Today's student demo must set the agenda for change

We need a new way of thinking about post-16 education, says the NUS President

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Our generation has a lot to be angry about. From the scrapping of EMA and the trebling of tuition fees - combined with a large-scale withdrawal of direct public investment in teaching in higher education - to the nearly one million young people currently unemployed, from the broken election pledges and students turned away from polling stations to a Government which all too frequently seems to show contempt for voters and the public at large.

It is incredibly important that we raise these concerns, and that we build awareness as to why the Government’s direction of travel is quite so wrong on quite so many issues. The demonstration we are hosting in London today needs to be the start of something, not just an expression of what we are – rightly – angry about. And while we are opposed to many of these things, I also want us to find something that’s worth fighting for. Today’s demo is about us setting the agenda – building and shaping a vision for our collective future.

I want everyone, not just the narrow elite, to be able to access post-compulsory education at any point in their life without fear of debt. These are the ethical ties that bind and help to create the public value of education which instils the principles of lifelong learning and bestows educational entitlements for the many, not the few.

Citizens

It is time to develop educational experiences that support and inspire people to become democratic participants, citizens who can make a difference in the world, and yes, economic actors with creative, satisfying jobs. Learning is not something that is apart from our economic system, it should be deeply rooted in our economic system because that will transform how we think about labour, capital and markets. The divide between ‘pure thought’ and the ‘real word’ was always a false dualism and we need to be prepared to say so.

All of this requires a tertiary education system that operates in the public interest and that can evidence its public value. There are obvious demands in such an agenda: the reinvestment of public funding, scrapping of tuition fees and reintroduction of financial support to allow college students to at least afford the bus to college, are all important but they should be the natural conclusions of a paradigm for education and its purpose in society, not the starting point. For me, this means three basic things.

First, we need genuinely flexible pathways into and out of various forms of education. Why should higher education and university follow college and university, and why should people be sorted into academic or vocational pathways before they know what their interests and talents might turn out to be? Why shouldn’t people with a postgraduate degree return to study an apprenticeship? Why shouldn’t people who study ancient history alongside their day job? Embedding learning and growth throughout life is part of social justice; it’s part of how we create a fair, balanced economy.

The Government have got it so wrong. They think that people exist for the economy and for themselves, and that the answer to economic growth is longer hours and lower wages. In fact, the economy exists for people, and should be set to the purpose of helping people to grow and develop, reinforcing our obligations to each other, not just to ourselves.

We should be concerned about fair access to higher education and we should be looking to expand educational opportunities. But we need to get away from the idea that academic higher education is the pinnacle of personal achievement. The type of education you have is far less important than what you are able to do and the person you become because of it.

Spread the power

Second, we need a genuine dispersal of power – empowering students, staff and communities in institutional decision-making. Colleges and universities don’t change by themselves and central government policy can only go so far. Students, staff and communities have a responsibility to engage in the community of institutions, not just acting as consumers giving their feedback, or as shareholders in a corporate business but as genuine stakeholders. To be a genuine stakeholder you have to have a genuine stake.

The governing bodies of colleges and universities should include students and alumni, but also members of the local community.

Third, institutions should be held accountable for how they collaborate to serve the public good, not encouraged to be in competition with each other for an already-insufficient number of student places and funding streams. The market does not automatically serve the public good and never has done.

We desperately need not just new ideas – though we really do need those as well – but a new way of thinking about post-16 education.

Today we’re marching to both point out how the political establishment, are shutting the doors on education, pulling up the drawbridge on employment and leaving us one of the most disempowered generation this country has known. But also because we have a different vision. And that’s why this demo cannot be the end.

We need to build a mass movement of students and supporters, and we need to work with our institutions to build true, political partnership between staff and students. Most importantly, we need to win over the public to our cause and push the government to secure change and make our vision a reality.

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