By Jake Roberts
On the 9th July 2018, the new Students’ Union (SU) officers at Surrey take office. Social media accounts will be handed over, pictures on the SU website will be replaced, and eventually a new banner of fresh faces will grace the side of the SU building. Thus begins a new year at the Students’ Union.
This new start for the Union, however, should be more than cosmetic. For too long our Union has been an inert force for change, prioritising recreational events and “charitable objectives” over serious political campaigning, organising and educating. I thus write this article as an open call to all the new officers in the union – both the paid full-time officers and the voluntary part-time officers, within the ‘zones’ and the Liberation Committee – to make this year different. From those of you getting their first taste of student politics and campaigning to those of you more well-worn, I urge you all to be activists, not bureaucrats. Through this article, I want to help you all realise the power, importance and significance of your various positions, and implore you to use that in an effective political manner.
Think big: Higher education in context
The world of student politics, and university life more broadly, is one of constant flux. Thousands of students both begin and leave university every year, rapidly changing the make-up of the student body on an annual basis. Additionally, lengthy holiday periods over Christmas, Easter and summer puncture any sense of continuity within a single year, as many students leave campus to live at home, go on holiday, or work. Full-time officers in the Union, furthermore, can only serve a maximum of two one-year terms before they are forced to step down, adding to the lack of continuity that permeates student politics.
As a result, it can be extraordinarily difficult to appreciate the broader picture of what’s going on as a student officer or activist. But doing so is vital if you, as new officers, want to genuinely address the many injustices ongoing at Surrey. If you want to make serious, long-lasting change that benefits not only current students but also the many generations of students to come – some of whom may be your children – appreciating the larger historical and political context is necessary.
So what is this larger historical trajectory that I speak of? What is the ‘bigger picture’ in higher education? At the risk of sounding like a broken record to some who may read this piece, I would argue it can be summed up in one word: marketisation. Over the past three decades British higher education has undergone a radical transformation, predicated on a series of neoliberal ideological assumptions about education and society. Simply, marketisation is an ideology that believes education is best treated as a commodity that should be delivered through market mechanisms. Degrees (and university experiences) are treated as commodities whose benefits are perceived solely in relation to individuals (e.g how much money the degree will allow the graduate to earn) rather than society as a whole. Meanwhile, it is assumed that the best way to improve the ‘quality’ of these degree-commodities is for universities to compete in a marketplace over students and resources (rather than co-operate), supposedly driving up the quality of teaching and research.
While this may sound reasonable on the surface, these fundamental – and above all ideological – assumptions are why higher education is no longer free, the government has cut funding to universities (particularly for arts and social science courses), university league tables have been constructed (these only came into existence some 26 years ago), maintenance loans have replaced maintenance grants, the number of private universities in England is multiplying, and a dizzying array of largely arbitrary metrics like the NSS and the TEF have emerged to measure and ‘rank’ universities into a differentiated higher education ‘market’. The goal of all these reforms is clear – to fundamentally change the nature of higher education in the UK, such that universities behave like businesses (prioritising how they appear on an open day over actual student and staff welfare) and students think like consumers. The only people that benefit from this process are the rich, who find universities increasingly bending over to their profit-driven interests in order to secure funding and are able to afford the many costs of higher education, while ordinary students and university workers suffer, being loaded with debt and forced onto low-wage or insecure contracts. Marketisation makes universities engines that reinforce (rather than challenge) structures of inequality; it is a pernicious ideology that must be resisted at every turn.
Furthermore, marketisation is not an ‘abstract’ thing – some distant ‘national’ problem we can worry about later while we focus on ‘real’, local student issues for now – it affronts students at Surrey everyday through a diverse range of often mundane and localised practices. Examples of these are plentiful: remember the Economics lectures happening in an Odeon earlier this academic year? That was marketisation in action, as the university over-recruited for a certain course in the interest of maximising tuition fee income in the wake of government funding cuts. The Politics department almost getting effectively shut down in 2015? Again that was marketisation, where the arbitrary demands of narrowly-defined “research excellence”, most prominently measured through the Research Excellence Framework, came above students’ and academics’ needs and interests. I could go on: from our Vice-Chancellor’s £366,000 a year salary while 47% of Surrey’s academics exist on casual or insecure job contracts, to the emphasis on building expensive student accommodation at Manor Park (which will be over £150 a week when completed) over the provision of cheaper accommodation, the neoliberal logic of marketisation is being enforced daily at Surrey.
It’s not just the historical context that student officers need to be aware of, though; it’s also the broader contemporary political context. For as the excellent NUS President candidate Sahaya James pointed out in her campaign earlier this year, ‘the world doesn’t end on our campus’. Universities are not bounded spaces that are simply occupied by students and nothing more. Instead, at every level we find universities maintaining important and often problematic links with the ‘outside world’. Indeed, in some sense, we can say the university is a factory – it produces knowledge and research that then circulates throughout society, and has particular effects. What knowledge, research, and teaching that is produced by universities and funded by governments is therefore a highly political process. SU officers and activists need to be aware of this fact, and struggle to make sure the research produced by universities serves the demands of global justice, emancipation and equality, not profit, imperialism, and greed.
For example, at Surrey, we are seeing a particular emphasis on the interests of big business, defence institutions and aerospace companies in the kind of research produced and supported. One particularly egregious example here is the fact that BAE Systems, one of the world’s leading multinational defence, security and aerospace companies, houses its UK Head Office on the university’s Research Park. Even worse, the university and BAE are official partners, with BAE providing many placement opportunities for Surrey students, and more. In other words, the University of Surrey is the willing landlord to a multinational defence corporation that has major contracts with states such as Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK, providing them with weapons, communications and transport technologies that facilitate their fatal imperialist projects and murder innocent Middle Eastern populations. In 2014, for instance, BAE supplied Saudi Arabia with 72 fighter jets that were subsequently used to bomb hospitals in Yemen. Do we, as Surrey students, want to support this agenda? Do we want our university to be providing students, resources, and academic labour to such an immoral programme? The answer for student activists should be a resounding ‘no’.
Take action: Be activists, not bureaucrats
When all this is appreciated, it becomes clear that British higher education is in a state of crisis that needs action now – and students’ union officers around the country are some of the people best placed to fight this state of affairs. When we look back at this period in the future, when universities are potentially sites of ever-higher fees and rents that exist solely to service the interests of the wealthy, what side do you, as officers, want to have been on? Do you want to be the one who simply organised the odd social event? Or do you want to be the one that stood up, got unashamedly angry, and organised effective political opposition to university managers in the interests of the many, not the few?
I invoke history here not for the sake of moral grandstanding, but to make you realise that every act you make as an officer is an act of history. Your actions have impacts beyond your local, everyday environment, impacting bigger structures and trajectories, and having political consequences. Indeed, collectively the Students’ Union is a potentially powerful political and historical actor. It has its own building on campus, five full-time paid sabbatical officers, almost 20 full-time members of staff, and links to every student on campus. These kinds of resources are the stuff of dreams for everyday student activists, and indeed many flailing trade unions; collectively, they hold the potential power to make genuine progressive political change on campus.
But how to unleash this potential power? You may agree or appreciate that you stand at an important historical juncture, an actor in the broader historical process of marketisation, with the power to challenge this. But how? What does this ‘power’ look like?
The key point I want to stress here is that your power – indeed, students’ power – largely does not derive from your position on a university’s governing committee. At Surrey and I presume many other universities, full-time SU officers sit on literally more than a dozen university committees, successfully co-opted into the University’s governing structures and bureaucracy. (This is not the case, it should be noted, for the trade unions on campus.) Consequently, it is easy and commonplace for new officers to get sucked into this bureaucratic maze, internalising the language of university managers and thinking they are making a difference simply by being on a committee and chipping in now and then.
But while student voices on university committees are valuable, and can make small changes, they are remarkably limited as vehicles for advancing students’ interests. Being on a committee does nothing to empower students or fundamentally alter the structures that oppress them, because senior university managers have the power in these meetings and will not take action against their own interests without collective and public political opposition. Furthermore, sitting on committees is a significant time drain. Every second you sit on these committees, listening to university managers’ pointless jargon about hitting X or Y quota, you could be spending talking to actual students, getting them angry, getting them organised – in other words, empowering them.
My basic point here is that Surrey students’ power cannot be fully realised in these committee meetings, where you will be one voice among many managers. We will not win significantly lower rents, free education, bigger bursaries, more ethical research funding or better postgraduate contracts solely by having an individual well-intentioned SU officer getting angry at a committee meeting. Instead, our power is fundamentally only realised when we act as a collective force – a union. One SU officer in a committee meeting has very little leverage – but an SU officer in a meeting backed by hundreds of students taking effective political action outside, through mass protest or direct action (such as a rent strike or a boycott), has the power to grab significant wins from powerful university bosses.
As a student officer, therefore, you need to get organising. Set up campaigns! Talk to students! Add them to campaign groups on Facebook! Organise fun and empowering meetings! Do banner drops! The list goes on. Essentially, you just need to get students speaking to each other about the political issues that concern them, organising them into a collective force as they do.
To conclude, I therefore plead to all new officers: don’t be passive bureaucrats. Organise your fellow students, raise their expectations, get them angry. The more you sit back, the more you simply poll students for their “feedback” rather than actually talking to them, informing them, and organising them, the more you reproduce a cycle of student apathy. Organising and campaigning is hard, yes, and entails a road paved with setbacks, defeat, and opposition from powerful actors. But the potential victories are too important to ignore, and could seriously empower and benefit the most marginalised current and future students of the university.
So to all the new officers, I implore you: learn about what’s happening in higher education; go to activist training events run by the NUS, People and Planet, or the National Campaigns Against Fees and Cuts; meet fellow student activists from around the country; organise and unite Surrey students around political goals; stand up to university managers; and above all, go out and win. Good luck – I wish you all the very best.