by Nick Evans, Oxford EAN
Our Universities are Not Supermarkets: Education Activist Network Conference: 28 October
When Jacqui Mitchell, of University of East London UCU, complained to management about their contempt for public education, she was told: “You’ve just got it completely wrong. It’s a product.”
The education workers and students who gathered at SOAS this Sunday for the Education Activist Network conference were determined to fight for a different vision. From the opening plenary session, at which Jacqui spoke, both the scale of the coordinated attacks on our education system and the will to resist were clear. Although Willetts’ White Paper was officially shelved, speakers revealed the extent to which stratification and marketisation are being pushed through the back door. The attempt to close courses such as Manchester’s Applied Youth and Community Studies is yet another example of the way the public worth of education is being undermined for the sake of private interests.
Meanwhile, the brutality of the government’s divide and rule tactics was seen this autumn with Theresa May’s announcement that 2,500 international students at London Met were to be deported within sixty days. Mark Campbell, of London Met UCU, pointed to the perverted logic of recent developments there: the crisis that Theresa May had created had now driven the university to the point of bankruptcy, leading the government to say that private providers would have to come in. In the face of such attacks, Mark argued, we have no option but to go on the offensive. Alberto Toscano echoed this call in the final session.
The conference then moved into a series of workshops. In a session entitled ‘Our Education, Not Your Business’, the current crisis was put in the context of the changes to higher education over the past few decades. Nina Power pointed to the way post-1992 institutions were put under pressure to compete in an artificial and destructive market, while Alex Callinicos pointed to the ways in which the logic of competition is driven through universities by the Research Excellence Framework. A meeting on FE colleges called for HE and FE students to build links to put pressure on the NUS bureaucracy to take the interests of FE students seriously, and discussed how to build for the November 21st student demonstration by winning the support of NUT and UCU members in the colleges.
A meeting on the student demo on November 21st emphasised the importance of coordinating efforts with UCU and support workers, and called on EAN to produce pamphlets for the purpose. The 14th November is the date set for a European General Strike, so it was decided to call for lunch-time demonstrations and walk-outs on that day. Beyond Nov21, Osborne will be announcing the Budget on 5 December, so plans were initiated for a demonstration at parliament. A session on rent campaigns emphasised the increasing pressures students are now under. A toolkit for SUs to expose dodgy landlords was exposed, and the importance of building campaigns from the grass-roots was stressed.
Local struggles were put into international perspective with a session led by speakers from Greece, Quebec, Chile and Italy. Elisavet Mantzari of ANTARSYA pointed to the historical context of current Greek struggles, from the time of the dictatorship to the student protests that preceded the demonstrations on the memorandum. The organisational lessons that can be drawn from the victories of the Quebec students were discussed. Hope can also be drawn from the example of Chile, where many school students (known as ‘los penguinos’) involved in the 2006 revolt have now ignited the rebellion on university campuses. The same may now play out here as many FE students of 2010 enter universities.
A session on the Post-Graduate Workers Association (PGWA) looked at the conditions of post-grad teaching assistants, and the potential they have to organise within both NUS and the UCU. The use of existing graduate representation on SUs to raise work issues was discussed, as were surveys to gather more information about work conditions. It was agreed that EAN and PGWA should work to turn an anti-casualisation day called by UCU for March into an entire week of events to bring the campaign alive.
A meeting on sexism on campus discussed the increasing prominence of pro-life groups on campus, and campaigns to respond to them when they appear. It also discussed childcare issues for students and workers. Issues of sexual violence and the misogynistic culture associated with club promotion were also addressed. Meanwhile, a session organised by Defend the Right to Protest emphasised the importance of defence campaigns and linked the victimisation of students with that of trade unionists. It called on people to publicise and attend Alfie Meadows’s re-trial, which begins in Woolwich crown court on Monday 29 November, and lasts for 12 days.
Alfie spoke himself at the final session, alongside a student from London Met, Alberto Toscano, John Holmwood and Jim Wolfreys. John Holmwood emphasised the levels of public support for public education and pointed to the twisted logic by which the government identified ‘public interest’ with the market standing of individual institutions, rather than with the provision of quality education to the public as a whole. Jim Wolfreys closed the day by elaborating further on the bullying neo-managerialism in the higher education system, where 950 managers now earn more than the Prime Minister and by calling on students and education workers to unite for a different type of education.