Thursday, November 11, 2010

Students come up against a political brick wall

The explosion of anger on London’s streets yesterday was not confined just to the students who attacked the Tory Party HQ. It was also expressed in the fact that unexpectedly vast numbers of students and lecturers turned out to demonstrate against soaring tuition fees and education cuts.

Over 50,000 came to express their opposition to the Con-Lib government’s programme of cuts. It was the first major march against the Coalition and the biggest student turn-out for over a decade. Frustration and anger ran through the whole march. A common refrain was that “no one is listening” – reflecting the fact that the accepted political process is a dead end.

“Tory scum”, chanted students breaking in to the Millbank headquarters of the Tory party. They should have added “Liberal Democrat and Labour scum”. In fact the Tories are the only main party that are not fees turncoats. Before the election, every Liberal MP signed a pledge to oppose a rise in fees. And it was New Labour that first introduced top-up fees in 2001, against Blair’s specific election pledge not to do it.

New Labour commissioned the Browne review of higher education funding, which went even further than the Coalition to propose lifting the cap on fees altogether. Who can say they wouldn’t have accepted its proposals if they were in government?

NUS President Aaron Porter, a member of the Labour Party and like Ed Miliband a supporter of a graduate tax, cannot explain how a tax, rather than higher fees, would enable young people from less well off backgrounds to go to university in the first place.

Lord Browne’s proposals represent the completion of the marketisation of higher education, which is enthusiastically supported by all parties in parliament. It discusses university entirely in the narrow terms of economic growth and money. David Cameron was happy to be able to tell a Chinese student that raising fees for British students would mean fees for overseas students could be held down.

Public funding for universities is being slashed by 40%, to be replaced by 2012 with student fees of up to £9,000 a year at some universities. Students starting university this year will already leave with debts of at least £25,000 each and the new measures will push that even higher.

And when they graduate, they will enter a job market in slump. With 69 candidates chasing every graduate job, the 2010 graduate cohort joined thousands still unemployed from the previous two years. They are now part of a generation of young people, graduate and non-graduate, who are over-represented in the ranks of those unemployed for more than a year. Youth unemployment is nine times higher than the national average.

The reality is that universities are now part of the market state and unworthy of the passionate commitment that lecturers and students continue to give them. The answer to this massive problem is to go beyond protest against the Con-Lib government, and recognise the transformation of the state as a whole that has resulted from corporate-driven globalisation.

States provide education only insofar as it will benefit big business. Whichever party is in control they are ready to sacrifice the future of millions of young people – and everything they could achieve for human society – on the altar of the mighty market.

But using technology and networks that have been largely created by the younger generation, a global alliance of the young and older workers can facilitate a transfer of power away from these global elites, and their corporate masters, and into the hands of the majority.

In the end, neither marching nor extreme forms of protest like the attack on the Tory Party HQ by themselves will bring about the kind of social revolutionary change that will create a world free from profit and exploitation.

People’s Assemblies, with full representation of every part of the community including students, young people and the unemployed, are the way to make a start in the process of transforming society’s economic and political power structures. All students are invited to come to Liberation Beyond Resistance – Towards a People’s Assemblies Movement in London on December 11, to plan the next steps along this road.

Penny Cole

No comments: