The Attack on our Education

As students and university staff, we must recognise and denounce the Conservative government’s transparent attempts to marketise education outlined in the green paper and policy. We must resist this process, ensure it is not seen as an inevitability, and remain vigilant and critical of future plans to jeopardise education, the public university and education as a right as opposed to a privilege. The Tories want education to serve employers and big business – this is no secret. The introduction of fees was the first step towards the full marketisation of the sector, and we can understand the green paper and its latest set of announcements and potential policy as the next move, and an equally violent attack on education. If this consultation reaches legislation unchanged it will be nothing less than the end of public education.

Among the alarming policies, are the following plans:

  • Future tuition fee rises could be imposed by ministers without a vote in Parliament, opening the door to unlimited, unaccountable fee rises.
  • Fees to rise at least with inflation from 2017, for institutions that tick the boxes of the market-oriented Teaching Excellence Framework.
  • The Research Excellence Framework could become even more narrow and metric-focussed –  further restricting academic freedom.
  • New private providers will be given help in the market to cut into existing public universities.
  • At the same time, the government is developing the management of “exit” of institutions from the market – reaffirming that the Tories are planning for public universities to collapse under their attacks.
  • There is also a vague threat of increased government control of student unions, linked to the undemocratic anti-trade union bill currently being put through Parliament – our right to defend ourselves collectively through our unions is likely under threat.
  • The Teaching Excellence Framework (or TEF) will measure universities’ performance on market-oriented metrics, including graduate employment.  This will define “good teaching” as little more than increasing the value of our work to employers and big business. Teaching will no longer be about serving students, it will be about serving our future employers.

Implicit in the promise of funding and rewards for high performing courses and departments, is also the inevitability of further future redundancies and more low-paid precarious contracts.  Already overburdened hourly paid academics will be tasked with providing more “high quality” teaching, leaving them less time to pursue their own research and punishing staff who do not or cannot fulfil the rigid criteria and expectations of the TEF. Moreover, the Trade Union bill vastly limits the capacity for workers to resist such changes through industrial action.

Another worrying feature of the government’s Green Paper on higher education is that it proposes removing universities from the Freedom of Information law.

At Warwick, societies and student journalists have long sought to utilise the Act in order to access information from our somewhat opaque management structure; universities are notoriously shady when it comes to freedom of information, and Warwick is no exception. Given its severe limitations, it is beneficial to students and workers at universities for the act to be strengthened. The Paper doesn’t attempt to argue that the move is in the general interests of students; rather, it argues that current FOI laws put universities at a disadvantage relative to private providers.

If any more evidence was needed that this government plans to fully subordinate higher education, in form and function, under the rubric of the neo-liberal market, this is it.

One of the most alarming and blatantly unjust pieces of policy we’re probably all aware of is the axing of maintenance grants for the poorest students. “From the 2016‐17 academic year, maintenance grants will be replaced with maintenance loans for new students from England” This is a direct attack on the poorest students in education, and makes a mockery of Tories’ talk about ‘access’ and increasing the number of working-class students in education by 2020.

With tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt looming over students, the higher education system evokes a constraining sense of fear and narrow cautiousness regarding our actions at University. We are told that we are here to get a degree, which is sold to us as a necessity in order to secure a happy and successful life – clearly wrong on both counts. Graduate unemployment is at an all-time high, and rates of mental health problems amongst students and graduates continue to soar. In order to make sure each leaves university with a degree, we are taught we must prioritise grades above all else and give ourselves an easy life by following the University mantras. This philosophy of marketization is having a hugely damaging effect on student life, as we are pressured into severely restricting our activities to comply with the neoliberal agenda, leaving little room for exploration, expression and creativity within academia as well as outside of it.

Rather than choosing our degree subjects through a genuine desire to learn and freely explore academia, it is now becoming more frequent for these incredibly important decisions to be primarily based on a prescribed system of risk-assessment and self-management which values academic attainment and employability above all else. Students are finding themselves in this situation upon realising that the burden of student debt will require them to get as high a paying job as possible after graduation. This manipulation of students leaves many feeling alienated and overwhelmed, stuck with a degree which they do not enjoy, which does not inspire them. It’s clear that the priorities the Conservative government have with regards to education do not lie in the hands of students.

The economic debt the majority of graduates become trapped with lends itself to a sense of moral debt experienced by many students in relation to their universities – the neoliberalisation of education positions universities as service providers in an educational market, and our side of the contract necessitates that we consume, but don’t complain or speak out. A trend seems to be appearing in which students are being ground down to passivity and compliance by their indebtedness to their higher education institutions, feeling as if they cannot, or have no right to, resist or challenge the system so long as they “get what they are paying for”.  We simultaneously imagine ourselves as owing to the Government, that we have been awarded a luxury whose cost we must resolve to repay, and as customers entitled to a particular excellency of service because of the money we have paid to our University, placing further pressures on strained staff and re-situating dissent from the streets to feedback forms.  Both mentalities distort the true meaning and unquantifiable worth of education.

Another threat that the Tories have recently posed to education is enforcing the English Baccalaureate if re-elected, meaning that students will have very limited options of subject choices at GCSE level, once again narrowing the boundaries of education and serving the interests of only a very select few students who happen to perform most strongly in traditionally “academic” subjects. Although this does not directly effect universities per se, it could vastly alter the accessibility of higher education to a very large proportion of students, and furthers the concept that, rather than serving the interests of those wishing to learn, the primary purpose of education is to produce an academic elite, a very conservative envisioning of one at that, and to make graduates into easily comparable commodities and “good” employees.  For all the Tories’ statements of poorer students not being deterred from attending University by 9K fees, the problem courses much deeper: the inaccessibility of our education system at all its levels entails that the most disadvantaged students will routinely not achieve as highly their more privileged peers.  When a degree is sold to us as a pre-requisite to gaining a foothold in a ruthless job market and to securing a prosperous life, the increasingly competitive entry requirements of universities leave many feeling as they have no options and no future.

It’s clear that the future of education truly is at stake here, unless we envisage the perfect education system as one that works to serve the needs of the 1% and large corporations, and is seen as nothing more than a tactic for accumulating capital, at the expense of the time, money and futures of students and staff alike. It is a matter of absolute urgency that we must stand against these ideological attacks on higher education, as students and staff, and continue to support the struggle towards a free, democratic and accessible education for all.  

DEMO CALL OUT #GrantsNotDebt 26/2

grantsnotdebt

FACEBOOK EVENT

Last term, the Conservative government released their Higher Education reform bill in the form of a green paper. The changes proposed in this paper represent some of the starkest threats to public higher education since the introduction of tuition fees in 1998. These proposals signify a particular ideological view of higher education: full marketization, the extension of debt through mass loan rollouts, the casualization and outsourcing of staff, and the erosion of working conditions and pay. The rationale offered for these “reforms” is that the sole purpose of university is to produce a “pipeline of graduates” (to quote our universities minister) able to compete within the labour market. This vision of higher education motivates the recent announcement that from 2016, maintenance grants will be abolished and replaced with maintenance loans, which will disproportionately impact those who most need financial support.

Maintenance grants are used by the million poorest students to support their studies. Scrapping them is an attack on those with the least resources, increasing the burden of personal debt on the most marginalised – even the Government’s own advisor on social mobility has warned against it. Despite it being entirely unlikely that the change will make any long term impact on public finances, the move was undemocratically put through a back room committee and voted on by only 18 MPs. On the Jan. 19, Labour used an Opposition Day debate to force the issue, whilst the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts blocked Westminster Bridge outside. Sadly, the vote was narrowly lost – but the fight’s not over yet.

On Feb. 4, we disrupted the University’s finance office with a noise demo and sit-in, forcing the new Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft to meet with us and discuss our demands. Despite securing significant victories – Croft pledged to initiate consultation and dialogue on a number of our demands – we must nevertheless continue to struggle beyond the established channels. This is why we are calling a demonstration on the Feb. 26 to demand that Warwick University use its considerable leverage to condemn the abolition of maintenance grants. Under the umbrella of this abolition, which is just one way in which higher education reforms will target the most vulnerable in society, we also call on the University to oppose those more subtle forms of marginalization at work in the Government’s vision and rectify its own past actions. Thus we are demanding:

 

1) That University management publicly oppose the cuts to maintenance grants, and lobby the Russell Group to do the same, and pressure the Government into reversing these cuts.

