Kat Gwyther, Leeds Socialist Students
Socialist Students national conference – our first in person since the start of the Covid pandemic – was full of enthusiasm for building a fightback on campuses. Socialist Students national organiser Theo Sharieff opened the meeting.
Students face a degraded future. But anger has grown as the pandemic has exacerbated the broken system created by the continued marketisation of higher education.
Staff have taken sustained strike action and students have fought back – becoming a powerful voice against university bosses and the rotten capitalist system. The student fightback has taken place through rent strikes, protests against A-level results, and against ongoing violence against women on campuses and in society.
But our student voice has not been amplified at a national level. A key question at conference was ‘where is the National Union of Students (NUS)?’
The NUS has been mostly absent from the struggle. Local student unions and student groups have been left to fight alone.
Socialist Students has been vital in combating this isolation. We have been fighting alongside rent strikers, at protests, and have mobilised students in organised action – notably on 21 April 2021 at 24 campus protests calling for fee and rent refunds. But we cannot build the student fightback alone.
Prior to our meeting, the NUS had called a ‘national student strike’ for 2 March, timed with the last day of strike action by the University and College Union (UCU). The small turnout to the demo, which looked likely at the time of the conference, has nothing to do with the lack of appetite on the part of students for struggle, but is down the failure of the NUS leadership to mobilise effectively.
Socialist Students conference discussed and agreed that 2 March should be the beginning of reflecting on what the student movement needs next in the struggle for free education. Socialist Students calls on the NUS to set a date for a national meeting that brings together all organisations – student groups like Socialist Students, student unions, and campus workers’ trade unions – to discuss the next steps in the fight. Socialist Students will continue to play a key role in this process.
Also at Socialist Students conference, motions on fighting sexual harassment and violence on campus and defending the right to protest were also discussed out democratically and voted on.
The day ended with an energetic rally that reinforced the need for youth and student organisation, in workplaces and on campuses, and for socialism, here and internationally.
The conference took place in Birmingham, and Socialist Party member Dave Nellist – Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate standing in the Erdington by-election – also spoke. He set out the need for a new political voice for students and young workers.
Socialist Students conference took place only a few days after the Tory government announced its plans to make it harder for working-class students to reach higher education. The Tories’ proposed changes in England include a 40-year tuition fee repayment scheme and a grade threshold to qualify for student finance loans in the first place.
A 40-year repayment scheme benefits the rich, and will enormously impact graduates who earn less. On top of this, young workers have also been hit most by recent increases to national insurance. Instead of making the rich pay, young workers pay almost 50% of their income in taxes. A fight against the capitalist chaos that rules our society, and our education system, must take place. Building Socialist Students is a first step towards this.