UNITED KINGDOM: Students Fight the Fees

Against the Current, No. 151, March/April 2011

interview with Ashok Kumar

ASHOK KUMAR WAS a student activist in Madison, WI. He is now the full-time Education Officer of the Student Union of the London School of Economics. Until recently, the LSE was under occupation in protest to the cuts, and the LSE Students’ Union has been central in the fight-back against austerity measures. Ashok has been a leading voice against the government’s policies appearing on ITV, Sky, CNN, BBC World, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, and The Times. In addition to sitting on the Steering Committee of the Education Activist Network (EAN), he is a founding signatory of the Coalition of Resistance (COR) and activist in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). Against the Current interviewed him in December 2010.

Against the Current: What issues are students facing in the United Kingdom and what are the principal demands of the new student movement?

Ashok Kumar: Until 1998, universities in the UK were entirely free and all students received maintenance grants to pay for housing, food, books, and any additional cost incurred during study. In 1998 New Labour [the governing Labour Party — ed.] introduced £1000 fees, in 1999 maintenance grants were abolished, and by 2006 the same Labour government had introduced “top up fees” raising the cap to £3,000.

The government also proposed abolishing the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) which provides low-income students between the ages of 16-19 between £10 and £30 per week to pay for transportation, food, books and other necessities.

Right now UK/Home undergraduate fees stand at £3,200 per year, with the government paying a subsidy of £2,700 to the host university in the form of teaching grants (“t-grants”). The Comprehensive Spending Review was announced on October 20th, and recommended a 100% cut in t-grants for all non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects.

At LSE, that meant nearly a 100% cut. At institutions like SOAS, Goldsmiths, or University of the Arts that meant 100% government cut. So in a little under 13 years we’ve gone from students leaving university with money in their pocket, to students expected to leave with mortgage-style debts.

The demands of the student movement are diverse. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) and the Education Activist Network (EAN) have always called for free education and maintenance grants for all. These are the groups that have led the movement in the post-November 10th/Millbank protests environment.

The policy of the National Union of Students (NUS) had always been free education paid through progressive taxation, but within the last two years, under the leadership of NUS president Wes Streeting, that policy was changed to the Graduate Tax, which would replace front-end tuition fees and allow students to repay the cost of their education once they began working.

The University and Colleges Union (UCU) lecturers’ union, as well as the EAN and NCAFC, saw the graduate tax as simply a “rebranding of fees,” arguing that the graduate tax only perpetuates the marketization of higher education in which individual students would end up paying more for their education while actually receiving less.

The student movement was able to skirt these disagreements was by uniting under the banner of “fight the cuts!” There was no disagreement amongst the NUS, UCU, or the EAN, NCAFC or the newly formed London Student Assembly that all government cuts, including the scrapping of EMA, should be opposed. The November 10th Demonstration was billed as an anti-cuts demonstration, even though the NUS attempted to slip in the Graduate Tax Blueprint rhetoric of “Fund Our Futures.”

On November 10th, thousands of students from dozens of universities met at the University of London Union (ULU) and LSE as the Free Education Bloc in the national demo. Students were also able to find common ground in opposition to the Liberal Democrats, who before becoming coalition partners with the Tories had taken a pre-election pledge to oppose all fee hikes.

November 10 became the starting point for the new student movement. The irrelevance of the NUS became more apparent as three national demonstrations, with hundreds of thousands of students at each — November 24, November 30 and December 9 — were called without the support of NUS. Over 35 universities went into occupation with their own set of demands, but only the tacit approval of NUS President Aaron Porter who agreed that he had been “spinelessly dithering” in not supporting student action.

The passage of the fee hike on December 9 does not show any sign of deterring the student movement. Students and workers are constantly reminded that the government simply winning a vote in parliament does not mean the fight is over.

Most of the riots against Thatcher’s Poll Tax in the 1980s took place after the law was passed, but the law was repealed and she was forced to resign. In France, the urban revolt of 2005 continued into the strikes and student protests of 2006 against the hated CPE employment law. After a month of strikes and mass protests the government withdrew the CPE laws.

ATC: The United Kingdom hasn’t seen this type of large protest movement for many years. How did it start and how was it built?

AK: It is difficult to isolate the variables for why any social movement rises or falls, but there are a few reasons for the scale of the protests. The antiwar demos, mass walkouts of the early 2000s and the university occupations against Israel’s invasion of Gaza, normalized these tactics for the current generation of students. It wasn’t a stretch to call for walkouts on the 24th of November and university occupations up and down the country immediately afterward.

The last time we witnessed such cuts and an attempt to lift the cap on fees was in 1985 under Thatcher. In the wake of the bitter losses of the miners’ strike, mass student unrest successfully squashed the fee hikes. Since 1998 we’ve witnessed the Labour government pushing through fee hikes, cuts to education and abolition of maintenance grants.

The NUS never opposed these measures in constructive ways, because of the intimate relationship the official student movement has always had with New Labour. The fact that we now have a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has broadened the coalition of resistance to include those sympathetic to the Labour party and the soft-left. By drawing the organic links between students and workers we have also been able to see a level of support by trade unionists throughout the protests.

The mistake of the coalition government was the abolition of EMA, one of the only genuine educational reforms by New Labour. This action pulled tens of thousands of outraged Secondary (age 14-16), Sixth Form (age 16-18) and Further Education (FE) (age 16+) students into the fight.

The fact that all UK higher education institutions, with the exception of two, are government universities makes it easier in the UK to organize around a singular target. In the United States, rarely do we find university funding or fee battles taking place at the national level.

At last spring’s NUS Conference, left factions were able to pass a motion for NUS to call for a national demonstration in the autumn. It was on the back of this call that Aaron Porter, to his credit, called for a UCU/NUS joint demonstration.

The NUS was taken aback by the mass numbers on the November 10th Demo. The National Union of Students and the Metropolitan Police expected a mere 10,000 students to march that day, yet over 52,000 students marched, making it the largest student demonstration in British history.

The movement was built off the backs of the occupation at 30 Millbank — headquarters of the Tory Party. Before the November 10 demonstrations there were many targets that affinity groups had planned to occupy. Hundreds of students went to the Treasury, and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

But the defining moment of that day was at Millbank, where by 1 pm over 5,000 students had smashed through the front lobby, taken over the roof and had completely surrounded the building.

If history remembers anything from these protests, I believe Millbank will be at the top of it. I believe it was this occupation that inspired the 130,000 Secondary, Sixth Form, and FE school students to walk out on the 24th of November, as well as the mass demonstration of the 30th of November and December 9th, and the over 35 universities that went into occupation.

At LSE, we occupied the corridor of Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes’ constituency office for four hours before being escorted out by police. Our action led to a meeting with Hughes, and subsequently, an agreement by him to vote against the fee hike.

A week later, the Students’ Union fully backed the occupation at LSE after an Emergency Union General Meeting vote (464 in favour and 291 against), Immediately afterward, we went into occupation. The nine-day LSE occupation was a microcosm of the larger movement: Hundreds of students and lecturers occupied, gave lectures, and organized more targeted demonstrations along with delegations from other university occupations.

ATC: The new leader of the largest trade union in England, Len McCluskey of UNITE, recently said, “Their mass protests against the tuition fees increase have refreshed the political parts a hundred debates, conferences and resolutions could not reach.” He indicated that unions would meet in January to plan for a major offensive against the austerity plans with an eye for working with the student movement. What has been the role of trade unions so far and what prospects do you see for future united action among students and workers?

AK: In September the left-wing leadership of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) Bob Crow, Public and Commercial Services Union’s (PCS) Mark Serwotka, the National Union of Journalists’ Jeremy Dear, and the Fire Brigades Union’s (FBU) Matt Wrack, pressured the Trade Union Council (TUC) to pass a motion calling for “united and coordinated industrial action” against government cuts. Until recently, this call did not include the big three: UNITE, Unison, and GMT.

As UNITE’s General Secretary “Red” Len McCluskey can attest, the student movement has inspired millions of workers around the country. Following the general strikes in France, Greece and Spain in recent years, it may not be too optimistic to predict that the UK could see something similar in the spring of 2010, a first since 1926.

The unions are realizing that the Con-Dem coalition is not only weak, but if it breaks the government’s massive cuts to pensioners, the National Health Service and the entire welfare state need not go through as planned.

In November, both the University and College Union (UCU) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) voted to ballot for industrial action, and this ballot will be taking place in February. Tanker drivers in UNITE are now balloting around the country for strike action. On December 9th, the day of the vote in Parliament, students held pickets at their schools so that teachers in the NUT could attend the demonstration without calling for an illegal strike.

In November, the FBU called two days of strike action, BBC workers in the NUJ also had a two-day strike, and the RMT have had four strike days in the last few months nearly crippling public transportation in London.

Most recently, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) announced that any plans to privatize the Royal Mail would be met with national strike action. (Oddly enough, the TUC national demonstration has not been called until March 26th.)

In my own involvement with trade union activities, such as Camden Against the Cuts, we have found a genuine interest to replicate the occupations that have happened at the universities at people’s workplaces and town halls. This has led to unprecedented police presence and militarism at trades union protests in Lewisham, Camden and Brighton. There is a real fear by the political elite that the militancy of the student movement is being picked up by workers.

While it is a step in the right direction, one-day strikes will not dent the ideological drive of the government. It is only through all-out, coordinated, industrial action that brings in the wider forces such as pensioners, the unemployed, and students that we’ll see the country grind to a halt. As my German friend always says, “4,000 students can shut down a bridge, 4,000 workers can shut down a country.” The only way to win is by making the country ungovernable, and some signs point in that direction.

ATC: Students are often dismissed as a spoiled, privileged group. Have you seen any of this discourse in the media? What is your sense of the public perception of the student movement? What is the actual class make-up of the student movement?

AK: “We’re from the slums of east London. How do they expect us to pay £9,000 for uni fees. And EMA was the only thing keeping us in college. What’s stopping us from doing drug deals on the streets any more? Nothing.” So said a masked, anonymous protestor to the BBC.

Students are dismissed by the right-wing media as having to “also share the burden” of the cuts — cuts that are an outgrowth of a recession caused by the now bailed-out banks, fuelled by ideological commitment to neoliberalism. Much of the legitimacy of the movement is due to the broken promises of the Liberal Democrats, who promised not to raise fees.

Indeed, there is a sharp divide between those who attend Higher Education (HE) University and those who attend Further Education (FE) or Sixth Form colleges. These latter colleges are far more representative of the general population than universities, and are still free. While the movement before November 10 was led by mostly white, mostly middle class students, subsequently we have found that the protests have been almost completely led by FE, sixth form and Secondary School students, who are largely working class and represent a much higher number of students of color.

Recently, the fascist English Defense League, which claims thousands of members and has been terrorizing the South Asian community in recent years, threatened that “the next time the students want to protest in our capital, the English Defense League will be there.” This is undoubtedly linked to the changing makeup of the protests.

Those fighting to preserve their EMA can’t be portrayed as coming from privileged backgrounds, since it is entirely means-tested and you must be in need to qualify.

It is difficult for those who attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the movement to fall back on tired clichés of student protests. Recent media coverage of the protests reported on the appearance of “gangs.” David Cameron has spoken of “feral” protestors.

The racism becomes clearer as protests have progressed. As James Meadway of Counterfire aptly puts it “A young, white protestor from Hampstead is a ‘student.’ A young, black protestor from Hackney is a ‘gang member.’ Never mind that both may be attending the same college.”

ATC: Have students occupied other targets besides their universities?

AK: From the Tate Modern, to MP constituent offices, to the UK treasury, we have found that occupations have been used well beyond the boundaries of the universities Targets for protestors included wealthy tax avoiders like Philip Green, the owner of Topshop, a high street clothing store. Philip Green’s wife, Tina, has dodged £1.2 billion in tax by living in tax-haven Monaco. Green has now been appointed by the government to oversee “efficiency guidelines” in the public sector.

Most recently occupations took place in over 55 cities against corporate tax dodgers. Students have been highlighting the reality that these cuts are ideological. Even before the university occupations began, Vodaphone, one of the UK’s largest network providers, saw dozens of its outlets occupied around the country against over £6 billion of unpaid taxes. Many of these protests were led by an autonomous organization called “UK-uncut”.

ATC: What’s next for the student movement?

AK: By the time this goes to print things may have changed, but one mantra that we’ve seen at almost every occupation is “this is just the beginning…” That truly is the sense by students. Beginning next term we could see a new wave of action, occupations and strikes. In 2011, we may see even larger scale occupations of university finance building, fees offices, and vice-chancellor’s chambers.

The union strikes and demonstrations will only go to strengthen the student struggle. Fees have not been implemented, Education Maintenance Allowance has not been abolished, and the cuts are yet to come home — this is just the beginning.  

ATC 151, March-April 2011