The idea that higher fees lead to better education is a complete fallacy. In the past seven years, while tuition fees have been tripled, the proportion of universities’ money actually spent on teaching has been falling. Lecturers have faced a real-terms pay cut of over 14%, with more and more hired on insecure contracts and paid for fewer hours than they work (which is why in May this year UCU took strike action after an abysmal pay rise offer of 1.1%). All this while senior management pay is skyrocketing (Bath’s VC has a pay-packet of over £400,000) and universities invest millions into flashy and aesthetically pleasing (though that’s up for debate) new buildings that do little to help current students (such as the new psychology building, which very few psychology students have actually had lectures in).
Improving the quality of teaching must start with investment in our staff and the resources they rely upon to further our education. Staff working conditions are student learning conditions after-all. This is why so many of us were excited that this year during the NUS National Demo, co-organised with UCU, students would be marching together with academics against the attacks on education that we all pay the price for. United for Education, in practice and not just in name.
One of the biggest problems with the demo was its lack of politics. The original demands got completely lost and that’s obvious in the media coverage (or lack thereof) we’re seeing. It felt a bit like NUS was talking to itself (i.e. to sabbs). The turnout was still better than expected, but nowhere as big as it should have been. And this isn’t to say that United for Education was terrible, it was pretty good, but not as well-executed as we desperately needed it to be, especially considering all the school / college students and workers we were told would come out on a Saturday, the money, resources and staffers it had behind it. It is the job of NUS to mobilise people!
But Saturday has proven many peoples’ concerns: that the NUS is disconnected from grassroots activism and organisations. Claiming to stand against the recently proposed reforms as a new wave of beginnings highlights clearly that they’ve become detached from the reality that this is a continuation of what has been ongoing since 2010. NUS is supposed to have educated, agitated, and organised students who are willing to destroy the FE and HE reforms, but instead they’re pandering to the moderates and SU sabbs. Yes, the NUS demo engaged lots of new people who would not usually attend, but when it comes to getting a coherent, united, and organised message across, they failed.
Even non-violent action has to be disruptive in order to have any impact, otherwise it’s just a jolly day out and little else. This can sometimes be useful, but is nowhere near powerful enough to force change on its own. Holding a National Demo against the attacks to education on a Saturday was an oversight, in part as Parliament is shut at the weekend and only tourists linger in that area so there isn’t really anyone to ‘show’, and also because it negated the impact and value of building collective walkouts in schools and colleges, which can send a strong message of dissatisfaction, as well as getting attention and disrupting the city.
So, where do we go from here? Moving forward, if we are to have any hope of defeating the HE reforms, the NUS must do a better job of organising the NSS boycott than they did the demo. Boycotting the NSS is one of the easiest ways to send a strong message to government: you won’t get our data until you give us our demands. It is possibly the easiest form of direct action students have been presented with in recent years for it mobilises the already existent apathy amongst many. Just don’t fill in the survey. It’s that simple. Why? Because the first twelve questions of the NSS are going to be utilised to form part of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which is a deeply flawed policy to the detriment of HE. It is a means for the government to raise tuition fees and indebt a further generation of students, whilst using spurious metrics (i.e.: the NSS) with little relation to teaching quality which introduces a new level of bureaucracy which takes resources away from teaching, without recognising that universities have already under-invested in teaching staff and resources.
Boycotting the NSS is the simplest way of delaying, if not fully preventing, such changes to our education system. And it can only be a success if the NUS organises and mobilises more effectively, rather than reneging to the moderates and the non-activists.
Saturday wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t as impactful as we need. There’s many lessons to be learnt, and accountability needs to be ensured if we are to move forward and destroy the reforms. There is the potential and momentum for students and staff alike to work together to form a coherent political body which is capable of great change. Improved organisation, and mobilisation, are the way to ensure our voices are heard and not just dismissed as ‘angry students’.
photo credit: Meg Murphy