2) That the University undertakes minimum compliance with the Government’s Prevent agenda, support University College Union’s boycott call, and implement full transparency with respect to all interactions with Prevent.

3) That University management lift the £12,000 High Court injunction, which is an authoritarian impingement upon the right to protest.

4) That University management lobby and advocate (individually and through the Russell Group) for universities to remain under Freedom of Information Act, and advocate for the Act’s extension to private universities.

 

We need students and staff to mobilize for this demo in order to show the University that we will not be silent in the face of these sweeping assaults on higher education. We will not accept the University’s complicity in this Conservative ideology, and we denounce its past attempts to render itself impervious to scrutiny and dissent.

wffelogo3

Join the resistance!

tinyurl.com/grantsnotdebt

#GrantsNotDebt

 

Direct action gets the goods! A report from our meeting with VC Stuart Croft

On Thursday 4th February, a group of Warwick For Free Education activists staged a noise demo inside the finance office of University House, in protest against the scrapping of maintenance grants. These maintenance grants are used by the million poorest students across the country, including thousands of Warwick students. The cutting of grants and their conversion to loans are symptomatic of the wider marketization of public education, in which university managements are complicit, and against which we seek to protest. Our demand to the University is that they publicly oppose the scrapping of maintenance grants, and use their position within the Russell Group to lobby other institutions to do the same, and to put pressure on the government to reverse the cuts. Alongside this, in line with our vision of free, democratic and liberated education, we demand: that the university lifts the repressive, indefinite injunction which bans occupation-style protest across the whole of campus; that the university reverses its anti-democratic position on being exempt from the Freedom Of Information (FOI) Act; and that the university implements absolute minimal compliance and full transparency over the government’s racist and Islamophobic Prevent agenda.

The noise demo on Thursday followed an extremely disappointing Vice Chancellor’s Question Time last Monday, at which questions were asked regarding all of these demands. The new VC repeatedly evaded questions and refused to give clear answers on almost everything; the one exception being that he affirmed the University had “no plans” to lift the injunction. This was an unacceptable response to these fundamentally important issues, and demonstrated very little will to properly engage with the student voice. When university managements behave in this way, we are left with no choice but to use direct action and disruptive tactics to drive forward our just and legitimate demands.

As a direct result of this noise demo, we were able to force the Vice Chancellor to meet with us that afternoon to discuss our demands. You can listen to a full audio recording of this meeting here.

We must first make it clear that none of our demands were met outright, exactly as we had expected. As such, it is unequivocal that we will continue to protest until these demands (and more) are realised, in whichever way we see fit. However, through this meeting we were able to get the VC to make some key pledges around our demands, which we see as small but significant victories for our direct action, as well as a foundation upon which we can build for further change.

MAINTENANCE GRANTS:

Our meeting with Croft began with a discussion surrounding our first demand: that the University publicly oppose the cuts to maintenance grants, and lobby the Russell Group to pressure the government to reinstate them.

These grants are crucial for the poorest students, and the introduction of loans as an alternative is a blatantly ideological move to extend and perpetuate debt culture and wealth polarisation within society. The decision to scrap grants was forced through Parliament undemocratically, with only 18 MPs taking 90 minutes to reach an outcome. The feelings of students nationwide was made evident by the incredible blockade of Westminster Bridge a few days after.

Croft stated that he is “really worried” about the grants cuts, having been on the maximum grant himself when studying. He added, however, that for the University to take an official position on the issue, and for him to feel more comfortable voicing his concerns publicly, a motion would have to be proposed to Senate and then navigated through various bureaucratic procedures. Croft claimed he would be unable to propose such a motion due to his position as Chair of Senate, but suggested there were some sympathetic voices on the committee. Three SU Sabbatical Officers sit on Senate, and it is being looked into whether or not there is still time for them to submit a motion on maintenance grants to be considered at the next Senate meeting (March 8).

Nevertheless, Croft was willing to offer us something concrete – he pledged to invite us to write a piece on maintenance grants for his blog, which would then be distributed via email, unedited, to the entire student body.

THE INJUNCTION:

Our second demand made to the Vice Chancellor was for the University to lift the injunction against occupation-style protests on campus.

The indefinite injunction, put in place last year following the events of December 3, infringes on the rights of all students to protest on campus, and is unprecedented and anti-democratic. Occupations at Warwick have historically been an integral and successful method of dissent. They have played a key role in the struggle for the SU building, enabled Warwick students to voice their opposition to international student fees in 1979, and pushed the University to divest from apartheid-linked shares and boycott of Barclays (then heavily involved with the white supremacist regime of South Africa). The University chose to pay £12,000 for the injunction, rather than engage with the legitimate grievances of the occupiers, and to this day they have not apologised for both the way in which Warwick Security were complicit in the police violence against students, or the way in which Nigel Thrift abused his power to one-sidedly frame the debate as in his public statements.

While the Vice Chancellor seemed open to the possibility that the University may, at some point, consider apologising for the way in which it handled the police violence of December 3, and was keen to hear how we might want that apology expressed, he did not make any pledges to lift the injunction. Rather, he said that he needed to hear other voices and opinions on this issue, following which he would communicate with WFFE – through the Sabbatical Officers – with regard to what progress was taking place. While he refused to give us any time scale for when these discussions would occur, he did seem to acknowledge our assertion that we will continue to protest and disrupt the University until the injunction is lifted.

  

FOI REQUESTS:

We also demanded that the University reverse its lobbying to be exempt from Freedom of Information requests, and in turn lobby for private universities who are currently excluded from FOI requests to be included as well.

FOI requests are essential to our notion of a free and democratic university. Their removal would result in a significant reduction in the transparency, accountability and democracy of University structures. They are regularly used by student journalists and activists, and last year WFFE revealed through a FOI request that 241 staff at Warwick weren’t being paid the living wage.

Croft responded to our demand by saying that, in order for private providers to be included in FOI requests, the legislation itself would need to be changed, since it was originally set up for the public sector. He also questioned the ability of the Russell Group to press for minimal change on this issue, attempting to shift responsibility away from himself, the University, and Russell Group, and onto the government. One has to ask: if the Russell Group has so little power over the issue, why are they lobbying to be exempt from the FOIA? This proposed change would only impact the higher education sector; it therefore seems highly plausible that any public position taken by one of the primary lobbying groups for British higher education would carry considerable weight.

However, if it were the position of the University to remain included in FOI requests, Croft said he would take this to a future Russell Group meeting. Since the consultation period is now passed and the Russell Group has spoken, he said we will need to wait until the government responds to the consultation of the HE Paper until it can speak again.

In order to make the demand to remain included in FOI requests the official stance of the University will need to be debated in Senate – which led us to discuss the problem of student representation on Senate, as well as the huge lack of transparency when it comes to University committee meetings, as highlighted by our Postgraduate Officer. Consequently, in order to make Warwick more transparent and the committee structure less cumbersome, Croft pledged to carry out a transparency review between now and the summer. This would also include a review of student representation on Council and Senate. Given that there has been little change in the level of student representation on committees since the 1970s, this is a significant opportunity.

PREVENT:

The fourth demand of our action regarded the government’s “counter-terrorism” ‘Prevent’ programme. Our demand is that Warwick follow a policy of “minimal compliance”: only carrying out those duties under ‘Prevent’ which are statutorily required of the University. We also demand full transparency with respect to all the University’s interactions with Prevent.  We further demand that the University publicly acknowledges and supports the University College Union’s call to boycott Prevent.  This union represents the majority of academic workers on campus and its democratic voice should be respected.  

Prevent is a blatantly racist and Islamophobic programme which encourages invasive profiling of students by turning our staff members into spies. Furthermore, it is used as a sinister tool to monitor student activism and those who seek to defy or oppose the government. Part of the problem with Prevent is that the criteria and the process through which it acts are shrouded in bureaucratic opacity, and the programme thus operates in incredibly undemocratic ways.

We know that numerous members of University Senate, have spoken out against Prevent. Stuart Croft said that as Prevent is part of the law, he does not envisage any way in which the University can boycott it, but he was interested in hearing our definition of “minimum compliance,” in order to explore how the University could adopt this. As such, it was agreed that in collaboration with our Welfare & Campaigns Officer (Luke Pilot), a report would be produced detailing the minimum requirement of universities with regards to Prevent that would be presented to the VC. On the subject of transparency, we forced the VC to pledge that the University will hold an open consultation on Prevent that all staff and students can attend to find out exactly how the University is interacting with it. We pushed for the VC to make this happen before the end of term, and will be following up closely to ensure this pledge materialises.

