Reclaim your Education Speech Mark II (Or: what I would have said in 7, instead of 5 mins)

Last night I spoke – at short notice – at the University of Sheffield Students’ Union panel discussion on “What Next for the Student Movement and the Future of Higher Education?”. I thought I’d not have enough to say, and as it happens I had too much! Here’s all the things I would’ve said if I had 2 more minutes:

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What Next for Higher Education?

In the last few years we’ve seen a huge assault on students in higher and further education.

We’re now being asked to pay £9000 a year for a University education. This will mean that the average student debt will rise from the already astounding £23,000 for a degree to above £40,000. Before students even want to take out a mortgage, they’ll be lumbered with crushing levels of debt.

The slashing of EMA will also cut thousands of students out of higher education. The Institute of Fiscal Studies found that the EMA increased the proportion of young people who stayed in education from 65% to 69% among 16 year olds. The figures were from 54% to 61% among 17 year-olds.

The EMA made a real difference to people’s lives and it’s a travesty that it’s been abolished.

Even if those students do actually make it to University, when they get here they’ll face bursary cuts, insufficient loans and rising rents. All of this has led to the finding, set out in a recent report from NUS, that poorer students who can’t rely on financial help from their parents have to work 33 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, in order to cope with a cash shortfall of £8,566. This is all because the loans that students are entitled to take-out don’t cover living costs.

It’s no wonder that UCAS has reported an 8% drop in applications. Students are being priced out of higher education

If all this is a bit bleak, it’s because – and I don’t mind repeating this – what we face are some of the biggest attacks on Higher Education we’ve seen.

So to answer the question: all this is what’s next for Higher Education. And the only way we change this is if we fight what’s going on.

Without continuing the pressure, we’d be giving a green light to the Tories to do whatever they want. The demo last week was a great start. I think it’s brilliant that so many students – from this University especially – went to London in the pouring rain to demonstrate against the new fees regime.

It really shows that there’s a passionate feeling against what the government is trying to do.

But we’ve said, repeatedly, here at the Reclaim Your Education Campaign, that this is just the beginning. We need further actions, demonstrations and lobbies of parliament. We need a vibrant campaign that continues the good work of the last couple of months; the work that’s mobilised – here in Sheffield – hundreds of students against Tory plans for higher education.

And I think one of the crucial things we need to do is argue for our own alternative. It’s all very well saying we’re against the government, but we won’t win without a clear idea of what we want.

We shouldn’t forget that before this whole process began – the process started by the Browne review – that British big business contributed the least to the higher education sector of all the European countries.

In a sense, it’s absolutely correct to say that the student finance system needed changing. British business should have been paying its fair share. In fact at that time, we could – and should – have abolished tuition fees altogether. The UCU tells us that – at that time – we could have financed a completely free higher education system by increasing corporation tax to the European average on just the largest 2 or so % of British corporations.

In this context it’s absolutely disgraceful that we’re witnessing a huge transfer of the cost of University from the state and industry, to the student. We were already contributing far more to the system than any other European country.

Let’s be clear, for all the Tories’ talk in the media that we need a return to economic growth, this policy of transferring the cost of education to students is an anti-growth policy.

The government’s own figures show that for every pound invested in higher education, the economy expands by £2.60. The Treasury’s models show that half of this – £1.30 – comes back in tax revenue. The OECD has published similar figures.

Money spent on education isn’t thrown down a wishing well. It gives the government extra income – on each pound spent – to pay off the national debt or invest in other public services. And it’s not just me saying this. Paul Krugman and Joseph Stieglitz – two Nobel laureates in economics – agree with me. Stieglitz has said:

Investments in technology, education and infrastructure […] will stimulate the economy and create jobs in the short run and promote growth and debt reduction in the long run.

We need to increase the level of investment, by the state, into education, not transfer the cost to students. We’ve seen the catastrophic effect on student numbers this has had. An 8% reduction in student numbers is the exact opposite direction in which we should be moving.

The choice here is stark and it’s all about what kind of society we want to live in. We can either live in a country which depends upon high finance and the City of London; where the majority of people work in low skills, low wage jobs with few employment rights; where a lost generation live in comparative deprivation and hardship.

Or we can invest in infrastructure, technology and I think – most importantly – a Green New Deal to create a new, green, economic programme dedicated to producing growth and green jobs.

To do this we need to increase the level of educational attainment, not lower it. It’s unacceptable that our level of university participation is at 42%, when the OECD average is 57%. It’s even more unacceptable when we look to much poorer countries than our own, like Venezuela, who have a participation rate of 83%! This is in no doubt due to the fact that higher education in Venezuela is completely free.

Of course, all this involves fighting to change the government’s current funding priorities. There’s one area in which I do wholeheartedly believe in cuts, and that’s military spending.

We need to fund education, not war.

Every year, without even factoring in the massive cost of the Trident nuclear missiles system, the government spends £33 billion on the military.

A quarter of this would pay to bring back EMA, scrap fees (that includes fees for international students) and bring in a living grant, instead of a loan, for home students.

So, I’ll close by saying that the future of Higher Education – what’s next? as this meeting asks – is pretty bleak. It’ll be pretty bleak unless we step up to what I think is a historic task – the historic task of defending Higher Education.

In my view the only way forward for the student movement is to argue for investment in a free higher education system that will service the needs of the kind of society in which we want to live; a society with high standards of living and a green, high skills economy. To do this, we need to continue to mobilise in our droves against the government’s plans for Higher Education. This meeting is a great place to start talking about how we do that.

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Why “Fund Education, Not War” is important

One of the best political groups to come out of the University of Sheffield in a long time is the Fund Education, Not War campaign. The massive breadth and depth of support the group has garnered – there were just over eighty people present at the launch event, and around twenty people regularly attend the open organising meetings – is impressive. The campaign has brought together activists involved in societies like Amnesty International, Ethical and Environmental Committee, CND, Stop the War Coalition and the Palestine Society (and more). The diversity of the campaign, and the number of activists involved, is an inspiration.

But this isn’t the principle reason that Fund Education, Not War is important.

The government has spun a crisis of investment into a crisis of public debt. The deficit in Britain is overwhelmingly a symptom of a decline in private investment. Unable to guarantee profits in the turbulence following the 2008 crash, the private sector stopped investing, the economy ceased to grow and tax receipts declined, punching a hole in the public finances.

As cuts devastate the public sector and higher education, private companies now register a return to record profits, yet still refuse to invest. The government has hiked fees for students to a massive £9000 at the same time as it has said that it will reduce corporation tax to a meagre 23% by 2015. It is rebalancing the economy even further away from wages, towards profits – from maintaining the living standards of the 99%, to increasing the living standards of the 1%. Justified by a hysterical cry to cut the deficit – a cry to cure the symptom, not the disease – the government is rushing to restore profitability at the expense of the majority.

As it is on the national stage, so it is on the international stage. The clarion call of “profits first” echoes across the globe at the same time as Western politicians – aided by the media – beat a march to further war in the Middle East.

It is has become a cliché that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought for oil. This makes it no less true. Similarly, it’s no accident that at a time of global economic crisis in which profits are at stake, the oldest imperial powers renew a vicious assault on the Middle East, from their attempts to turn the tide of revolution in Tunisia, then Egypt, to the recent “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, the results of which have been catastrophic.

Having installed a puppet government which has already capitulated to the economic needs of Western big business, all concern for human rights has been abandoned. As Tawergha is emptied of its Black population, as Black people are beaten and forced into cages and as the government signs the extra-judicial executions of those it arbitrarily deems to be the agents of Gaddafi, the advocates of liberal interventionism now turn their eyes to Syria and Iran, ignoring the abuses of the rebels they supported, whilst loudly condemning the human rights abuses of those they do not.

This ideological capriciousness is a function of the real motive for military and political intervention – the bolstering of a political superstructure that sanctions the easy extraction of profits from the region.

It is our military that has facilitated the creation of this superstructure, partly funded by the redirection of funds from Higher Education into military spending. Although many on the political Right bemoan the underfunding of “defence”, the government’s special reserves – reserves only ever used for war – have increased. To maintain its position of military power, the government proposes spending hundreds of billions on the Trident missile system. Money once used to educate the 99% is now being used to subsidise military adventures designed to benefit the 1%.

Perversely, it is the arms companies profiting from the wars fought by western governments who step into the funding breach. A recent Fund Education, Not War FAQ points out that the University of Sheffield has taken over £41 million from arms companies.

FENW started from the premise that a moral commitment to human life means that Universities should not be taking money from arms companies that make weapons designed to kill thousands of people. It was an alliance of people united in attempting to stop the watering down of the Students’ Union policy against the University of Sheffield’s dealings with the arms trade. It has subsequently expanded into a critique of the system which produces the University’s reliance on arms companies for funding.

The strength and vibrancy of the campaign is in this embryonic, but nevertheless valuable, critique. In bringing the peace movement into dialogue with the anti-cuts movement, the campaign is one of the most exciting in which I’ve had the pleasure to be involved. The lesson inhering in this success is that broad, united front campaigns are created by taking hold of the immediate political problem of the day and using it to illuminate a broader understanding of the system that produces it. As one famous Bolshevik wrote:

Every question “runs in a vicious circle” because political life as a whole is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm a grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain.

FENW is important and exciting because it is beginning to grasp that chain and use it to pull a not insignificant number of students to its cause.

Thousands march against fees – the fightback has started

My article on the 10.11.10 National Student Demo over at Student Broad Left:

Yesterday, tens of thousands of angry students and lecturers marched on the streets of London in opposition to the coalition government’s plans to make England’s university education system one of the most expensive in the world.

As angry protesters marched past Parliament, inside the House of Commons Labour’s Harriet Harman was busy humiliating Deputy PM Nick Clegg as he stood in for David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Harman’s opening question set the tone: “In April this year the Deputy Prime Minister said that it was his aim to end university tuition fees. Can he update the House on how his plans are progressing?” A further nine questions on the government’s plans to hike tuition fees and the Lib Dems u-turn on student debt were fired at Clegg as the sounds of students chanting “no ifs, no buts, no education cuts” resounded through the corridors of Parliament.

Student anger on the demonstration was particularly targeted against the Lib Dem MPs – with chants like “Nick Clegg, shame on you – shame on you for turning blue” amongst the most popular.

A vital next step in our campaigning to stop a trebling of fees to £9,000 per year must be turning the heat up on Lib Dem MPs – all of whom signed a pre-election NUS pledge to vote against any increase in fees.

We need local protests in every single Lib Dem constituency.

Another massive demonstration should also be called by NUS and the UCU on a Saturday in the run-up to the vote in the Commons.

Winning this struggle to defeat higher fees and education cuts requires a broad, united, mass movement which links up with the hundreds of thousands of people becoming concerned with the ConDem cuts. Yesterday’s demonstration was a fantastic start. Let’s build on the momentum.

Fighting the Browne review means making the case for investment in our Universities

The UCU are entirely correct to say that the recommendations of the Browne review of higher education amount to a privatisation of the British HE sector. Were these recommendations implemented, it would radically change the face of tertiary education in this country –three year degrees could cost as much as £68,000, the market in fees could mean a return to a two-tier HE system, parents may have to take the monstrous decision of choosing which of their children to send to University. The coalition government, whilst seeming to have hysterical concern for the public deficit, appears to have a callous disregard for private, household debt. Far from being distinct, the two issues are intimately interlinked.

The dividing line in this debate is simple and best described with a question – do you believe that students should pay more for their degree? I have argued elsewhere that, in the current context, proposals to charge students more for their education are highly iniquitous. In Britain, students already contribute far more to their education than in the rest of Europe. This comparatively high levy on students has taken its toll on participation rates – in the last ten years, our rates of participation have slipped from third in the list of OECD nations, to fifteenth.

From a moralistic perspective, this is itself alarming. But we need more than a sense of moral outrage to win the fight against the Browne review. From an economic perspective, the statistic is also a cause for concern. To survive as a highly skilled economy, Britain needs highly skilled workers.

Cuts to the teaching budgets of universities of up to 80% will exacerbate this comparative decline in university graduates. As a result of this cut, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimate that tuition fees will have to rise to £7000 simply to maintain the same levels of investment in teaching as before. Cuts in the provision of public money to Universities necessarily translate into tuition fee hikes.

The million dollar question is whether these cuts are necessary. The Free Education Campaign has recently posted an article on the foremost Left-of-centre blog in Britain, Left Foot Forward, on how investment in higher education yields economic returns. Drawing on evidence from the OECD and the Treasury’s own figures, they show that for every £1 invested in the HE system, the economy expands by £2.60, around £1.30 of which comes back in tax revenues. Of course, Higher Education is also vital for high level research. As the economist, Mick Burke, points out, investment in scientific research also reaps massive rewards for the public finances. In short, investment in HE actually makes the government money. It’s therefore part and parcel of closing the deficit in the public finances.

Vince Cable’s stated reason for embracing the Browne review – the state of the public finances necessitates a greater student contribution – is revealed as nothing but Thatcherite rhetoric. As my friend and colleague in the Free Education Campaign, Fiona Edwards, writes:

Missing from his argument has been the central role higher education could play both in reviving the economy now and in promoting long term prosperity and growth in the future.

We need to make sure this point isn’t also missing from our arguments against Browne’s proposals. Uniting and mobilising the broadest possible alliance to reject the review is hugely important. But to make the strong political alliances we need, we also have to make the robust economic case for greater investment in our Higher Education system.

The Graduate Tax: An Ideological Dead-End for Students

Discussion with several people around Sheffield Union indicates that some, wrongly in my opinion, see the graduate tax as a step forward for students. There are three points that are made to support this position. The first is that the tax is progressive – graduates would pay a sum matched to their earnings, as opposed to a blanket rate of interest that kicks in at a certain income threshold. The second is that there is a psychological difference between “debt”, on the one hand, and a “tax” on the other. “Debt” will deter prospective students, “tax” will not. The third is that the graduate tax, although not perfect, is the only politically viable option – to argue for a reduction in the contribution of graduates is wishful thinking. I examine each argument in turn.

Any discussion about the proposed tax has to be put within the more general context of the existing funding system. As it happens, the balance between the contribution of students, the state and the corporate sector is, in comparison to other European countries and America, weighted favourably toward the British corporate sector. British business, according to Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, has a good deal, paying on average 24% less towards the cost of the HE system than its continental comparators. Within this context, calls for graduates to pay more for their education cannot be seen as a step forward – a larger graduate contribution simply exacerbates the existing imbalances.

This is exactly what those proposing a graduate tax advocate. The NUS estimates that the majority of students will pay more under their plans for a graduate tax than they do under the current tuition fee system. Although the tax would link this payment to earnings, the vast majority of those leaving university would be worse off. In this respect, arguing for a graduate tax is akin to arguing for higher tuition fees for the majority of graduates – hardly a step forward.

Regardless of the psychological effects of re-branding an increase in tuition fees as a “tax”, increasing the graduate contribution is objectively an attack on the living standards of those on medium and, indeed, low incomes – an attack made all the worse by the imbalanced context in which it takes place.

Not all graduates leaving higher education go into medium income jobs. Graduates on lower incomes may face higher tax rates than colleagues earning similar amounts of money who have not been to university – this amounts to a selective tax hike on low earners. This iniquity is the natural result of any tax based on use, a concept which itself flies in the face of any progressive ethos of taxation.

It’s in this sense that the graduate tax proposal indicates a worrying attempt to ideologically entrench a consumerist view of taxation, as opposed to the historical use for which taxes have been used – redistribution. This consumerist ideology is contrary to the principle that any robust defence of a publicly funded HE system must adhere – that investment in our universities is good for the economy and therefore society, not just the individual. In this respect, the graduate tax is an ideological and rhetorical dead-end for the student movement.

Naturally, this ideological dead-end has political consequences. In winning their demand for a graduate tax, NUS would make it harder to argue for a greater contribution from the state or big business. To do so, after espousing the virtues of a system which charges graduates more, would be massively inconsistent.

It cannot be stressed enough that the participants in the HE funding debate also shape it. The demand for a graduate tax frames the debate in the wrong way – the fundamental issue for the student movement is not about what form a graduate contribution should take, but about how much that contribution should be. Arguing for a graduate tax causes the debate to revolve around the wrong choice – a choice between two ways of increasing the graduate burden. It moves the debate to the political right.

While some see Vince Cable’s endorsement of a graduate tax as a victory, it can be more accurately described, I think, as an indication that Cable sees the tax for what it is – a way of increasing the burden on students that engenders minimal political opposition. After all, the NUS leadership cannot oppose it because they endorse this form of increased graduate contribution. In this respect, they’ve made it easier, not harder, to increase the burden on graduates. This is a tug-of-war contest – the student movement cannot win by “triangulating” and giving ground. If it does, the rope will only continue to be pulled in the wrong direction.