Thousands of students, college workers and others marched through central London on Wednesday in protest at Tory funding cuts. The UCU union, which helped organise the event, said up to 3,000 took part.
Funding for further education (FE) has been cut by 30 percent in the last ten years. This has led to course cuts, job losses, mergers and bigger class sizes – and a worse education for students.
Oscar and Freya from The Henley College in Oxfordshire joined the protest with their principal, Satwant. Freya said the cuts were stopping her from getting into the university she wants to go to. “I want to do philosophy,” she told Socialist Worker. “But our college doesn’t have a philosophy teacher, so it’s harder for me to get the support and grades I need.”
Oscar came to Britain from Spain. “The main reason I came was to get a better education,” he said. “And now we’ve had cuts the quality of education is worse.”
The college has seen some courses, such as music, scrapped entirely. Teachers have gone, while students are struggling with timetable clashes that mean they can’t study the subjects they want.
“Education is a right for young people – they are the future of the country,” said Satwant. “It’s demoralising to see what’s happening.”
Marchers were angry that FE is treated as irrelevant because it caters for working class students. Vincent is chair of the UCU branch at Hugh Baird College in Bootle, Merseyside. “FE is anathema to the Tories,” he told Socialist Worker. “They don’t value it because it’s based in local communities and they aren’t part of that.”
Vincent has worked in FE for 18 years and said funding cuts mean some students can’t access courses. “We need more funding for lower level courses,” he explained. “I’m an IT teacher and the lowest level we teach is level 2.
“But for that you need certain grades at GCSE—and some students just won’t make that. So what then? Are they disbarred from college?”
The cuts are hitting vulnerable students. The Tories love to berate migrants for not “integrating” and not learning English. But their cuts are slashing courses that migrants need to do that.
Angatu is studying English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) at New City College in east London.
“I started Esol last year and it has made a very big difference,” she told Socialist Worker. “I came here as a refugee from Turkey, and in London I got the chance to go back to school after 27 years.
“If you can speak English, you can get a better job. But you can also communicate with your children and help them. And if you go to a GP you can speak confidentially and not have to have a translator there.”
Angatu added, “Many of us have changed our lives through college. Learning English is the key.”
Other marchers stressed the huge impact that college has had on their lives. Judy is studying at East Coast College in Great Yarmouth. She joined the protest with fellow students Roland and Julien.
“This is my third year in college after my retirement,” Judy told Socialist Worker. “I’m studying hair and beauty. It’s inspired me so much.
“When I left school, I had no opportunities to do anything else. But college has shown me that there is life after you retire.”
But cuts are snatching away the chance to learn new skills from other people. Julien said, “There are redundancies yearly now. There’s even a lack of classrooms.”
Roland is studying counselling and is also an NHS worker. “There’s a lack of funding to support students who have visual impairments,” he said. “Disabled students aren’t getting the support, staff or equipment that they need.
“Sometimes there isn’t even a tutor there. People just turn up to the classroom and are told to get on with it. It’s wasting our time.”
At a rally in Parliament Square, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner were cheered when they pledged to reverse the cuts.
Corbyn told the crowd, “I don’t want to live in a society where your ability to become a doctor or an engineer is dependent on your parents’ income. We were right to say we will increase corporation tax to end university and college fees.”
Corbyn described education as the “pathway to liberation”. And he said he was “proud” to support UCU members who struck to defend their pensions earlier this year.
Rayner said the government should bring back the Education Maintenance Allowance for college students. And she mocked the idea that free education is impossible. “When I was at school, I was offered university for free,” she said.
“I went to college for free. So we can have it and we can afford it.”
The action was part of a week of events to demand more funding for education. Such is the anger of workers and students that even the bosses’ Association of Colleges was part of calling the protest.
It showed the potential to mobilise ordinary people to defend FE. Unions and students will need to keep the pressure on the Tories—and their college managements—to stop the cuts and protect education.