Join the facebook event for the demonstration here.
Mary Finch a activist from Leeds For Free Education who is involved in organising the protest, writes why students should join the protest on 6 March. This comment piece is written in a personal capacity.
Since the Con-Dem government came to power in 2010, we’ve seen relentless austerity, privatisation, and attacks on public services. One of the hardest hit has been education.
Universities have had funding slashed; college students have lost EMA completely. Private companies are taking over at all levels of education, providing more and more services that were once public and state-run – not to mention that they’re making tidy profits doing it.
They infamously trebled tuition fees to £9,000, despite a huge movement of students against it. 50,000 of us marched on Parliament, demanding that the Lib Dems stay true to their promises, and ensure that fees stayed at £3,000. Even when universities charged £3,000 fees, students were left with a huge amount of debt – often one that they weren’t ever able to pay off.
Those students who are lucky enough to get a job when they graduate will most likely be working for below the living wage, often on a zero hour contract. Those graduates who are ‘lucky’ enough to get these kind of jobs will most likely be barely able to afford their sky-high rent, and pay for bills and food afterwards. 1 million people are using food banks to survive. Over 1.4 million people in the UK are on zero-hour contracts. According to the Centre for Economic Policy Research, the UK is has one of the highest rates of low-paid employment of all the advanced economies in the world.
If we’re just scraping by to survive with low wages and a high cost of living, how are we supposed to afford another outgoing every month? How are students expected to pay off £3,000 a year fees – let alone £9,000? International students pay drastically more than £9,000 every year. How are we expected to pay it back?
There is, of course, the repayment threshold – the government will only start chipping into your income once you’re earning £21,000 and above. But our safety net is under threat. Some government advisers think we should freeze it at £21,000 – meaning the threshold won’t rise in line with average earnings. As our real wages go down, and the cost of living rises, we have less disposable income. To counteract this, the threshold goes up – but if it’s frozen, graduates will be forced start paying it back when they can’t afford it.
It’s only an adviser – but then, last year, the government was seriously considering privatising the student loan company completely. Private companies exist, of course, to make profit. With the large majority of students unable to pay back all of their debt, there’s no prospect for long-term profit – they’d need to make money and make it fast. So that would have meant not only that a private company would be collecting student’s debt –also that repayment thresholds would be lowered and interest rates raised. The Lib Dems abandoned these plans last summer, in the wake of a wave of student protests, and attempts to pander to the student vote in the run up to the 2015 general election. But we’re yet to hear any commitments from the other main parties on the issue.
The situation for students and graduates is bleak. But we haven’t been apathetic – 50,000 students marched in 2010 for fees not to be trebled. 10,000 students marched in November 2014 for free education, despite the NUS shamefully pulling support for the demonstration just two weeks beforehand. And those demonstrations in 2010, and 2014, and all those in between, raised a far more important question: should students be paying tuition fees at all?
Students can just about afford to repay their loans under the current system of repayment thresholds. But the money we have to spare to repay our student loans is nothing compared to what big business is making in profits every year, and hoarding in tax havens abroad. 1% of the world’s population control half the world’s resources! Students can just about afford to pay for education – but big business and the government can afford it far, far more. Why don’t we use those greater, almost abundant resources? We could close the tax loopholes big business and the rich 1% take serious advantage of, and collect what they owe to the state. We could raise taxes on them, and thus raise government revenue, rather than giving them tax breaks as this government has done. Ultimately, we could nationalise the key sectors of the economy, and run them in our interests – and use the money to fund education for generations to come. The possibilities if we controlled that kind of wealth, and invested it in the future of students and young people, are limitless.
If we’re going to win those concessions, we’re going to need more than just anger, or determination. We need an organised movement, and mostly importantly, we need leadership. The National Union of Students has not just let students down in the past five years – in many cases, they’ve actively held the movement back, such as their last-minute abandonment of the November 2014 demonstration. When the threat of student loan privatisation was looming last year, their pathetic response was that as long as terms and conditions weren’t changed, they had no opposition to it. Private companies running our education system, so we make profits instead of learn, is not a problem for the right-wing NUS leadership.
But our student union can be reclaimed. A mass movement of students, actively participating within the union’s structures, would force them to the left, and force them to act as leaders. And that’s exactly what the Labour-dominated leadership are afraid of. They’re afraid to rock the boat, and more importantly, they’re afraid of the conclusions that students will draw from struggle: that Labour are just as pro-cuts and pro-business as every other party.
Leeds For Free Education is building links with students and trade unions, to organise the student movement into a regional free education demonstration, on the 6th March 2015. Ten thousand students marched in November 2014 for free education. If we campaign, if we organise, if we fight, we can make that twenty thousand. Fifty thousand, like it’s 2010 again. But this time, we won’t be defeated. We have clear demands, and we have the anger to make them happen. We will push our leadership to genuinely lead us. We will force this austerity government, and every other austerity party, to their knees, and we will win free education again.