Britain - youth vs the Con Dems: the "street" can undo what politicians have done...

Jan/Mar 2011

Last year's 10 November student demonstration in London against the Con Dems' education cuts and trebling of university tuition fees, caused a huge furore by taking a rather riotous detour into the Tory Party's Millbank headquarters,

Indeed, the big, angry, march, called by the National Union of Students and the University teachers' Union (UCU), which numbered maybe up to 50,000, was a surprise to everyone, including the police - who failed to turn out for it, having expected less than 10,000 to attend.

This demo signalled the start of a significant protest right across the country amongst youth against the cuts in education.

The demonstrations which followed were mostly called "unofficially", by campaigns which had already been set up by left-wing groups in anticipation of the cuts. Students and school pupils responded in their thousands up and down the country, encouraged by the impact of the first demonstration, and initially unphased by the harsh "kettling" tactics employed by the police, who were determined to make up for their embarrassing failure to stop the Millbank "rampage".

Indeed, the police violently kettled demonstrators on the very next occasion, the demonstration of 24th November, which had been designated "Day X", and when many very young protestors from schools joined the protests. And they did so again on the 9th December - the day of the vote in the House of Commons on tuition fees - when lines of police, including on horseback, had already blocked roads out of Parliament Square, before protestors even reached it.

In fact this 9th December demonstration was "official", in part. The NUS and TUC had jointly decided to have a separate "rally" and candlelit vigil on Embankment, behind the police lines and just yards away from the demonstration outside parliament, which, unlike the NUS/TUC affair, was attended by the majority of students. So the "official" bureaucrats stood on a platform making oblivious speeches literally yards away from where police were bashing and beating in the heads in an on-going confrontation with several thousand kettled youth. It was during this confrontation that a student had his skull fractured and suffered a brain haemorrhage - from which he has since been lucky enough to recover.

Like on the 24th November, protesters were forced to remain in the sub-zero temperatures for hours (some would have spent at least 12 hours outside in the cold) before being photographed one by one and then released - but they made fires, burnt placards and park benches, and, given the level of very deliberate police provocation, a few tried smashing the Treasury windows and painted appropriate slogans on walls and statues inside the "kettle" area, as time dragged on and on and they were still blocked in by the cops.

Not since the demonstrations against the poll tax in 1990 has there anything comparable to these protests. What is more, the action sustained itself, with two-weekly marches, sit-ins, "flash mobs" in stations, groups protesting at public events like the Turner Arts Prize, as well as token occupations of university lecture halls, right up until 9 December (the day parliament voted on tuition fees) and, it is set to restart this January, after a lull during the Xmas/New Year holidays.

So why this sudden student "awakening"? And will it be the first step of a generalised fight back against the Con Dem austerity measures which is so urgently needed?

Clegg a Tory too

The "politics" of the protest - mixed with below-the-belt, cynical humour - can be said to be mostly thanks to the Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who haplessly submitted himself as a target for student anger and ribaldry, due to his blatantly opportunistic "betrayal" over the issue of tuition fees, contrary to his party's policy.

Naive as this may be, many students share a sense of betrayal. During the May 2010 general election campaign, the Lib-Dems capitalised on the general disillusionment with Labour by appealing to 18-year-olds voting for the first time and generally trying to garner the "youth vote". (Showing some savvy, only half of eligible 18-34 year olds actually voted, however.)

The Lib Dems presented youthful Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, (a Cameron look-alike) who was quite easily able to peddle his wares to the "left" of Labour, including most explicitly claiming to oppose tuition fees. (Their manifesto said:"Scrap unfair University Tuition Fees. ... The Liberal Democrats are the only party which believes university education should be free and admissions based on ability not bank balance.")

Apparently Clegg did not anticipate that he might have to put his money where his mouth was one fine day.

And now, not only is he an instigator in the decision to take the cap off tuition fees in the university academic year 2012/13. But more specifically he is complicit in an immediate attack on 16-19 year olds at FE and 6th form colleges. Before they even get to the point of paying the doubled (or trebled) tuition fees, they will have had their (albeit paltry) Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) cut, which was Labour's means-tested weekly incentive to get them to stay in full-time education and out of the jobless count.

