Yesterday a few of us attended London Young Labour Summer Conference 2015 and distributed a bulletin. You can read it online here

LCFE bulletin for LYL Conf Front

LCFE Bulletin for LYL Conf Back

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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.

The Labour Campaign for Free Education (LCFE) sends its solidarity to the recent wave of student occupations.

Something very exciting is going on: the biggest reinvigoration of militant student movement activity since the 2010 movement exploded on to the national political scene.

In the recent weeks students at the London School of Economics (LSE), University of the Arts London (UAL) and King’s Collge London (KCL), have all gone into occupation – striking right at the core of the neoliberal university.

The Labour Campaign for Free Education welcomes the struggle to change the current political landscape surrounding education and the occupations’ defence of students’ right to access education – especially students from marginalised backgrounds.

UAL is in occupation to resist the 800 foundation places being cut under management’s plans. KCL and LSE occupations are both challenging commoditised structure of education within their universities, whether this is through low pay, tuition fees or an unaccountable management.

As in 2010-11, as well as raising demands of its own, the student movement has the potential to catalyse wider labour movement struggles around education, and against austerity in general. The same forces which commodify education are at the forefront of attacks on education workers’ pay and conditions, once again proving both the possibility and the necessity of student-worker solidarity.

We extend our solidarity to all of those occupying and demand the continued free entry and exit into occupations, with no victimisation of anyone involved.

This was Rida Vaquas’ speech at the opening plenary of the Labour Campaign for Free Education Conference 2015.

What do we mean by free education? At first this seems obvious, no fees. Then when we think about the day-to-day living costs students face, which shuts out so many people from education, we extend this to cover living grants for all. But when we think about the commoditisation of our education system that tuition fees is a part of, we need to understand that free education is a stand against the zero hours contracts that put many workers in constant financial insecurity, it is a stand against the universities who don’t pay workers a Living Wage whilst VCs pocket hundreds of thousands and take pay rises. A system which makes education a commodity necessitates the intensified exploitation of those who work within it. Why so? It is all to do with how the nature of the commodity transforms social relations between people into relations between things. The social relations at our sites of education are between students and all the workers who make education possible. This relation is then mystified by turning the student into a client, a purchaser of the commodity of ‘knowledge’ and the university management being the seller. This relationship lays the basis of exploiting university workers, when education is commodified, it then logically follows that the bosses aim to create more ‘value’ by repressing wages – whilst university lecturers and other workers are suffering from a real terms wages fall, Vice-Chancellor pay has increased by nearly by 60% in the last 2 decades. It is no coincidence that this astronomical increase has coincided with the rise of tuition fees. When we remove our fees from the equation, we’re saying no to lining the bosses’ pockets whilst funding for our courses is cut. Our universities are a site of struggle. My point in short: free education is not just a student campaign, it’s a campaign of the entire labour movement.

It’s important, however, to think of free education comprehensively , not just in higher education but as in education as a whole. There was an excellent article written by Shelly Asquith a while back which stated “Free education should mean freedom from poverty, not just tuition fees” and this must be at all levels of education. There are 3.5mn children who live in poverty today, and this is set to rise to 4.7mn by 2020. These are not just statistics. These are young human beings who are struggling to survive under the sharp heel of poverty, poverty that they absolutely shouldn’t have to face. Educational inequality is inseparably linked to wider economic inequality. We should be outraged that there is an attainment gap of 26.7 points between pupils who are not on free school meals and those who are in terms of GCSE grades at A* – C. It’s a lot easier to access education when you don’t have to worry about whether there’s food on the table or a roof over your head, when you don’t have to struggle to meet the hundreds of hidden costs of education, such as calculators, uniforms, stationery and more. We can only make the education fair and free for every pupil when every job has a decent wage, when 31% of people aren’t struck by unaffordable rent or mortgage costs, when welfare provides human dignity. In other words, we need to completely restructure the economy. In the short term, we need to fight for the reinstatement of EMA, against the academisation of our schools and against the planned cuts of 24% to the Further Education budget.

Free education, to me, also means freedom from anxiety and support for all mental illnesses. This is partly done by reducing the financial stresses on student and ensuring the shortest possible period for university counselling services with quick referrals to NHS Mental Health Services if needed, meaning we have to fight for proper funding for Mental Health Services, rather than the 8% cut over recent years. At the same time, we have to look at how the education system is structured. 20% of university students consider themselves as having mental health issues. This isn’t a system functioning healthily. Our education system is competitive, our learning is in a high pressure environment. Mental illness limits the ability of students to access education at any level and we are failing every student unless the very best support is provided.

Selma James once said at a talk “You can do two things with an education: a lifetime of poverty and insecurity or abolish poverty and insecurity”. We’ve all come today to discuss how we do the latter, to fight against the latter, to end neo-liberal capitalism in our education as a step to the end of neo-liberal capitalism everywhere.

Free education, in the abolition of tuition frees and livable living grants, will only be won as part of the confrontation of the capitalist system by labour. But then it is our duty to go beyond that, to build a new society, in which education can truly be free.

The Labour Campaign for Free Education (LCFE) held its inaugural conference last weekend (Saturday 21 March) at University College London, with the event comprising of a mix of workshops, motion discussions and planning for practical actions.

At the sessions we heard from a number of invited guests, including the political editor of the New Statesman George Eaton who gave a stirring account of the case for free education and the limitations of Labour’s current policy, and Young Labour Under-19s Officer Rida Vaquas who spoke of the need to tie the fight for free education into a vision of a better, more equal, and socialist society.

One theme was learning from the history of the free education movement, and Lloyd Russell-Moyle the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Lewes and a former activist with Educational Not For Sale gave a very informative talk on the struggles of the left in the student movement to fight for free education since the policy was ditched by Jim Murphy’s National Union of Students (NUS) in years leading up to Blair. This was supplemented by contributions from Labour Students and National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) activist James Elliott and Young Labour National Committee member Caroline Hill about the current state of Labour’s youth movements.

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Showing solidarity with the anti-academy demo in Lewisham

Our other main workshop of the day was led by the 3 Cosas Campaign for sick pay, holidays and pensions at the University of London, bringing together another main concern of LCFE – how the system of fees, loans and marketisations has accelerated attacks on the pay, conditions and pensions of higher education workers.

One of the most important aspects of the day was the open and democratic discussion on our principles, constitution and policies. As the fight for free education is linked to the democratisation of the labour movement, and society at large, it is important that events such as ours are democratic and accessible.

We passed our constitution, giving the campaign durable and democratic structures which will allow us to grow outwards as a co-ordinating network of students, workers and Labour members who believe in free education.

Motions passed included supporting the 28th March demonstration in Birmingham for Free Education, affiliating to the NCAFC, “supporting workers in future industrial disputes in education to defend courses, jobs, pay and conditions”, and taking a stand against the increasing crack-down on protest, including the use of pre-charge bail conditions on campuses such as Warwick.

Going forward, we will be attending the 28th March demonstration on Saturday, and have plans to continue producing materials making the case for free education in the labour movement and in society, and to organise a real counter-weight to supporters of continued tuition fees or a graduate tax.

Get in touch if you want to join with us or stay informed about our next steps!