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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation