Southampton students’ union needs to get political

At the start of this month, a senior lecturer at Southampton University shared an article on Facebook about low morale amongst UCL staff. The article blamed the low morale on the university management. In the post that accompanied the shared link the lecturer wrote a quote from the article “UCL is being run for business and not as a university” and said that the name of UCL could be replaced for any name of any Russell Group university here.

That article reports on a survey of 1,400 academics at UCL who reported deteriorating conditions and experiences of teaching at UCL. 60.3 % disagreed that “UCL makes good financial decisions” whilst only 8.3 % agreed. “Pressure on academics is becoming unsustainable” and “I have taught too many classes in rooms where the windows don’t close and the heat doesn’t work, with half the chairs broken, students sitting shivering in their coats on the floor trying desperately to focus” were just some of the responses to the survey.

Meanwhile, in a discussion with Soton Marxists, a sabbatical officer at Southampton University Students’ Union described a discussion they’d had with Southampton University’s management on the university increasing tuition fees next year. Southampton University admitted in that discussion that the increase in tuition fees was being made because the university is currently running on a deficit and the government is reducing funding for the university. When pressed on whether the university would publicly declare this as their reasoning for increasing tuition fees, the management responded that it wouldn’t.

Symptoms of a crisis

These two examples give us an insight into the role of Higher Education in today’s society of capitalist crisis. Both students and academic staff are being hit by the increasingly inability of Higher Education to be a progressive force in society by furthering knowledge and developing new applications of that knowledge. Instead, education, even at degree level, is restricted to training students in the minimal skills required to perform in a work environment, with an emphasis on career prospects, corporate internships, corporate open days and corporate funded research and development.

The observation made by university staff that conditions are deteriorating and the university is being run more like a business than it used to be suggests a changing ideological attitude to how education should be viewed and funded. But the reality is that education forms part of society’s superstructure and the cause for this change has been a change in the base of society, i.e. the economic conditions, on which the superstructure rests. The university’s interests aren’t governed by nice or nasty people with nice or nasty policies. They are governed by the interests of profit, because that is how capitalist society functions.

Back before tuition fee increases and deteriorating educational facilities, the post-war economy boomed, enabling funding for state welfare projects such as education and providing a need for research and development investment. But the capitalist system reached its limits with this, and in fact went far beyond them. This was revealed when the 2008 financial crisis occurred, a crisis of overproduction. The economy could no longer afford concessions such as welfare spending, and companies didn’t make profits off new investments so weren’t reliant on furthering research and technological development. Instead billions of pounds in cash is now sitting around, not being invested in anything and the government is cutting back on spending, including on education.

As the government money dries up, the university has to cut spending. The boss of the university management who accomplishes this task on behalf of the government and makes those “tough decisions”, the vice-chancellor, gets handsomely rewarded. In 2016, Southampton University paid £697,000 to its vice-chancellor. The higher and further education union, the UCU, analysed data from 151 institutions to conclude that the average pay packet on university vice-chancellors had increased by 2 % from 2015 to 2016.

Student representation

Whilst the university management clearly stands on the side of big business and the Tory government, who stands for the interests of students? The students’ union in Southampton, as is the case nationwide, has become a staple, institutionalized body in the university’s operating system. It is a compliant cog in the university’s bureaucratic machine.

A former committee member of Performing Arts, a body encompassing several societies in the union, told Soton Marxists that at the end of each year, any money raised by Performing Arts is wiped from their treasury and put into the union’s finances. Performing Arts societies, like all societies, already struggle to get any funding out of the union with the result that individuals are forced to raise thousands of pounds to be able to perform at events such as the Edinburgh Fringe.

Coincidentally, the sabbatical officer we spoke to revealed that the University’s Athletics Union is encouraging university athletes to raise their own funds needed for their sport. The student news outlet, the Wessex Scene, has revealed that the fee for the University’s Sport and Wellbeing membership (enabling students to use the university’s sports facilities and even in some cases be members of sports societies) is being increased to £230 annually for top-tier sports performance. It points out that at some universities such as Bath, students don’t pay for using the sports facilities at all.

A committee member of the union’s Raise and Give Society (a charity society) told Soton Marxists that during the re-freshers fayre, the union’s RAG society were not allowed to advertise the union’s RAG week amidst the corporate advertisement stalls. Clearly, for the union, hosting a takeaway company’s marketing stall on campus is more important than making people aware of the socio-economic problems facing society and funding the creativity of the union’s performing arts societies.

Whilst starving its societies of funds, the students’ union, spent £2,100 on a referendum over the university library’s opening hours in October of 2015 despite the university publicly announcing it was to make the change that the union had demanded before the referendum happened. The union then spent £30,000 on a re-brand of the students’ union despite no formal consultation with the student body (allegedly, sources inside the union have said the cost may be closer to £60,000).

