures are better too: the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, a broad organisation of anti-cuts group and left wing students, had only recently been formed when the announcement to raise tuition fees came. Since then, it has become more structurally robust and has a core of experienced and committed activists, succeeding in organising a 10,000 strong demo for free education earlier last year at a time when there was no obvious urgent pressure point, like a vote in parliament, to galvanise students. And that’s another difference: the student movement has become more proactive in its goals, articulating a radical vision of what education could look like, instead of fighting to maintain the status quo. These students don’t just reject £9K fees, they want no fees at all, and free education has been expanded to include freedom from the market, from capital and from oppression.
Although most would agree that they’re not entirely sure why, the student movement is also becoming more and more woman-led. Women activists are now drawing out the gendered nature of our demands, intertwining our feminism with our anti-austerity work. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts has become filled with prominent women, with almost all outward facing tasks, such as press work and communications, being completed by women. And women are demonstrating that gendered division of labour in activist groups, with men taking on the more “hard-core” “radical” direct action of building barricades and running occupations, need not apply: a group solely made of women and non-binary students occupied the University of London in March, kick-starting a wave of occupations across London.
The NUS too has the potential to deliver more of a fight to Downing Street this time around. With figures like Shelly Asquith, the most recent national conference has elected the most left-wing officer team in a long time, wresting control from the Blairite Labour Students who have dominated the organisation since the 1990s. Famed for their opposition to free education, and their willingness to accept cuts to grants, the failure of the 2010 student movement to beat the government was in no small part down to an NUS which sold out students – condemning property damage and holding a glow-stick vigil as opposed to any meaningful resistance. Whilst the new officer team have yet to prove their left-wing credentials, a strong base of anti-cuts activists mobilising students against attacks to education should hopefully provide the necessary pressure for them to fulfil expectations, provided we don’t all sit back and wait for NUS to do the job for us.
Whilst Cameron has a majority, that majority is far from secure: reliant on maintaining all but seven votes and/or seats for laws to pass. Major had a larger majority yet was plagued by rebellion and controversy, even facing a challenge to his leadership. And Cameron has already demonstrated that he is keen to shy away from those issues which might provoke contestation with his backing down on the removal of the European Convention on Human Rights.
What is important now is that the student movement remains on the offensive: we cannot wait for an announcement on tuition fees before we act. The best method of preventing attacks to students to continue to apply pressure to the government and show that students are a force to be reckoned with. The demo called by NCAFC on the state opening of Parliament, which despite mobilisation consisting of little more than a Facebook event, brought thousands to the streets against austerity, was a start, but we need much more. We must make tuition fees, and any increase, a controversial issue that Cameron is afraid to touch with a barge pole. Another large demonstration for free education is needed, and where the outgoing right-wing of the NUS have succeeded in scuppering calls for them to organise another national one, NCAFC is already filling the hole, announcing that they will organising one in November, a move which the more left-wing incarnation of next year’s NUS leadership will hopefully support.
But perhaps most fundamentally, if we are to win where the student movement in 2010 failed, we must still do bigger and better. We must mobilise even more students, we must be prepared to take more radical, disruptive action and we must make sure that our struggle becomes a broader social movement against austerity and for a different vision of society, standing side by side with workers, unions and community groups. The next five years might prove to be tougher, but whilst the stakes have been raised, the student movement may well have its best hand yet.
Hattie Craig just completed a year on the National Committee of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. In the past year she helped to organise the 10,000 strong national free education demo in London. She recently graduated from the University of Birmingham where she was involved in organising the numerous occupations, demonstrations and campaigns with Defend Education Birmingham, and served a year as VP Education in the students’ union.