The ongoing strike by university staff at 64 universities has gathered unprecedented student support, but a thorny remains within the debate about how students can best leverage power against their institutions: whether students should demand tuition fee refunds for days lost to strike action.
The demand appears to have gathered student support from across the political spectrum, regardless of position on the strike. But questions remain about how it relates to wider demands against the marketisation of higher education. Here are three perspectives from trade union and student organisers:
Illan rua Wall and Myka Tucker-Abramson
The University and College Union (UCU) strike is currently crippling 64 universities in the UK. In response, there has been a growing call by students for a refund for cancelled classes including a national petition circulating with over 100,000 signatures. UCU branches and activists have largely been sceptical about this call and with good reason.
The refund demand encourages students to desire the object (the return of some fees) that confirms the system that harms them most (the fees structure/commodified education itself). And it doesn’t just ‘confirm the idea’, students who actively join the struggle for a refund shape their desires and attachments around individualistic consumer rights. It binds them ever closer into neoliberal subject-formation. In other words, at present, the drive for a refund is little more than a cruel optimism.
And yet, to reject the demand for a refund is also a mistake. In refusing this demand, not only do we risk alienating students from our cause, but we also deny the fact that like it or not, students are consumers, education is marketised, and this is the demand that most students have organised around. Therefore, unless we want to try to dissolve the students and elect another, to borrow from Brecht, we need to recognise what the potential use in this demand and start from there. Students are not just angry at their lack of lectures, in fact 61% of students at striking universities support the strike. Rather, beneath the refund demand is a genuine anger at their conditions within and beyond the university.
While many of us know there are better demands – free education most notably – the problem is that you can’t defeat the cruel optimism of a refund by pointing to its reliance on commodified relations. It is obvious to every student involved. They live that commodified relation every day. The only way is to demarketise that demand is by overriding it with more powerful experiences: the type of experiences like those of 2010’s mass movement, which while defeated, created the space for a new sense of intergenerational solidarity, one that led to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the newfound militancy within the UCU.
The fee refund is a reactive move, but if it draws students back to the streets, and help them to find new friends and allies in struggle, it can valorise another generation. It is 50 years since May ’68, and today, as then, students could become the lynchpin of social transformation.
Students, not consumers; or, opposing marketisation in all its forms.
Debates around students demanding fee refunds during the UCU strike, and thus the potential for an organised fee strike, have highlighted some interesting tensions between possible tactics deployed by the student movement and the ideology underpinning them.
From a radical left perspective, it seems clear that the only reasoning for seeking to coordinate a national student fee strike would be to wield material financial leverage against institutions as a means of forcing them to take action. We know that this tactic has worked historically, and that economic pressure often makes organisations capitulate to demands.
Unfortunately, this has not been the dominant narrative surrounding the fee refund debates. Instead, the overriding messaging has positioned students as consumers within our higher education system; the very message the grassroots student movement has been fighting tooth and nail against for many years.
But why is this important? If we get the intended outcome of applying economic pressure on universities then why does the messaging matter?
Well, there’s a strong argument that the ‘students as consumers’ rhetoric has significantly impacted how we perceive organising within higher education. This rhetoric hinges on a notion of individualism which props up the idea that students wielding their personal consumer power is how we win our demands. But we know that this is not the case. We win our demands through collectivism, grassroots organising and direct action.
Of course, the idea behind a fee strike is that you would collectivise individual action and thus transform it into a movement, much like a rent strike. But the terrain in higher education is very different to that of the housing sector. The goal of completely free higher education is closer than ever, and wielding the narrative of ‘students as consumers’ now will set us back. Embracing the logic of marketisation not only harms students, but staff who have the most to lose in this pensions dispute. The last two decades of marketisation have led to a sharp increase in precarity and erosion of rights and conditions for those working in higher education; we must oppose this ideology wholesale.
Ultimately, student support for this strike should not hinge on whether we are getting ‘value for money’ or not; it should hinge on the principle of solidarity. Even if we might ‘lose out’ a bit as students in the short term, we should focus on our longer term vision for higher education: one which is free, democratic and accessible to all, and which provides our staff with fair and decent working conditions.
Strikes serve an educational purpose.
Elio Di Muccio
The student movement of 2010 predominantly took the form of direct action, with its preferred tactic being the occupation of private space. This was a powerful act of defiance against the privatisation of public services forced through austerity. While the movement became a vanguard against public expenditure cuts, the experience ended in defeat insofar as the reforms it fought were implemented and its demand for free education was not met. The outcome of the struggle proved that education is not a right, but a privilege. But the movement never died and a regeneration of student power was undeniably facilitated by the fact that free lifetime education is now back on the Labour party’s agenda.
However, the question on everyone’s mind is how to ensure that Labour remains committed to this promise once in power. Tactics such as fee refunds and fee strikes are innovative, but they do not help build popular power in favour of free education; as demands, they are not formulated to match new points of leverage given by the fact that universities increasingly generate income from accommodation, real estate, hospitality services, international investments, distance learning and becoming generic employment agencies for skilled labour.
Calls for fee refunds can add a financial burden to otherwise weak sources of workers’ power. They should be welcomed for their pragmatism where they occur in conjunction with trade unions and the left on campuses and tip the balance of forces. But insofar as they undermine rather than encourage collective responses, they remain a tactic borne out of the subjectivity of the student as a private consumer. Similarly, an effective fee strike is difficult to imagine in a situation where fees are funded through debt, and in which the restriction of finance is the most effective method for government to exacerbate crises in public services to justify cuts and privatisation.
Neither adequately reflects the need to circulate student struggles and struggles about education throughout the working class. On the other hand, sustained strikes such as the current industrial action over the proposed changes to the USS pension scheme – which are set to cut the pensions of workers ranging from tutors living in poverty to essential administrative staff and hard-working researchers and lecturer by between 20 and 40% – are proving to be far more effective for building the movement for free education.
Far from being disruptive of education, strikes show students how to assert their dignity in the workplace. By spreading the confidence necessary to challenge the widespread social perception that participating in a university education automatically means being a winner of the class struggle – of going from being exploited to an exploiter – strikes remain pedagogically fulfilling while building solidarity.