After repeated demands from the student body for an explanation. And after the many lame excuses provided, the union finally admitted that the re-brand was decided upon because too many people had a negative association with the union. It was thought a change of image would rectify that. It comes as a surprise to them that a union that appears to be flushing students’ union fees down the drain and failing to stand up for student interests has a negative image. Ironically it gave birth to a flurry of student engagement with the union in the form of parodies of the students’ union social media. For example, the union’s old pre-re-brand twitter account was used to parody the union’s bureaucracy and corporatism. Finally, the union caved into calling a vote on the re-brand decision despite the changes already having taken place. The result was that the new branding was rejected by the students, meaning even more money is now being spent to come up with another brand.

During the re-brand controversy, a leaked email from an unelected union official was released that stated that the move had to go ahead regardless of the student vote or backlash on the decision. This shows the nature of the internal organisation of the union. With the union council having been disbanded last year, and unelected positions such as CEO of the union existing alongside the small number of elected union officers, the union’s interests lie in cooperation with the union management and corporate funding for the union, not in standing up for the student voice. In the “grill the sabbatical officers” event last year, the union president mentioned what a lovely person the new Vice Chancellor was when they met and spoke with him. But as mentioned earlier, decisions aren’t dictated by the amicability and kind-heartedness of leaders but rather the interests of class society, of crisis and capitalism in the education system. Justin Trudeau’s smile doesn’t make up for his austerity policies.

The union hasn’t been part of the National Union of Students (NUS) for over 15 years and so, despite the NUS’s problems, suffers from lack of cooperation with other unions and a nationally organised body that can help to keep university bureaucracy out of the students’ union. The incoming union president declared in campaign interviews that the union should not be getting any ideas about interfering with grand political campaigns and statements but focusing on individual issues relevant to students. Described by some as the “Clinton” of union presidential candidates, the incoming president is against the idea that a students’ union should be cooperating with other unions on a national scale to oppose attacks on the education system and corporate interference on campus. Rather, she says, the union should maintain the status quo by backing up the university management in everything it wants to do.

Her election victory, though narrow (she lost against the out-going president in every round of preference-based voting until the 4th round where she won), was helped by the feeling amongst many students, perpetuated by the media, that it is the politics in students’ unions (and indeed the NUS) that leads to the terrible decision making, and also by the performance of the out-going president who was a considerably more political, Corbyn-supporting reformist.

The out-going president had been on the junior doctors’ picket line and campaigned about cooperating on a local level with political institutions and with the medical students in fighting the attacks on junior doctors. However, when in position as union president, he continued to cooperate with the university management. His promise of political engagement amounted to having Natalie Bennett come to talk at the union (not much different to when Vince Cable came to talk the year before) and a hurriedly organised political society stall event last month. There was no mass political campaign of posters, leaflets and events on campus, no moves to support the labour movement and no plans to consider re-affiliation with the NUS.

The solution

It might be tempting to say that there’s no mood in the student body to affiliate with the NUS and to build support for the labour movement. And yet the vast majority of students see problems with the union, problems with tuition fee increases, problems in poorly maintained and expensive student housing, problems with mental health, problems with educational facilities and standards, and problems with the exploitation of students in part-time jobs. Student unions should be fighting to show that these problems are caused by a lack of funding for these services and that this is linked to the lack of a future we have in today’s economic crisis conditions. Ultimately both of these things stem from the capitalist nature of society.

The students’ union is big on dealing with the mental health crisis at the moment. The mental health crisis is very relevant and severe and something the union definitely ought to be addressing. However, by isolating this issue on its own, the union can only provide temporary help such as increasing awareness of mental health problems. A real solution would be to link the crisis of mental health with the soaring cost of education and student living, and the extra stress put on students and staff due to the lack of funding. It flows from this that the union should join the political campaign against the government’s austerity programme.

The union leaders should seek to break with the interests of capital in the education system by cutting ties with the vice-chancellor and instead working with university staff through the bodies that represent their interests, such as the local UCU. All positions in the student union should be elected positions with the right of recall so that students have full say in union matters and a chance for their interests to be fully represented by the union. Finally, the students’ union cannot act alone in its campaign against the defunding of the higher education system, it must join other unions in the NUS and help direct the leadership of the NUS away from petty bureaucracy and towards fighting for students’ issues.

Unlike the incoming union president would have us believe, students’ interests are not separate from political ideas. By not being political, the students’ union is not standing up for us. The capitalist class, private individuals who profit off the rest of society at the expense of our education system, NHS, pensions, childcare etc. must be made to pay for the alleviation of the untold suffering their profit-seeking has caused. Only one political party currently stands for and is in a position to do this, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Rather than leaving politics up to individuals, which actually leaves students powerless to stop change, we must have a socialist students’ union that stands with the labour movement for a National Education Service that provides for all.

By Southampton Marxist Society