If there’s one thing that has been repeated about the student movement, long after the fires around Conservative HQ began to fade in 2010, it’s the claim that it’s dead. The protests after the infamous ‘Demolition’ demonstration that November were a sorry shadow of the anger 52,000 marchers felt by Millbank – not to mention the many thousands who could not make it – gradually getting smaller and smaller with the capitulation of the NUS to simple gesture politics.
However, the past few days have shown that rumours of the student movement’s death were exaggerated. Underneath the seeming calm, the sense of dispossession was still there – waiting for a spark. In the government’s plans to privatise the Student Loans Company, they may have found it.
The government’s announcement in June that it plans to sell off the student loan book to private investors – literally the entirety of young people’s educational debt – marks a frightening new step in the steady decline of our education system. It has now been transformed from a universal public good to a mere business purchase – a corporate opportunity instead of the common provision of knowledge to create more rounded human beings. And it comes in the wake of the disastrous (not to mention shambolic) transfer of the Royal Mail to, overwhelmingly, institutional investors – banks, hedge funds and speculators.
By 2015, higher education could be almost completely privatised – not even our debt will be publicly owned anymore. More than this, though, in order to ‘sweeten up’ the deal (since investors don’t want to buy our debt as it stands) the government is expected to reduce or remove the interest rate cap. Put simply, fees could go up, indirectly, yet again. They will have to, since the government can actually borrow more cheaply than any other institution in society. Private companies, on the other hand, can’t.
So it was with this growing realisation in mind that hundreds of students marched, rallied, petitioned, leafleted and occupied their campuses on Wednesday in a national effort to block the proposals to flog off our future repayments. Coordinated by the Student Assembly Against Austerity and backed by the Young Greens (the youth branch of the Green Party), at least 25 campuses took part, with two – Birmingham and Sheffield – actually being occupied by students. The spirit of the tuition fee protests may just be coming back.
In Birmingham, students have occupied their Senate House, the historic decision-making centre of the University, to push management to “make a public statement against the privatisation of student loans and in defence of the public university” – alongside other worthy pledges, such as reducing the gaping pay inequality in Higher Education and getting the Vice Chancellor to take back his calls for tuition fees to be further increased. Sounds a lot like York.
And in Sheffield, students took over their campus branch of Santander – presumably a potential buyer – in a symbolic move against the loan sell-off. A pretty clear message against bankers, who obviously did much to cause the economic crisis, taking over our debt.
It wasn’t all old school revolutionary 1968 tactics being used, however. Protests in the 21st century are dynamic. We had live tweeting, Facebook streams, online news coverage and Flickr feeds. We had banner drops, students locking themselves together in ‘debt chains’, and in Cambridge (where police recently tried to recruit students to spy on each other) and Manchester, students lay trapped under red boxes marked ‘debt’ (no prizes for guessing the message). In York we opted for a rally, alongside getting students to sign a petition to local Tory MP Julian Sturdy to condemn the coalition’s plans. As ever, a diversity of tactics is needed.
I talked to a spokesperson for the Student Assembly Against Austerity, Fiona Edwards, who agreed that the student movement is coming back to life. “There is an upturn in struggle within the student movement. Students’ living standards are being hit hard by the Tories’ austerity offensive, and just as with other sections of society, we aren’t prepared to accept this without a fight.”
The coalition seems to be trying to down-play the sell-off and push it under the radar. After the Day of Action, it looks less certain they’ll get away with it, however. “Wednesday’s day of action has sounded the alarm and raised huge awareness about the next big attack on education.”
This government has made it clear that it intends to push through privatisation before 2015. That means there’s not much time left. And since Labour themselves not only introduced fees but also tripled them (years before Nick Clegg could follow suit), it’s more urgent than ever that we push the government to drop the proposals. Keep your eyes out – the student movement might be back, after all.
The next national Day of Action has now been set as the 3rd of February. Over 100 people and 10 campuses have already pledged to join the action within a couple of hours of the announcement. Find out more here: https://www.facebook.com/events/237473933084637/237497453082285
Josiah Mortimer organised York’s protest and sits on the National Committee of the Young Greens, the youth branch of the Green Party of England and Wales.