I have been asked to present on behalf of Notts Students Against Cuts and Fees. We are committed to collective decision-making and have members at institutions city-wide, so I’m here not as a leader or representative, but simply to explain the views of the group.
We are committed to high-quality, inclusive education as a social as well as a personal good: to education as a right not a privilege. We have been taking action over recent weeks to defend those principles.
After the Second World War it was recognised that the people of this country deserved education and public services that offered a human, dignified standard of living to all citizens. A covenant was made with the people that promised that each coming generation would have a better deal and better life chances than their parents. In Higher Education this saw its incarnation through free courses and maintenance grants. Students gained knowledge, critical thinking and a sense of community through their university studies and repaid society through the social value of their work and through a progressive tax system. Under this model, Higher Education, while still most accessible to the wealthy, saw greater and more fairly spread participation than at any other time in history. Members of the government and the management of this and other universities reaped the benefits but are now preparing to break that covenant (already damaged by New Labour’s introduction of capped fees) and tell the next generation that they do not deserve the same treatment.
This is not necessary and there are alternatives. Despite the fact that the current financial crisis was caused by the greed of bankers, mortgage lenders and big business and could be addressed by the scrapping of trident or the proper enforcement of corporate taxes, it has been decided that those who will pay for the crisis will be ordinary people. Public sector workers, benefits claimants, school children, people with disabilities, asylum seekers and students are losing their jobs and essential services while the richest thousand in the UK amassed an extra 80 billion of wealth last year.
Tuition fees of £9,000 per year would undoubtedly deter many from daring to believe that they could enter Higher Education and would saddle all students from normal backgrounds with a lifetime of debt, which they would very likely still be paying when it came to sending their own children to university. If the measures to be voted on this Thursday pass into law, then the future of millions of young and returning potential students and the social cohesiveness of our society will be irrevocably damaged. But it’s not just tuition fees. The end of the Education Maintenance Allowance and Adult Learning Grants; the withdrawal of teaching funding in Arts and Humanities subjects; the loss of much of the funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages, along with swathes of other regressive measures all tend the same way. If they come into being we will see a less independent, less academically rigorous, less inclusive and less socially meaningful system of education.
It is incomprehensible that those steering the best universities in the country can wish to see that picture become a reality. That is why we are asking the Vice Chancellor today to commit to the following action:
1. Lobby the Russell Group and the government and issue a statement condemning all cuts to Higher Education and the EMA and the rise in tuition fees
2. Implement a complete open-book policy in regard to existing budget constraints
3. Ensure no redundancies for teaching, research or support staff
It was in order to bring about these aims that we went into occupation at the University of Nottingham. While today is about the issues, not the occupation, the fact that this meeting is taking place because of that occupation means that it merits comment.
The occupation was undertaken because the university had failed to engage with its students and staff on these vital issues and because the need to fight the measures was becoming daily more urgent. The occupation was suspended during its fourth day after negotiations to secure this meeting. Our demands had not been met but we believed that the opportunity for all students and staff, not only those who were part of our occupation, to talk directly to their Vice Chancellor in front of the media and urge him to defend their education had to be given priority. We have had to take on trust that the views expressed in today’s meeting will be used constructively. There has been a suspension of our occupation and not an end to our struggle. We will continue to take action until the policies of the university and government have been reversed.
The occupation was a fantastic example of what can be achieved by people working together, not only because it compelled the university’s management to engage with the true university – its staff, students and community – in unprecedented fashion, but also because of the culture of learning, co-operation and respect by which it operated. It was a space for real education through dynamic lectures and workshops, a space where young people were able to to manage their community collectively, a space where food and resources belonged to all, a space where all views were heard and respected. It also had powerful meaning outside the university. We received hundreds of visits, donations and messages of solidarity. These came from teachers and other staff of the university who could see that our struggle was also to defend their jobs and an institution for which they could work with pride. They came from FE and school students who knew it was their future for which we were fighting. They came from unionists, ex-students, ordinary people from around the country and groups from around the world. They supported us because they could see that what we value is what they too value – a university that belongs to the community and a country that cares about all its citizens equally.
We ask now for one more body to offer its solidarity and that is the management of university that we are fighting to defend and improve.