Further and higher education is on the frontline of the government’s assault on the public sector. This is an issue that affects every working class person, not just education workers and students.
The gathering recession and rocketing unemployment should mean that the government pours investment into education and retraining.
Gordon Brown claimed last week that “education would not become a victim of recession”.
But his government is pushing through cuts across the public sector, which will hit education.
Chancellor Alistair Darling announced in last month’s budget that universities and colleges would have to make “efficiency savings” of £400 million. Last week that increased to £520 million.
John Denham, the secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills, wants to increase the number of undergraduate places in universities by 10,000 in 2010-11, but he wants to do it on the cheap.
He has said that the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which is responsible for distributing funding to universities, will have to make savings of £180 million by that time.
These plans are already having a devastating impact on education and jobs. Managements across the country are sacking staff and merging departments.
Some of these are in deprived areas such as Liverpool, South Wales, Strathclyde and north and east London.
Tens of thousands of students will join the growing dole queues when they leave education this summer.
The University and College Union (UCU) has found that around 100 universities are planning to sack staff.
There are also threats to community education courses, which would throw many lecturers out of work and hurt vital services.
Such cuts make a mockery of the government’s claims to be promoting “lifelong learning” and providing university places for 50 percent of school leavers.
So does the fact the government imposed new restrictions stopping many unemployed people from taking courses if they already have qualifications at the same level.
Thousands of UCU members in higher education are currently balloting for industrial action over job cuts. We need a big yes vote to send a clear message of resistance to the employers.
College principals and university vice-chancellors have enjoyed double the pay increases of their staff this year.
But they still want to peg lecturers’ pay to the Retail Price Index (RPI) rate of inflation of minus 0.4 percent. This is effectively a wage cut as the real rate of inflation is more like 2.5 percent.
We have no choice but to fight back. Thankfully we can now take heart from the fantastic victories of the workers at Prisme and Visteon.
Then there is the success at Doncaster College. Management planned to cut 300 jobs and replace lecturers with less trained “assessors”.
As a result of a joint UCU and Unison campaign the principal and financial director have been suspended and the plan ditched.
The lesson for us all in this recession is – if we fight back we can win.
Education has always involved conflict. There are those fighting from below for the literacy, education and skills we need to improve our lives.
Then there are the rich and powerful, who want to restrict access to the best facilities to themselves.
They want the rest of us taught just enough to staff their workplaces and make their profits. The global neoliberal attack of the last three decades has rolled back the gains we made since 1945 in the public sector.
Our rulers want education to be a commodity with schools and colleges turned into profit-making en terprises. Students become customers and courses become products that people have to pay for.
And now we are in the depths of an recession with management and the government threatening huge cuts.
Most education workers and students want free, open access to real education as a right. We have a political argument to win about investment in education in a recession.
But we also need to defend people’s right to education and retraining and what education should be about. To win our battles unions, students and communities will need to work together.
Strikes and campaigns by UCU members have won lecturers some of the best pay settlements in the public sector.
Now UCU, alongside the other teaching unions and the NUS, must stand up and defend education and stem the haemorrhage of jobs in post-16 education.
We know we now have to be part of building a huge campaign within the trade union movement to take on the government over jobs, cuts and workload.
UCU members have thrown themselves into mobilising for a number of different events to increase the pressure on the government.
These include the Birmingham march for jobs this Saturday, and the demonstration called by the UCU and the PCS civil service workers’ union for jobs in London on Saturday 23 May.
One of the biggest dangers we face is youth unemployment. UCU branches and regions are supporting the Fight for the Right to Work conference in London on Saturday 13 June.
This will discuss the fightback needed over jobs and the lessons of the recent victories workers have won. It is vital that as many people from the private and public sector be there to share experiences and take the struggle forward.
There is a lot at stake but now we know it is possible to win.
Laura Miles is a member of the UCU executive. She writes in a personal capacity
Fight for the right to work conference
- Solidarity with the fightbacks
- No to redundancies and closures
- Jobs for all
Saturday 13 June
Soas, Thornhaugh St, Russell Square, London
£5 for employed/£1 unemployed
Supported by Visteon workers & Waterford Crystal shop stewards