The student movement against fees and cuts has been a pretty big fail by our stated goals so far. Tuition fees have tripled, our teaching budgets are still being cut by 80 percent, and I don’t think anyone outside the student bubble even noticed the day the Commons voted to stop thousands of 16 year olds from getting to school now they won’t be receiving their Educational Maintenance Allowance. And much of the Daily Mail readership now thinks that students are scrounging, racist, violent thugs. The student movement hasn’t had a great campaign to date.
Or have we? Let’s look at these statistics. Yes, we failed to get the Commons to reject the proposal on tuition fees, but we did manage to cut the government majority to 22: we prompted 6 ministerial resignations (including a Conservative), almost the entire backbench Liberal Democrat party rebelled, and six Conservative Party MPs voted against as well. The Liberal Democrats fell below 10 percent in the polls the day after the vote and have never recovered. They face electoral oblivion in May.
In the last five months we have put tens of thousands of students on the streets all across the country; the media likes to focus on the fun and games with the Met in London, but 1200 people marched in Bury alone on the 24th November, mostly sixth form students. Coursemates that I have never thought would ever protest anything other than gently have been up in arms. And for the most part, this has all happened outside the National Union of Students, who seem to believe that the government will respond to a strongly worded letter and some glowsticks by the Thames. We’re doing pretty well for a movement made up of students, many of whom are inexperienced, most of whom are poor, and all of whom have degrees and A levels to study for. The Daily Mail was never going to like us anyway.
Our greatest strength is that we are a genuine, broad, movement that has mobilised non-political people in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Iraq War. Our greatest weakness is the fact that we don’t have a coherent, vested interest-free, national organisation to coordinate them. The NUS is looking out for itself, and the National Coalition Against Cuts and Fees and the Education Action Network are both sponsored by small left groups with their own agendas. Being small left groups with their own agendas, they seem to think that if they just call enough marches, the government will fall and everything will be alright again. It just doesn’t work like that.
But with the votes on tuition fees and EMA over, our moment is gone, and the spotlight is passing to others. As I was marching on the 24 November with 6,000 other people in Manchester, I commented to someone next to me about how large our movement could become – he replied, “This? This is nothing. Wait ’til they cut benefits.” Benefits have duly been cut and the public sector slashed, and I am now hearing stories from students about their parents losing jobs, their disabled friends having to move into carehomes because they don’t have care-workers anymore, their partners losing jobs, their surgical procedures being held up because the NHS can’t pay for them, their friends losing jobs, the libraries being closed, and they themselves losing jobs. People’s attention isn’t on education anymore – it’s on our survival.
A million people marched against the Iraq War, and we failed then, too. But the Chilcot enquiry is rumbling on, Tony Blair has effectively had to move abroad, and pre-emptive war is dead as a doctrine for now. Margaret Thatcher never lost an election, she was forced out after the unpopularity of the poll tax became so obvious and so loud MPs feared losing their seats. People are still singing songs about how much they hate Margaret Thatcher on the streets today. Let us start writing our songs about David Cameron and Nick Clegg now.
And with that, a new phase for the student movement is starting. We must keep talking about tuition fees and education cuts lest we forget, but unions are mobilising, liberation groups are campaigning, and ordinary people who thought “cuts” would never happen to them are picking up placards and clearing their throats. We need to join them, support them, fight with them, and make sure we win as many battles as possible even if we lose the war. Because behind the rhetoric, every “battle” has someone’s livelihood at stake, and every “clash” means someone’s career on the line. Let’s make it theirs.