Capitalist crisis consumes universities

It seems simpler to list the things which work in Britain in 2023 than to list what’s broken. Public services are literally crumbling. Prices everywhere for workers and young people continue to spiral above our wages and maintenance loans. Infrastructure is failing. The housing market is broken. Councils are going bust.

The profit-before-everything-else system of capitalism is at the root of all of these crises, as it is the multiple threats of global climate change, war, and the various forms of daily bigotry that millions face.

Anyone studying on British university campuses in the last decade would agree that universities haven’t escaped the turmoil. “Unhappy students; angry lecturers; unmarked exams; poisonous industrial relations; cancelled courses; a lack of student housing and ballooning debt. As UK universities begin the academic year, the crises are piling up.” These were the words of a professor at Oxford Brookes University writing in the Financial Times.

Workers fight back

Constant attacks from management and the Tories, on university staff wages and conditions, have seen years of industrial unrest on the campuses as workers have mounted a fightback.

The coronavirus pandemic laid bare the effects of years of austerity and marketisation, as students were invited back to the campuses on the pretext of a ‘business as usual’ learning experience, only to find themselves locked down on the campuses and offered no support from management or the Tories. Years of overcrowding of lecture theatres and campus halls, and the gutting of student support and mental health services were all brought into sharp relief. Those were very difficult years for millions of students. But, left in the hands of university management and the Tories, virtually nothing has changed since.

And now, this year thousands of would-be graduates have still not received their final grades as a result of the UCU’s marking and assessment boycott. Like elsewhere in society, this crisis gripping the university campuses is the result of the brutal austerity policies carried out by the Tories in service to the capitalist system. Tory cuts to government funding of our universities, accompanied by the growth of the market model for Higher Education funding, have brought our universities to a state of near paralysis.

That on its own would be enough to generate widespread anger. But this year students will also be worrying about the ongoing and worsening student cost-of-living crisis. In 2023, for the first time ever, the average annual student rent has now surpassed the maximum available student loan. While prices everywhere in society continue to rise, the Tories have only increased maintenance loans by 2.8% this year.

Near the start of 2023, it was reported that 40% of students were studying at home, most to save money. 18% of students have avoided buying educational resources needed for their courses. 28% reported skipping meals to save on food costs, 47% were going out less with friends, and 14% were travelling to campus for free energy use. 18% of students are now using food banks.

As prices continue to rise, this situation will increasingly become untenable for more and more students. Mass outbursts of anger on the campuses in the form of student protests are more than possible.

Rising costs, with no extra funding made up by the government, will also push universities further into financial crisis, posing further attacks on students and campus workers. Socialist Students, in which Socialist Party members play a leading role, demands that management take steps now to protect students and workers, including making access to student hardship funds readily available, ensuring no price increases on campus canteens and restaurants, keeping university spaces such as 24-hour libraries open, not limiting campus lighting or heating, and making no more cuts to jobs or courses. The money should be demanded from central government.

Off the bat this term, universities and students will have their first experience of industrial action as the University and College Union (UCU) has called five more days of national strike action between 25-29 September. This coincides with a re-ballot campaign by the UCU between 19 September and 3 November.

Socialist Students will be campaigning for the maximum possible support amongst students for the UCU strikes, including mobilising students to picket lines. This year’s strike wave has demonstrated that collective workers’ struggle can force major concessions out of the crumbling Tory party. A mass student movement struggling alongside the UCU would act to hasten the resolution of the dispute on the terms of striking workers and students, who together face the brunt of marketisation and cuts.

September 2023 also marks one of the biggest government attacks on students’ futures since the trebling of tuition fees back in 2010 by the ‘condemn’ coalition. Beginning this academic year, any undergraduates who take on tuition fee and maintenance loan debt will be forced to repay that debt starting from a lower annual income threshold – lowered from £27,500 a year to £25,000 – over the course of 40 years, up from 30 years.

This huge attack, which would act to trap millions of future graduates in a lifetime of debt repayment deductions from their wages, is driven by the pronounced character of the economic crisis of British capitalism. Stagnant, low-growth British capitalism can no longer indefinitely tolerate the growing mountain of state-owned student debt, which is currently valued at £206 billion. As in any capitalist economic crisis, the capitalist class and their political representatives are attempting to make us pay in order to protect their ability to make the maximum possible profits, no matter what that may mean for the wellbeing of wider society.

But a socialist alternative to the capitalist system can be fought for by students, workers, and young people. A socialist society, broken free from the straitjacket of the profit-driven capitalist system, would be based on the democratic planning of society’s resources and the democratic public ownership of the banks, monopolies, and major industries – the commanding heights of the economy – harnessed to meet the needs of society.

With the profit motive removed, such a society would guarantee every one who wants one a high-quality, free university education on a permanent and lasting basis. A free education system would mean the scrapping of tuition fees, replacing maintenance loans with grants which increase with inflation, and the cancellation all outstanding student debt – and an education system democratically run by university workers and students, not by unaccountable managers and vice-chancellors.

All of which can be fought for now by building a mass movement uniting students and workers demanding, amongst other things, free education, and that the government fund it by taking the wealth off the super-rich.

Get organised

A central task in the building of such a movement however, is the need for students to get organised on the university campuses. Right now, students – unlike their counterparts in the trade union movement – find themselves without the necessary organisations, on campuses and nationally, through which they can collectively and democratically discuss all of these attacks, and debate the programme and strategy needed to fight back in an organised and mass way.

But missing as well is a political party which will fight in Parliament and the council chambers for the decent future that students and young people have been fighting for in the streets over the past two decades, from the 2011 student movement to the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. Starmer’s Labour has obliterated every last pledge included in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos, including Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees.

That’s why Socialist Students, at its 2023 national conference, voted to support the call for a new mass political party which represents the interests of the working class, students and young people, and to support any candidate in the upcoming local elections and general election standing on an anti-austerity and socialist platform.

Vital would be the arming of such a party with a socialist programme which poses a complete break with the system of capitalism and the construction of a new kind of society and world.

For young and working-class people, such a society wouldn’t stop at just providing a free education. Democratic planning of the economy would allow the majority to harness and mobilise the resources which currently exist but rot under capitalism – to provide everyone with decent and secure work, high-quality housing, an immediate transition to green energy and industry, and an end to all the destruction and misery that capitalism means for billions of people on a daily basis.

But achieving a socialist transformation of society would require a mass struggle, in the workplaces, local communities, university campuses and streets, to stand up to the inevitable resistance and sabotage that the capitalist class would attempt to protect their class rule. To discuss how students and young people can join the struggle for the socialist transformation of society in Britain and across the world, come to Socialism 2023.

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September 2023