Perspectives for the student movement 2014January 13, 2014
The perspectives below were discussed by Marxist societies all over Britain and at the conference of the MSF on 15th February 2014. The document was approved by delegates and constitutes a guide to the work of the Federation over the next year.
Perspectives for the student movement 2014
1. We’re now in the fifth year of the global capitalist crisis which, since 2008 when the banks were bailed out using public money, has seen governments all over the world adopt programmes of austerity. The only option for the international bourgeoisie is to keep capitalism afloat by recouping the money used for the bailout through cuts to public expenditure.
2. Such a bailout was necessary due to a crisis of overproduction in the global economy – a contradictory phenomenon inevitable under capitalism. This crisis continues to cripple economic growth everywhere and is resulting in cuts to jobs, wages and conditions in all sectors of the economy in an attempt to destroy the excess capacity in the system. Such methods do not resolve the contradictions that lead to crisis; they simply exacerbate them for the future.
3. All attempts by the bourgeoisie to stem the economic crisis have given rise to dramatic social crisis all over the world. Over the past year we have seen enormous movements in Turkey, Egypt and Brazil. Across Europe, from Portugal to Bulgaria, there have been millions on the streets. Bangladesh, South Africa and South Korea among others have all also experienced unrest.
4. The timing of such movements is not coincidental. Only by clawing back the gains made by the working class in the past with regard to public services and working conditions can the bourgeoisie resuscitate capitalism again. The class struggle has therefore intensified over the last five years and workers are increasingly conscious that capitalism offers us no future.
Crisis in Britain
5. Despite talk of recovery, this process is also taking place in Britain. A recovery in the financial speculation industry has not been accompanied by a recovery elsewhere in the economy. Profits are growing but wages remain at 8% below their pre-crash level. Under-employment and the use of zero-hour contracts and agency workers has soared.
6. We are also experiencing unprecedented attacks on the NHS, benefit payments, pensions and other public services already under pressure due to the weakness of the economy. Over a million people are currently relying on food banks which are opening at a rate of three per week in an attempt to pick up the slack. Almost all analysts expect austerity to continue until at least 2020 while others have begun speaking of permanent austerity. On top of that, only around a third of the spending cuts have been implemented so far – there is still much worse to come.
7. The result has been protest movements and industrial action. This year has seen several strikes called by the FBU; joint action between the NUT and NASWUT; joint action between UCU, Unison and Unite. The GMB union has demanded that the TUC name a date for a one-day general strike, while the TUC itself has resolved to consider the practicalities of a British general strike.
8. Although less concrete, the comments made by Russell Brand several months ago calling for revolution proved extremely popular and struck a chord with millions of people. Public figures such as the actors Antonio Banderas and Donald Sutherland have made similar comments that have attracted equally positive reactions. We are seeing a developing process in which the further deterioration of living conditions is causing an increase in revolutionary consciousness.
International youth struggle
9. It is often said that the youth are a sensitive barometer of the temperature of the class struggle – such was the case with the student movement in Britain in 2010. More recently the youth have played a key role in struggles around the world in places such as Chile, Austria, Denmark, Spain, Italy and others, reflecting the increasing tempo of the class struggle all over the world.
10. These youth struggles have been at their largest and most effective when united with the broader working class movement. In Chile the student leaders issued a call for a general strike alongside the trade unions. In Spain a school strike united students, teachers and parents to bring over a million people onto the streets. As the crisis continues larger sections of the working class will be brought into conscious class struggle and the youth will play a role in supporting them.
Youth in Britain
11. In Britain the youth, particularly the student movement, has been subdued since 2010. This was due to the defeat over tuition fees and the weak leadership of the NUS. However, the austerity attacks on students and young people have not stopped and the conditions that sparked the movement of 2010 still exist and are continuing to cause young people to draw revolutionary conclusions.
12. Youth unemployment in Britain continues to hover at around one million and is a contributing factor to the inability to pay off debts and maintain a decent standard of living. The high rates of graduate unemployment mean that we belong to a generation of the most educated unemployed people in history.
13. According to a recent report by the Prince’s Trust, three-quarters of a million young people feel that they have nothing to live for, and its chief executive has recommended that youth unemployment be considered a major public health concern. The impact of youth unemployment is the starkest evidence that today’s youth face a worse standard of living than that of our parents.
14. Youth unemployment and underemployment has forced millions of young people onto benefits, and at the same time it is benefits for young people that are being targeted by the government’s austerity measures. George Osborne has announced that the government is seeking to make £25 billion more cuts after the next general election, the bulk of which will be targeted at benefits for under-25s. Scandalously, the leadership of the Labour party has also jumped on this bandwagon of attacking benefits for young people.
15. The attacks on wages and pensions, plus the relentless increases in the retirement age mean that, even when they do find work, today’s young people will have to work for less money and for longer before they retire with a worse pension than that of their parents and grandparents.
Attacks on students
16. Since the increase of tuition fees in 2010 to £9,000 the accelerating marketisation of education has become more and more obvious. Universities are increasingly run for profit which means the closure of courses and in some cases whole faculties. In Leeds for example, Healthcare courses are being shut down due to their failure to turn a profit, despite student satisfaction with the course, a 100% rate of graduate employment and the acute need for trained healthcare professionals.
17. Going hand in hand with this is the squeezing of the working conditions of university staff, with many having taken the equivalent of a 13% pay cut over the last five years, and a number of universities using casual labour with staff below the living wage. Meanwhile, the average wage of a vice-chancellor is roughly £300,000. Inevitably the working conditions of staff impact on the students. The attacks on staff and students are caused by the same thing – the crisis of capitalism.
18. This year has also seen the government sell-off of student debt to private debt collection companies. This is an early symptom of the problems that will be faced by future governments unable to collect the enormous debts imposed on students that will lead to further crisis in public finances. It also means insecurity for millions of students who face the prospect of being hounded for debt repayments by unscrupulous private businesses.
19. Trouble with student loans does not stop there because the abysmally administrated student loans have been capped and have not risen by more than 1% per year since 2009, despite inflation of 3% with the cost of many basic commodities such as food and energy increasing much faster than that. Faced with dwindling finances and the inability to find job students are feeling the squeeze as the cost of living skyrockets, particularly in relation to the cost of renting a place to live.
20. School students too face an increasingly difficult situation. Following the loss of the Educational Maintenance Allowance in 2010 school students now face the handing over of their schools to private organisations to be run outside the control of local councils as free schools or academies. This is the first step towards privatisation of these schools and the cost cutting measures that are to come are already making themselves seen. The recent resignation of a 25 year-old headmistress from a free school should serve as a warning of things to come. She had no qualifications for the role other than being part of Civitas, a right-wing think tank that has championed the idea of free schools, and as a result couldn’t do the job. There will be more of this to come and it will be ordinary teachers and students who lose out.
21. These attacks on young people and students have not gone unnoticed and this year has seen some stirring of the student movement in opposition to them, often effectively linking up with the staff on campus and in schools to campaign for their demands.
22. The living wage campaign has been active in a number of universities and has, in a number of cases, achieved victory. Motions in support of staff fighting for the living wage have been passed at student unions and student presence on demonstrations has been strong. We must continue to support the movement for decent pay for our staff. However, where they have been granted, these concessions will not last as the crisis is prolonged. We must point out that to guarantee decent pay and conditions for workers it should be staff and students who run the university, not profit-seeking university officials.
23. The 3 Cosas campaign at the University of London won a victory for cleaners in their campaign for better wages and conditions. It was a militant campaign that united workers and students in a persistent fight back against the conditions being imposed on them by the university. It proved that militant struggle gets results. This campaign can serve as an inspiration to other university staff and students to adopt bold demands and serious action.
24. Another recent example of student/worker solidarity has been the joint union strikes in the Autumn term 2013 which saw workers from UCU, Unison and Unite coming out twice over the issue of pay. The Marxist Societies played a role in supporting the staff at the universities where we have a presence by passing motions in the societies and the student unions, collecting money and organising support from students on the picket lines. We must carry out agitation among students to support future strikes and continue to build links with these unions.
25. The past year has also seen strikes by teachers who are members of the NUT and NASWUT over the issue of the retirement age. We should raise this question with school students whose quality of education suffers as the working conditions of teachers suffers. In addition, many teachers are young people not long out of university who are facing massive attacks on their living standards. Action by teachers is something that is likely to develop in the future and that the Marxist Societies will be able to play a role in.
26. Towards the end of the Autumn Term 2013 occupations in UCL and Sussex that were violently broken up by the police sparked student action in a number of universities demanding ‘Cops off Campus’. We support the aims of the original occupations against creeping privatisation of universities, but we are critical of the seemingly arbitrary use of the tactic of occupations by activist groups without reference to the wider labour and student movement. The tactics we use to achieve our aims will only achieve the mass support needed to make them effective if we persistently build our campaigns among ordinary students and actively link up with the trade unions.
27. The Cops off Campus demonstrations were a national phenomenon, though largely concentrated in London and not nearly on the same scale as in 2010. At SOAS, where an emergency student union meeting was held and the demonstration built for, hundreds of students came out to demonstrate. This is an example of how to effectively harness the fighting spirit that exists among students. Unfortunately this has not been used to its full potential due to the focus on the demand for cops off campus which resulted in the important demands of the original occupations being sidelined and few links made with the labour movement.
28. Many students are aware of and have experienced the oppression of women in class society, a phenomenon against which we must continue to struggle. We understand that, under capitalism, formal equality before the law can never lead to genuine equality between men and women. The united struggle of all students and workers, no matter what their gender, race or sexuality, against capitalism is the only way to eradicate all prejudice and eliminate the causes of oppression.
Building the Marxist Student Federation
29. The NUS leadership, afraid of the forces they accidentally conjured into action in 2010, has done nothing to defend students against attacks in the recent period. The result has been a mood of frustration among the more politically advanced students and a mood of apathy among the rest.
30. The ideas of those activists who want to organise an alternative to the NUS have come to very little. This is because, despite the lack of a fighting leadership in the NUS, it still remains an authority in the student movement and therefore it is the only body capable of organising student struggle on a national level. For this reason we must aim to win the NUS to a Marxist programme so that it can effectively defend students and link up with the labour movement.
31. This is the role of the Marxist societies – to spread the ideas of Marxism among students and to organise Marxist interventions in local student politics and in the NUS. Marxists from UCL and Sheffield are already confirmed as delegates to the NUS conference in 2014 and we must aim to get as many Marxist students as possible to run for election as delegates. We must also move motions in our local student unions to be taken to the NUS, calling for socialist policies.
32. The Marxist societies must be a model for student unions and the NUS to follow in their work with the labour movement. In the Autumn Term 2013 Marxist students supported workers in UCU, Unison, Unite and the FBU on strike action. As the societies grow they must look to forge stronger links with the workers on campus and in the wider labour movement.
33. The Marxist Student Federation is the only student organisation that offers an alternative perspective for young people with no future under capitalism because we stand for international socialist revolution. Guided by the ideas of Marxism and through patiently winning students to socialism, our ideas have the potential to be a major force in the student and labour movement, both in Britain and internationally.