The Con Dems' October spending review announced the end of the EMA - and it was closed to new applicants from 1 January 2011. It was worth £30/w if parents' total earnings were less than £20,818/yr, £20/w for incomes up to £25,521/yr and £10/w for incomes up to £30,810/yr. In 2009/10, there were 635,000 pupils getting the EMA, and 80% of them got the maximum rate.

This particularly ruthless attack has been excused on the grounds that education is to become compulsory up to the age of 18 years from 2015 (Labour would have made it 2013). The education minister says they will come up with a more targeted scheme for the "worst off" - which is what they have said about all these cuts - that they are "still working on proposals". In the meantime, though, there is no benefit at all.

By a perverse irony, it is precisely the "worst off" who are targeted by this and many other aspects of the education cuts. The slashing of EMA is just going to drive more of the worst-off youth to join the 850,000 youngsters already in the NEET wasteland - i.e. those not in education, employment or training.

And then, when and if they realise they must find a way out of this desert, they will find that the entitlement to free training for a first full "level 2" qualification for those over 25 has been removed. And that fees have now been slapped on further education for students aged 24 and over, studying for a level 3 qualification (A-level equivalent)!

Since it is already mandatory for less well-off students to try to find part-time jobs to supplement their student loans - and the number of such jobs was shrinking even before the financial crisis - there will now be even more competition for these low-paid, casual McJobs (on a "Youth Development Rate" for 18-20 year olds of £4.92 an hour; for 16-17 year olds, £3.64 an hour!)

So it is these youth who, at the same time as they are hit by the education cuts, are also hit by the far-ranging attack on the working class as a whole - by the unprecedented disappearance of jobs in every sector and the fall in wages and universal casualisation. Some future - unless they fight for it! No wonder they are making up the most militant contingent in the protest!

The students' rude awakening

It should be said that the "awakening" of university students is well overdue. Although higher education has, in many respects, been going to the dogs over the past 30 years, there has not been even one really significant protest against the rot, in all this time! (There was an isolated demo in the mid-1980s and another more desultory one in the late 1990s.)

In fact the NUS leadership even took a recent policy decision against such forms of protest, claiming they did not work! But then with most NUS leaderships tied politically to the Labour Party, their reluctance to rock the boat, at least in the last 13 years, is understandable, even if it is contemptible. It must be a bit of a relief for these junior bureaucrats that at last there are "Tory scum", to protest against, to quote one of the many recurring chants of demonstrators.

The first significant attacks of the period were indeed launched by the Tories - under Thatcher and Major - when, among other things, universities were pushed to contract out all their non-teaching services and obtain funds from private sponsorship for teaching and research; when student maintenance grants were radically cut, making student loans mandatory for many (they were introduced in 1990 to complement the ever-dwindling Local Education Authority grants for living expenses), and when technical colleges were all but abolished and polytechnics turned into second tier, second rate universities.

But then in 1998, Labour implemented further cuts and "reforms" in higher education, inflicting one of the worst blows of all: the then education minister David Blunkett introduced tuition fees for the very first time, initially at the level of £1,000/year. They increased to £1,225 in 2007/8. Which means that the current rate, which is capped at £3,290 per annum, for domicile English students, already reflects a huge hike (a doubling), over the past 2 years.

Anyway, it was under Labour that the necessity for larger and larger student loans was established universally - and today around 80% of eligible students rely on these loans. The current system sees students paying back their loans at a 9% rate on income above £15,000 a year, with outstanding debt written off after 25 years.

Labour also gave the green light to universities so that they could begin to charge exorbitant fees for foreign students - to the point where this exploited minority became the mainstay of funding for many universities, especially the most prestigious ones. Many already pay £7,000-£9,000 a year for undergraduate studies and much more for postgraduate courses.

However, an OECD report published last September showed that British universities had fallen in the OECD league table from 3rd place to 15th - which regard to the number of students who actually graduated with a degree - 35% in 2008, as opposed to an OECD average of 38% - and Britain ranked below Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Portugal... Then again, under Labour, investment in higher education also fell below the OECD's 1% of GDP average - to 0.7%.

Paradoxically, as it may seem, over the past 10 years, there has been a huge rise in the number of university enrollments especially from the poorest parts of the country - eg.,Poplar and Canning Town in east London saw a rise of 254% between 1997 and 2008! Today the total number of university students is around 2.3 million.

But this can hardly be said to represent social progress - and may even conceal the opposite: students who might have preferred to learn a trade while being paid, now have little choice but to go to "uni". Apprenticeships/technical training places are few and far between and there are hardly any decent jobs available. So why not go to an easy-access university (the former polytechnics) - created precisely to keep the youth off the streets in the context of high unemployment - and incur a debt which there is little prospect of ever paying off? Because whether or not one finishes a degree course, "going to uni" is really just another way of delaying joining the ranks of the jobless.

That said, being in debt for 20 or 30 years is hardly an incentive to study and it is not just poorer students (who qualify for grants and might therefore have less to pay back), who would be put off. Many students already mount up a £23,000 debt in 3 years, which is bad enough, but £46,000 or even £69,000 is ridiculous. Medical students already face a £50,000 debt on average.

The prospect of coping with another twofold or threefold rise from 2012 is inconceivable. So yes, there was every reason for a big and angry demonstration on 10 November, and as already stated, it was long overdue!

We don't need no education?

The education cuts were first outlined last October, as part of the Con Dems' general austerity programme. Higher education was meant to bear the brunt of the cuts, while the schools budget (lower education?) was supposed to be "ring-fenced".

This means in practice, a targeted cut of around 80% in university and college teaching budgets (£4.2bn) and a cut in research budgets of £1bn. Up to now, universities have had this large (but serially cut) "teaching" grant paid to them by government and topped it up with fees. Now fees from students will become the main component of funding. Osborne's review explained how "fair" this was: "The Spending Review therefore protects schools spending and increases support for the poorest in the early years and at every stage of their education."

One is at pains to imagine quite how by cutting resources from top to bottom, Osborne can be "increasing support for the poorest in the early years and at every stage...". He obviously imagines the public is stupid and plans to do everything in his power to ensure that as many people as possible remain so!

The idea is to eventually shift the cost of higher education - including that of vocational training - away from government - firstly onto the individual student (although this will not be immediate in many cases) and secondly, to transform higher education into a new and lucrative commercial sector of the economy - opening it up further than ever to exploitation by private capital.

In fact, thanks to the Con Dems' Labour predecessor, Gordon Brown, the recommendations of another, in this case "Lord", Browne, were at hand, in the form of the so-called Browne Report, the "independent" review of the funding of higher education in England - entitled "Securing a sustainable future for higher education".

Labour's objective under Brown was precisely to cut education costs, while at the same time offering the private sector the chance to cash in. Hence the choice of the former chief of British Petroleum (BP) to head the panel making the report.

Browne's Report suggests that the cap on university tuition fees be removed completely, allowing universities to charge what they like. But in the interim, it recommends an increase in the cap to around £9,000 maximum. Most of Browne's recommendations now form the policy which the government has adopted.

From 2012/13 universities will be able to charge tuition fees of £6,000 a year and there is a provision for this charge to go up to £9,000, provided that universities meet certain criteria for "fair" access. By this is meant access to students from working class backgrounds.

It is worth making a point on this issue. A report just published (on 21/12/10) showed that pupils from private schools were 55 times more likely to get a place at Oxford or Cambridge than state school students, and that less than 1% of Oxbridge's intake consisted of pupils who had received free school meals - i.e., who come from households in receipt of state benefits. Year after year Oxford and Cambridge are reprimanded because they do not fulfill the requirements for accepting enough "poor" working class applicants, but nothing actually changes! While 40% of their intake is from so-called "public" (private) schools, these schools are attended by only 7% of the school population!

It goes without saying that in the context of an 80% cut in teaching grants and the ongoing shortage of university places in the "better" universities, that universities will have no qualms about raising fees to the maximum.

Undoubtedly Labour, had it got into power instead of the Con-Dems, would have implemented most of Lord Browne's recommendations. But for the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition, the adoption of Browne's ideas by the government threatens to turn into a bit of an electoral catastrophe! By early January their electoral support in the polls has fallen from pre-election levels of over 30%, to just 7%!

But then, assert the coalition ministers, students "will not have to pay back a penny" until they are earning over £21,000. And after 30 years the loan would be written off. This compares to the current £15,000 salary which kick-starts repayment, and a 25-year write-off limit.

Of course, many students will not to find jobs that pay over £21,000, at least for some time. The government, via its arms-length "Student Finance organisation, will pay the immediate up-front fees for each student, who will have a Student Finance Plan incorporating their living costs, for which they will get means-tested grants (up to £3,250 per year) or loans, and the cost of their tuition fees. "Student Finance" will be regulated by a new, centralised(!) Higher Education Council whose chief remit is to ensure that a "fees competition" develops between universities!

For the poorer students, a £150m National Scholarship Programme is to be available. But Universities Minister David Willetts has explained that the government is still "setting out its thinking" on how it would work. The free school meals plan (waiving of 1st year fees for students who received free meals at school) was "particularly important" to Willetts - but so important that it has now been dropped! And the "Million+Group", which represents new universities, say the £150m fund is not nearly big enough to fund a year's tuition for all the students who previously received free school meals - 10,670 last year. So quite how it will fund the 18,000 students which Willetts boasted about is a mystery.

Of course, whether or not students continue to have the possibility of borrowing all of the funds to pay their fees (and maintenance) during their studies in not the government's problem. It is trying to change universities fundamentally - and would seemingly prefer the US model with its Ivy League, private and public universities and a free interplay between business and education.

Allowing the Con-Dem "reforms" to be imposed would not only mean the further encroachment of private enterprise into academia, but also the destruction of the few "egalitarian" features which still exist in the British system. It would mean the actual shrinking of higher education and a deterioration of all but a few universities - which is certainly worth fighting against. Over and above the demand for education to be free...

Beyond the myths

Fortunately, what could be said to have been an "unhealthy" cynicism amongst youth and overt political alienation now seems to have taken an optimistic turn - as many perceive the possibility of fighting collectively - not just for their own immediate interests, but against the system in the interests of society at large.

They have also shown they are not afraid of the police and have even turned the kettling into a joke, parading "mounted" electric kettles with flashing blue lights in front of the police lines.

This characterises the general feeling quite well: upbeat and defiant, humorous and inventive. However, there are quite a few misapprehensions which have been fostered by the events of the past two months.

One common idea is that the internet in the shape of Twitter and Facebook proved to have the ability to mobilise the youth - thanks to the mobile phone "apps" and the generalised agility in their use.

The plans for Day X - 24th November, when school and FE college students showed up in significant numbers in Trafalgar and Parliament Square - and elsewhere around the country - was probably mainly mobilised for, by these means. For sure, Twitter and Facebook are highly efficient ways of putting up posters - advertising, in other words. And the mobile phone is an instant way of telling someone where you are and what is happening, helping increase speed of response. It can, when the impetus is there, help get people in numbers to a particular place, without doubt, as happened on the first "Day X". Of course, there was no way of knowing beforehand whether this would work or not. And on the 15 December when another attempt was made to initiate another Day X-type mobilisation, rather than the "Save the EMA" campaign's idea of tame local protests at lunchtime, it did not work.

One possible reason for this was the likelihood of another police kettle, but it also means that Twitter is a little fickle. Indeed, putting up posters, whether on lamp-posts or on Twitter, is not the same as organising people. And if something is to be achieved against the government's cuts, (no ifs, no buts), this will require organisation, preparation, and not just trusting to spontaneity! And yes, organising means developing ideas and convincing others about them, setting aims collectively, agreeing on them and preparing as much as possible for interventions, rather than trusting to chance. All of these require physical, not virtual presence.

At the time of writing, it is too soon to be sure that the protests will revive after the Xmas and New Year break. The vote to scrap the EMA went through on 19 January and there were small (but noisy) demonstrations of youth in central London and in several other towns and cities. More demonstrations are being planned and prepared for.

But if the energy and dynamism of the youth returns, what will be decisive for them is their ability to find allies sharing the same interests in fighting the government's cuts - and with the same determination to win.

In this respect, the school and university students have a considerable advantage, because the cuts in education are part of a wider offensive aimed primarily at the working class - which, collectively, represents a far greater force in society than students, both in terms of numbers and of social leverage. For this reason, the working class would be a formidable ally for the youth in their fight against the government's attacks.

And having made the first step in challenging these attacks with their protests over the past two months, the students' enthusiasm and mobilisation could well convince sections of workers who are looking for ways of fighting against the many attacks being launched against jobs and conditions, that it is in their interests to join ranks with the youth.

Of course, to win over allies requires conscious effort. It does not happen spontaneously. Students and workers will have to establish their common ground together - and the demands and objectives with which they can identify, together. To imagine that the "spontaneity" of youth is attractive enough and will suffice, is the surest road to failure, because it will mean inevitable isolation. And isolation would be disastrous because the youth movement would increasingly become the target of the police and judiciary's attempts to criminalise participants in the protest.

This was clearly the aim behind the 32-month jail sentence bestowed on 18-year old 6th form college student Edward Woollard, for throwing (thoughtlessly, as he admitted) an empty fire extinguisher (and missing the cops below) from the roof of Tory headquarters during the demonstration on 10 November.

Preparing and organising each protest activity and each initiative rather than leaving things to chance might take a lot of effort, but at least it would prevent the movement from being diverted or weakened. But unless the youth take the initiative themselves, the trade-union machineries will be quick to step in order to act as a liaison between workers and youth - or even substitute themselves. Yet, if the youth should have learnt anything from their efforts so far, it is that they cannot trust trade union leaders any more than they can trust the NUS leaders whose spinelessness was exposed during the course of their protests. On the 9 December just yards from where students were being beaten up and imprisoned in a particularly strong "kettle", union bureaucrats were speechifying to activists from the unions without it apparently even occurring to them that they should have been joining the students at this crucial moment.

No, if the youth is to win the support and the credit necessary for workers to feel they have a stake in fighting side by side with them, they will have to reach out to ordinary rank-and-file workers, without ever relying on union leaders, who dread the idea of the working class expressing its anger freely in the streets, for fear that it might undermine their cosy relationship with the capitalist class.

So if the youth protest movement does manage to revive and sustain itself, it will have its work cut out. The tasks facing this movement require a high level of organisation, of thinking ahead, of pooling together, in the most democratic way, all the skills and minds available in order to find ideas and set objectives, finding the way formulate them, and then organising the practical initiatives required to achieve these aims. Then and only then, will the youth movement have a chance to make real gains.

In the process, the youth will discover politics - in practice, through their own experience - as many protesters already have, to some extent, over the past two months. Some may well be dismayed by such a suggestion. But they are wrong to be. Because the politics in question have nothing to do with corrupt Parliamentary politics. The original sense of being involved in politics means directly participating in the collective running of society. It means playing an active role in shaping it, rather than being a passive spectator, subjected as an isolated individual to the diktats of a minority - formed in today's world, by a tiny layer of very rich, rapacious capitalists.

In all movements which have transformed society the younger generation has played a decisive role. While their energy, dynamism and enthusiasm have boosted the confidence of their elders, they in turn have benefited from their elders' experience.

Whether today's youth will have the will and the capacity to play such a political role, depends on where their ambitions lie - do they want to "make a career" as they are pressurised to do by the conformism of this ultra-individualist society - or do they want to play an active role in shaping the future?

As revolutionary communists, we can only say this: look around you at the devastating crisis for which this parasitic capitalist system is responsible. One can choose individualism and passivity - and allow this decaying system to survive even though it only produces more and more poverty, crises and wars; or else, one can choose to take part in the collective shaping of society's future, by joining the ranks of those who, like us, are committed to overthrowing this dysfunctional system in order to build a new society, freed once and for all from the present capitalist exploitation and profiteering and organised to satisfy the needs of all.