Welcome to a new forum for students

Students are constantly being portrayed as apathetic, as blind consumers of bland 'tick a box and yo

When I heard the New Statesman was relaunching its website and devoting part of it to campus activism and the issues that affect and inspire students, I was pleased to accept the opportunity to write for it.

Actually scrap that very polite start - not exactly hard-hitting for a radical. Truth is I bloody jumped at the chance. Students are constantly being portrayed as apathetic, as blind consumers of bland 'tick a box and you'll get a job-style higher education' - not to mention maxing out their credit cards when they're not snoozing till midday or stumbling home blind drunk.

Yes ok, some students enjoy a pint or two but there are also active feminists, environmentalists, gay rights campaigners and other politicos. Thousands upon thousands of us joined the call to Make Poverty History, thousands of us form a key part of the anti-war movement and apart from our proud history of social and international campaigning, students have also shown themselves instrumental in taking action on campus-specific issues. Like when Frank Ellis, a lecturer at Leeds university, commented that black people are inferior to white people.

At that point the NUS Anti-Racism/Anti Fascism committee and the student population at Leeds took action. They stood up and fought for his dismissal on the grounds that all students have a right to study in an environment free from discrimination. And their actions had an undeniable impact, with Dr. Ellis being suspended for breach of the Race Relations Act.

 

Radical canvas?

 

Time and time again students protest about campus closures, course closures, library closures, halls privatisations and sell offs and in support of our staff - we don't always win, but we always try. These and countless examples of other action go unreported. The point is that students defending resources, standing up to on-campus racism and lobbying the international community are all part of the 'radical' canvas - the activism and ideas that will make this site a cracking read and a sparring ground.

As the president of the NUS and as a former women's officer at Liverpool John Moore's university my personal connection to the concept of campus activism might seem obvious. NUS has traditionally fought for the rights of students and has been the seat of angry student voices through the years, not to mention being the former stomping ground of some rather politically engaged public figures. Jack Straw, Charles Clarke started here as long-haired lefties (whatever went wrong eh?).

Now more than ever NUS is urging students to get active to protect their rights. We think that students need to protect their right to education on the basis of ability not affluence, to protect and promote their rights to demand excellence for their money and to negotiate decent pay and conditions as they enter the seemingly inevitable part time job market to make ends meet. As I'm writing this, ministers are muttering that Muslim students shouldn't wear the veil on campus, and they are proposing that lecturers should 'monitor' students who they suspect of extremism. Protecting our right to expression and fighting to keep our campuses free of the racism, fear and suspicion that flies in the face of civil liberties is part of the brief of the 'radical'.

Anger over top-up fees led thousands onto the streets of London to support the NUS Admission: Impossible campaign. The halcyon days of free education are over. But surely when Tony Blair (who got one of those much yearned after free degrees) made his commitment to 'education, education, education' ten years ago he didn't intend to add a footnote 'for those who can afford it' - which is exactly what his government have instituted with their variable fees.

 

Make your voices heard

 

That a market is creeping into the sector, swaying students’ choices and creating a crude bums on seats marketing drive by some universities will no doubt take up some room on these pages. That student 'customers' are being gagged by unfair contracts will feature if NUS has anything to do with it. And they are the ones that even get into Higher Education. This year alone there are around 15,000 less students are going to University, our fear is this trend will continue, with some students priced out of education for ever.

Hopefully, what will come out of these pages is an expression of the diversity of student activity and opinion as well as the new challenges that students are facing. The Vietnam war and anti-apartheid marches were easier when education was free and one in five of us weren't in part time jobs. But we still march, lobby and make our voices heard. On this site we'll hopefully hear as much from part-time students, mature students, and students in FE whom the NUS are helping empower to shape their own education. Campus radicals ... bring it on.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories