The noisy demonstration in defence of higher education that took place in London could pave the way for the re-emergence of the student movement
The United for Education demo on 19 November was jointly called by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) back in July, two days after the second reading of the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill. Spiteful in scope and content, this Bill seeks to introduce new levels of competitiveness into higher education, making it far easier for private companies to establish universities and award degrees. ‘Failing’ universities will be allowed to close, or else be bought up, and a proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) would enable high-performing institutions, defined as such by student satisfaction surveys, to increase their tuition fees.
Malia Bouattia, National President of the NUS, was clear. The Higher Education Bill, she said, represented nothing less than a ‘deeply risky ideologically-led market experiment in further and higher education’. One current London-based PhD student told Counterfire that he attended yesterday’s demonstration because he feared the marketisation of education would only lead to ‘higher fees and worse teaching. I worry that undergraduates are receiving a worse education than I did.’
For all the potential doom and gloom, Saturday’s march from Park Lane to Millbank was energetic and loud, providing as it did a space for a multiplicity of battles to be fought. This was not just about the Higher Education Bill: NUS also stressed that the United for Education demonstration was ‘a call for international solidarity and opposition to all forms of racism and xenophobia’. The Conservatives’ pernicious 'Prevent' strategy demonstrates the urgency of such calls.
What was perhaps most important about the demo, then, was its very premise: United for Education. Recent years have seen a sharp and troubling disconnect emerge between the respective struggles of students and university employees, precisely at a time when solidarity is required to defend higher education in the UK from the effects of market forces. It is no coincidence that a familiar old chant rang especially loudly yesterday: ‘Students and workers – unite and fight’.
A re-emergence of the student movement is imperative. Yesterday provided strong evidence that the moment for this re-emergence is now.