In September 2016, the UK’s first and only student fee strike began on Goldsmiths campus in response to a lack of adequate funding for postgraduate social work students.
The drastic action was also provoked by a cynical marketing ploy in which management highlighted an intake of students from marginalised backgrounds, while placing the same students in a precarious position. This tied into broader concerns about the future of social work.
Following the death of Baby P in 2007, an ideological intervention from government created a coded, racialised and classist culture within social work. A new Tory agenda infiltrated a profession which historically employed and serviced large numbers of poor people of colour, replacing them with what David Cameron called ‘high-calibre’ graduates. These graduates, qualifying through the Frontline and Step Up to Social Work schemes, are — unlike their university counterparts — seldom working-class and they are not required to have any prior practical experience in social care. These graduate programmes are rapidly replacing academic social work training, as funding is siphoned away from universities who now struggle to increase their intake of working class applicants.
Until recently, social work degrees were funded in entirety by an NHS bursary. Now top up fees require students to find other sources of funding. However people in receipt of any kind of NHS bursary — even an inadequate one — are not eligible for many other types of postgraduate funding.
After a lengthy application process, successful MA Social Work candidates were required to accept a place on the Goldsmiths course in the early summer. We were expected to end our tenancies and resign from employment long before our NHS Social Work Bursary entitlements were made clear to us. Despite expecting an answer about our entitlements in May, we were kept in the dark until mid-August. For many of us, this was a worrying portent of the year to come.
We eventually discovered the university had increased course fees to £7,660, while the bursary designed to cover this had remained capped at £4,052 for three years.
After a series of conversations between individual course mates, it was soon clear to the cohort that it would be impossible for many of us to pay our course fees. Our course requires daily attendance and, combined with the academic workload and six-month unpaid placement, we were discouraged by staff from working even part-time. To us, a mark up of 85% was both unacceptable and unmanageable.
As an urgent response to the position the university had placed us in we demanded that the university cap course fees at the level paid for by the bursary and scrap the increase. But management refused. We gathered together and discussed petitioning the department but a few more radical elements suggested something bolder: an all out fee strike.
We became emboldened when we learned that due to administrative errors, the last two intakes had not had to pay fees at all. We found out the university also intended to offer £1000 per head for the first thirty people to be accepted onto the course next year. This was not offered to us.
The strike began in October 2016 with a motion passed through the Students Assembly, who voted unanimously to support the strike and for the union to provide us with a small contribution for materials. At a Free Education demo a week later we leafletted for further support and spoke to many students. A couple of our lecturers spoke to us and said they would do what they could to support us, as long as it didn’t jeopardise their jobs.
For months we held meetings whenever we could, but most of the time it didn’t appear on the surface as if we had taken any action at all. We all continued in our placements, wrote our essays, and ignored our invoices. We were largely ignored by management.
Each time we met up there were fewer of us: Three people broke the strike and another five withdrew from the course. It became very apparent that those with the most power in the group were those with the capacity to pay their fees. Those of us who couldn’t pay walked the line of precarity hoping that solidarity would carry us through.
In a surreal meeting in December 2016 we met just once with our department head who, on the brink of tears, tried to shut us down and expressed how personally she had taken our action. Meetings continued, posters went up but without any dialogue our action remained a stagnant one.
Finally in June 2017 management met with us. Here they stated in no uncertain terms that if we didn’t pay our fees we would all be removed from the course. It took some time to appeal to them and to get them to see that we were in an impossible position. Still, the department refused to recognise the disparity between their apparent commitment to anti-oppressive practice and their further marginalisation of working class and Black and minority ethnic students.
Two weeks later, however, management made us an offer: they would award £1000 to every student still enrolled on the course.
With all other options exhausted we accepted this compromise. We agreed the money should not be divided equally among us, but instead subject to an honesty policy in which those strikers who could afford not to take a cut did.
It wasn’t ideal. A cap at bursary level would show that Goldsmiths, a Centre for Excellence in Social Work, cared about its reputation and its students. But it was still victory of sorts.
Last year’s fee strike provided a new tactic for an otherwise dying student politics. It was an action of necessity, one that kept many on the path toward financial security and one that fought back against the homogenisation of a profession which requires a fundamentally heterogeneous workforce. Without this radical tendency, future social work is likely to become a dangerous institution for many who enter into it; voluntarily or not.
The fee strike should act as an evolving model for holding the institution to account and radically transform the social relations between students and universities, and between social workers and service users. It might not have been perfect, but for many of us it helped us, we hope, to secure a stable future.