NUS conference 2018: how can we fight for free education?

With 7 million students behind it, the National Union of Students (NUS) potentially has enormous power to fight for fundamental change in society. But unfortunately, at the moment, it defines itself simply as “the national voice of students helping them to campaign, get cheap student discounts and provide advice on living student life to the full”.

The NUS has the power to carry out bold policies that go way beyond battling for “cheap student discounts” and providing “advice to living student life to the full”. The NUS has an immense fighting potential to make a real change in universities and beyond. But to do so, it has be part of a wider struggle for political power.

The NUS needs to defend young and working class people against the ongoing austerity that has been detrimental to our mental health, employment and living standards. This austerity is a product of a capitalist system in crisis. Marxists say that if you accept capitalism, in any form, then you must accept austerity, which is its logical conclusion. The NUS must thus fight the problem at its roots by fighting against capitalism. This involves fighting on the basis of a clear and bold socialist program, which aims at building strong links between students and staff. The NUS should link up with the Labour party and other trade unions to kick out the Tories, institute socialist policies and fight for a fundamental transformation of society.

Education should be free

Education is a vital investment in society. Society as a whole benefits from having an educated population. The quality and quantity of education available to the public has always been a general measure of social progress. If everyone has access to the wealth of knowledge, then everyone has the potential to contribute to developing society in a positive way. Marxists stand for free education because students’ future contribution to society far outweighs the costs of education.

In recent years, there have been a number of attacks and cuts in the higher education sector. We are for the maximisation of educational opportunities for everyone, and are opposed to cuts and closures to university courses, further education colleges and school teaching staff. Education should be free and accessible for everyone, throughout their lives. The NUS must launch a fight to abolish all cuts, tuition fees and corresponding debts.

Fund education through expropriation

As a society, we have the resources to achieve free education for all. The banks, the biggest businesses, and the wealthiest individuals have enormous cash reserves and private ownership over the entire economy. We demand that the rich pay to give young people a future. The NUS must demand free education and fund it through expropriating the 1% — as Karl Marx puts it “expropriate the expropriators”. Similarly, to bring down living costs for students, the rip-off landlords should be expropriated and construction companies taken into public ownership so that good, cheap housing can be provided.

It is true, capitalism has managed to educate society in an unprecedented way; through distributing intellectual materials, developing the internet and instituting a public schooling system that has no parallel in human history.  Although university management may genuinely want to improve the collective knowledge of humanity, these good intentions are being swiped away in the name of profit. Investment in research and development at universities is done for profit, not need. Profit should not be a guiding principle in higher education and research. The NUS must therefore centrally and democratically plan the investment in research and development, so that it is done in the interests of society’s needs. Education and research have to be funded, and they can be. There are hundreds of billions of pounds sitting in banks, uninvested because big businesses can’t find anywhere profitable to invest. The NUS must call for the expropriation of this money and a socialist plan of production.

Kick capitalism out of education

The logic of capitalism means cuts to education budgets, which in turn forces universities to increase their income if they want to survive. This requires the management to make savings, which take the form of attacks on university workers, among other things. The very university staff which are supposed to be the pillars of education institutions are transformed, under the logic of capitalism, into those whom the institution must exploit the most. The NUS must offer financial and practical support to, and stand alongside striking university staff. The NUS needs to think big and point out that our demands for free and decent education for all can only be met by striking fatal blows against capitalism.

We argue that free education can be won and safeguarded by taking universities and other educational institutions out of the hands of private investors and capitalists, and instead run them democratically by students and staff as part of an overall plan of education, research and development in Britain and internationally that will serve the needs of everyone, not just those with the money. It will take a revolutionary movement involving the expropriation of the 1% to guarantee free education for all.

Save the public sector

On the basis of expropriation and workers’ control, not only could we fund free education, but we students, alongside the working class, could also rationally and democratically plan the economy. International revolution – the expropriation of the banks and placing the means of production under control of workers around the world, is the only way to escape austerity politics. It is time for a system which works for the many rather than the few.

The NHS, council housing and the welfare state too have been subject to constant attacks. The NUS must go beyond the realm of education and extend its activity into fighting for every part of the public sector. A common political programme, articulating what we’re against and what we’re for, is the way to bring all these struggles together. At the end of the day we’re all in the same boat – we’re suffering because of the logic of the capitalist system. Capitalism has led to a number of cuts across the public and private sector and collapsing living standards across the board. All those who have witnessed a stagnation or decline in their living standards should be rallied in a fight to overthrow the government.

Nationalise housing and banks

We must call for the nationalisation of banks and housing. We Marxists are committed to the nationalisation of the biggest businesses, including banks, utilities, construction companies, education services, and healthcare. This is no longer considered an outlandish demand. In fact, support for nationalisation has risen sharply in recent years, following the failings of privatising essential services. In opinion polls, over 80% support the renationalisation of the utilities and the railways and 50% of them even support the taking over of the banks. People are more and more attracted to the idea of nationalisation. Nationalisation is the logical answer to the failings of privatisation in every sphere, from academies to universities to the NHS.

But nationalisation is not a revolutionary measure in itself. Nationalisation alone would not result in such democratic management, because the working class does not control the state, which at present represents the interests of the ruling class, i.e. the capitalists. However, nationalisation is a vital step towards the establishment of a planned economy, against the domination of monopolies, towards the overthrow of capitalism and implementation of socialism. Nationalisation must go hand in hand with workers’ control. Workers must democratically plan the production and the economy on the basis of need, not profit. These two demands — nationalisation and democratic workers’ control — are the best means to resist privatisation, outsourcing of jobs, intrusion of corporate interests on campus. This is why the NUS must launch, support and fund a campaign that would make this a reality. In order to make a real change in society.

Shakira Martin on how to achieve free education

In the list of motions and amendments to be discussed in the Education Zone, the Free Education motion was  the 14th out of 16 motions and amendments. In the context of tuition fees rising to £9,250, this was surprising. In her opening speech, the President of the NUS Shakira Martin briefly mentioned the importance of free — or at least accessible to all — education, adding that “it doesn’t matter how we get there, the point is that we get there”.

This position is deeply mistaken. It does matter how you want to achieve this goal. Although calling for free education is a progressive step for the NUS, “the way you get there”, unlike what Shakira wants us to believe, is crucial. How can you possibly intend to achieve free education without a clear plan of how to achieve it? Furthermore, Shakira called for uniting “the left, the right, the Tories and the Trots”. However, when it comes to putting “free education” on the table, the way in which we fund it will be divisive. The Tories and the Trots aren’t going to agree. The key question is: who will pay for it?

Taxing the rich?

Some people call for taxing the rich in order to fund education (although the ‘Left’ candidate for NUS President didn’t mention it once in her speech, nor did she mention “socialism”, or any other suggestion for how we can achieve free education). Restructuring the tax system so the rich pay more and ordinary people pay less seems to be a very worthy aim. We agree that the rich should pay, but we understand the limitations of such slogans as “tax the rich”. The problem is that the rich in Britain, the capitalists, financiers and landowners, know very well how to avoid paying taxes. The TUC has calculated that the rich manage to avoid paying taxes each year to the value of up to £85 billion. Fiddling with the tax system will not make the rich pay more and the poor less. Tinkering with the tax system will not achieve the ends that the supporters of this slogan desire.

If the system for creating wealth is socially owned, then the wealth created will be owned by society as a whole. Then it will be society as a whole that will determine through its own democratic institutions how that wealth is to be distributed. This is why we Marxists call for the expropriation of the capitalist class. We need to put the wealth of society, all the uninvested capital, the stockpiled billions, into the hands of students and workers, in order to fund education. The biggest landlords, the banks, and the biggest businesses should be nationalised immediately and without one penny of compensation paid to the wealthy owners who have been getting rich by exploiting the rest of us for decades. This is an important point because it’s the difference between fighting for reform of a broken system or a revolution to overthrow capitalism and to build a new society.

Any fight has to be linked with a need to restructure our economy. We stand by the position outlined by Lenin in December 1917 when he said, “The banks, as we know, are centres of modern economic life, the principal nerve centres of the whole capitalist economic system. To talk about “regulating economic life” and yet evade the question of the nationalisation of the banks means either betraying the most profound ignorance or deceiving the “common people” by florid words and grandiloquent promises with the deliberate intention of not fulfilling these promises.”

