“For education, not for consumption, but for liberation.” Rida Vaquas’s speech at 28th March Birmingham Demo

I want to start by saying why I am here, why we are all here on a Saturday afternoon.

I’m here because I am really, really angry. I’m angry because navigating Student Finance and Accommodation is a Kafkaesque nightmare at the best of times. I’m angry because support for students with mental health problems is pathetically little, if there’s any at all. I’m angry because before we even get to Higher Education, heck, even secondary school, there is already an attainment gap between poor students and rich students, by GCSEs in 2013-2014 this was a gap of 27.2% between pupils on Free School Meals and those not. At the current rate of improvement, this gap will be closed in 2035. I’m angry because all of this is shutting people out of education who have every single right in the world to get it.

But you know what? I’m here for more than that. In the two weeks, I know of three universities who have gone into occupation, who have said no to the marketisation of our education. Can we have a cheer for University of Arts London, Kings College London, and London School of Economics? These students have proven to us that we can resist within our campuses, that we can fight back. The occupations’ demands prove free education is more than just the scrapping of tuition fees, it is the building of a whole new education system, where power is with workers and students, where curricula embraces the world’s inheritance The movement for free education needs sustained mobilisation, in Germany it took 15 years before the last state of Lower Saxony abolished tuition fees. We don’t have 15 years. Just now the government axed 24% of the adult education budget. Every single person who has been denied education due to this is one too many. We need a persistent movement, completely uncompromising in our goals and our vision to ensure not one more loses an opportunity they should have got. I hope these occupations mark the resurgence of many more, and this demonstration sparks off new ones, I want 2010 to pale in comparison to the reinvigoration of the student movement – I want to us to fight until we win.

The slogan of Wilhelm Liebknecht, a 19th Century Social Democrat was that. “Wissen ist Macht. Macht ist Wissen”. The first half of this slogan I am sure you all know very well, because it’s been co-opted by liberals time and time again. “Knowledge is power” The second half is less often quoted “Macht ist Wissen” – Power is Knowledge. Liebknecht’s point is that education estranged from wider political struggle against capitalism is a futile effort. Our education system is a structure that currently serves to make us ‘employable’, i.e. improves our capability to work for the bosses. We need to remake the whole system in order for education to be a weapon we wield against the bosses. We will liberate ourselves with education, only when we collectively liberate education – that is, seize political power on behalf of workers, not bosses.

So why demand Labour, specifically, commit to free education and living grants for all, as we are gathered here today to do? Because the pressure’s working already. Higher Education didn’t necessarily have to be an issue of the election, but we made it one. Labour have pledged, not a sufficient pledge I know, to reduce tuition fees to £6,000 and increase the maintenance grant. This is not enough, but it’s a step away from the rises we’ve seen in the past decade. We can exert more pressure through working in the labour movement. In Germany, it took an alliance of trade unions and political parties as well as students to keep up the momentum for free education. We know that our universities are places of struggle, whilst Vice Chancellors pocket frankly obscene amounts, workers may be employed on zero-hour contracts and paid under living wage. We cannot transform education from a commodity into a social good unless we stand side by side by workers in their struggles to emancipate themselves from immense exploitation.

So why have we marched here? For education, not for consumption, but for liberation.

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