For us, this meeting has truly demonstrated the power of direct action and grassroots student campaigning. Whilst the outcomes of the meeting and the pledges that we secured are not nearly sufficient – and we are under no illusions about that – they represent significant victories and at least some progress towards our vision of a free, liberated and democratic university. Despite the fact that a surprisingly positive dialogue with the Vice Chancellor has been initiated, we will not be satisfied until the pledges he made are acted upon. Furthermore, there is no doubt that we will continue to organise and protest until our full demands are won. Whilst we celebrate the hugely successful action that took place last week, we will not be complacent – there is still a long way to go in the fight for free education. But it is a fight that we cannot and will not give up on.

Watch this space for more action coming soon….

#GrantsNotDebt: Lobbying Chris White

Last week, a national day of action was called by the NUS wherein students and sabbatical officers lobbied their local MPs with the intention of allowing discourse, applying pressure and expressing discontent surrounding the hostile, oppressive and frankly illogical scrapping of maintenance grants for HE students. Outrage is unsurprisingly rife amongst students as the realisation dawns upon us that those in the most financial need, incidentally the same demographic that is the least likely to  go on to become highly paid, will now realistically be graduating university with around £50,000 of debt. The aim of this day of action was to express our outright dismay and make sure that the government are aware that they cannot and will not get away with committing such offences to the detriment of higher education without a backlash from students.     

Locally, Chris White (Warwick and Leamington Conservative MP) was mandated to discuss with SU representatives whether the aforementioned policy should be opened for debate in parliament. Luke Pilot, Welfare officer for the SU stated that “Despite the mounting costs of Higher Education and the burden of debt being of huge concern to students nationwide, Chris White made it clear that he fundamentally disagreed with the principle of maintenance grants and Free Education. While he did offer to facilitate further correspondence on the issue, it is obviously disappointing that he chooses to act on personal or party-political grounds rather than listening to the views of his constituents – of whom students constitute a significant proportion.”  

This simultaneously frustrated but did not surprise members of Warwick for Free Education, who had assembled outside Chris’ office with banners and, much to the dissatisfaction of Leamington police who had been disconcertingly fast in directing their cameras towards protesters on the day, megaphones. After some predictably ridiculous rhetoric about ‘breaching the peace’ by disrupting the office (heaven forbid we make noise on a noise demo) the police reluctantly ventured inside and attempted to mediate for Chris, who decided that one ‘representative’ should be allowed to come in and talk to him. Needless to say, this was a unanimously unappealing concept, and we managed to persuade the MP that he should be coming outside to speak to us, as a non-hierarchical group and as members of a constituency that he is supposed to represent. Ha.

What we were greeted by was a laughably patronising individual who was thoroughly intent upon refusing to engage with any of us, claiming that he had already had a ‘legitimate’ conversation with members of the Student’s Union, and thus our complaints and comments did not need to be heard. After a frankly hilarious and ultimately completely useless conversation about literally nothing other than how prepared the MP was to engage in conversation, he retreated back to his office, seemingly offended, when fairly accused of preventing the poorest of students from accessing university education. After this delightful encounter, Chris’ office was entirely cleared for the day as its inhabitants became progressively more and more tired and frustrated by the noise and disruption we were creating outside.

Police presence was high and unpleasant, and the threat of arrest was mentioned but despite this spirits remained high and the general enthusiasm and energy outside the office was truly brilliant – an inspiring start to a year of fighting for free education within and beyond the confines of our university. The response from locals was overwhelmingly positive – from residents above Chris’s office waving in solidarity and passers-by sounding horns, to Labour councillors voicing their approval of our actions and the area’s residents stopping out of interest and support for free education, congratulating us, wishing us luck in our endeavours and engaging in debate.

A really valuable lesson we all took away from the demo was never to underestimate the enthusiasm and compassion of those in the wider community – our expectations of the day’s outcome were vastly exceeded and it should be kept in mind that our struggle extends far beyond that of students, and solidarity with people outside of formal academic institutions is invaluable and integral to the success of any movement.

11225300_626790027464001_2496663926828632735_n