The need for real change

Shakira Martin expressed numerous time her desire for “real change”. Although this desire is very welcome and supported by other delegates, this statement is unclear. Change from what to what? What kind of change? Shakira’s slogan of change is completely empty. She claims she’s started a movement for real change, but all she’s done is investigations, reviews and lobbying the government. She hasn’t put any effort into actually and concretely solving the issues she mentions. In fact, she’s made it clear that she’s not interested in any change taking place beyond campuses. In her speech this morning, she said: “There is evil in our world and we can’t do anything about that but we can do something on our campuses”.

We Marxists completely reject this bureaucratic and defeatist attitude. We are aware that changing society cannot be achieved by the student movement alone, but that doesn’t mean we should write off the struggle to fundamentally transform society. Instead the NUS must develop close links with the organised labour movement and campaign for socialist policies within it. If Shakira isn’t willing to do it then she has no business being the NUS president.

Value for money

The slogan “value for money” is extremely popular at the conference. The argument goes as follows. We are paying a tremendous amount for our education: £9,250 to be exact. We are not getting an education worth the price. We should thus claim value for our money and ask for a higher quality service. Amate Doku, the Vice-President Higher Education called in his speech and in his manifesto for “value for money”. He adds: “I think we should always get value for money that we put in the public sector”. However, at the same time, he claims to reject the “marketisation of higher education”.

There are a number of problems with his argument. First, it undermines the fight for free education. It considers education as a commercial service where the price should reflect the quality of the service. Education is a right, not a commercial service. Furthermore, one motion called for the introduction of an  ”accredited, national qualification specifically for teaching in higher education” which gives credence to the idea that education should be judged as a commodity. This will impact staff, especially staff from vulnerable backgrounds, negatively.

Second, it is contradictory. You cannot reject the marketisation of higher education while at the same time treating education as a product on the market. It will take a revolutionary movement involving the expropriation of the 1% to guarantee free education for all. The fight against privatisation in education is a fight against capitalism, and the fight for free education is a fight for socialism.

The failure of the NUS leaders to stand by students

Throughout the conference, most of the full-time officers kept highlighting the fact that things are bad, there is oppression on campuses and that students are poor. But they are not doing anything concrete to stop this. All they claim to have done are investigations, reviews and lobbying governmental institutions. We all know things are bad and we don’t need the NUS to spend a whole year investigating on whether we really are in a bad situation or not. We do not want abstract investigations but real programmes to tackle the issues. Instead of investigating and telling students things they are already aware of, we Marxists aim to understand, explain and change things from top to bottom. We fight for socialist and revolutionary ideas.

The NUS leadership has exposed its inability to be on the side of students and tackle the issues central to their lives. Austerity measures, £9000 tuition fees, and attacks on university staff are having a huge impact on access to and quality of higher education. And yet, we have not discussed the motions on free education, fair pay and democracy in universities, and making higher education accessible to all. What should have been done with these motions and others was to link the demand for free education to trade union and labour movement struggles that are taking place now — i.e. the UCU strike, which is an unprecedented strike in the history of British education.

Join the forces of Marxism

Free education cannot be achieved with eclectic and vaguely left-wing activism, and hoping for generous reforms from above. There are no ‘safe spaces’ for working class students who are starkly disadvantaged by tuition fees and the absence of grants. The NUS must aim at building support for radical ideas, not only inside its conference, but also beyond it: on campuses and further afield! Free education can only be attained by the socialist transformation of society, with universities placed under the democratic control of students, staff and lecturers.

The Marxist Student Federation (MSF), which includes 25 Marxist Societies around the country, as it grows, can play a role in turning the anger that exists in society, and especially amongst the youth and the working class into a revolutionary movement that can transform the NUS and society as a whole.

The Marxist Student Federation has taken up the task of fighting for a genuinely radical leadership of the student movement and is linking up with the trade unions to ensure our fight can be successful. Join us if you want to take control of your own future!

Conclusion

Universities must be democratically run by students and staff in the interest of students and staff. This needs to be linked with a fight against capitalism. The resources are there for everyone to have a good education, a good house, a good job and to live a decent, healthy life. But these resources are in the wrong hands. They’re hoarded by the 1% while the rest of us have to make do with less and less. We have to fight for a society where these resources are in our hands, and used to plan the economy for need not profit. Only a bold socialist programme, linking the student movement to the labour movement, can articulate a credible alternative to a capitalist system whose logic can only entail austerity for the working class and students.

by Emilie Dufwa, UCL NUS delegate