What is the role of socialists in the student Covid uprising?
Student Socialist Alternative hosted an online meeting titled ‘The Fight to Reclaim Education: Socialist Organisers’ Call’ on Friday 22nd January. This brought student rent strikers together with activists from London Renters’ Union, the University and Colleges Union and more. The speakers were very well received, with the other participants speaking from the ‘floor’ echoing many of the same ideas and principles as the organised speakers. An overall feeling of agreement was reached after a healthy discussion and replies by speakers.
A major theme in the meeting was the need for solidarity between students and teaching and support staff, and to join up their struggles to fight for universities that puts education and working conditions first. The logic of capitalism means this will never be put first for as long as this system remains in place, so we must fight against fees and marketisation to make it possible.
Speakers also gave their experiences of organising rent strikes, both in university accommodation and private housing more generally. While legal defence can only take you so far, a combative political struggle can win real victories. The best defence is an offence against the university bosses and the government that protects their privileges.
The section of contributions from the floor included a discussion on whether it is important to link the rent strike campaign to socialist issues. It is certainly true that anticapitalist ideas are gaining massively among young people, which will be accelerated by the pandemic, but some may be hesitant to connect the campaign with the need for socialist change to avoid being seen as ‘too narrow’ and ‘political’.
Ultimately though, socialists can win support for our ideas through fighting alongside the widest group of people in the rent strikes. Through organising for real gains and concessions, even under this system, allows us to make clear that it is capitalism that is the root cause of attacks on students and workers’ conditions and safety. Only a socialist society with an economy planned along democratic lines can provide lasting solutions to the problems facing us.
Likewise, the point was made that the movement can and should carry on beyond the issue of students being crammed into unsafe accommodation and having to pay unfair rent for accommodation many are not using, and the pandemic more generally. One speaker raised the point that to really connect the strikes to the need to fully take education into our hands, we must be prepared to step up our struggle to win not just rent rebates, reductions and ‘no detriment’ policies, but many more radical and winnable demands, such as:
- A ban on student evictions, even after the pandemic.
- Good quality student grants.
- Full recognition of renters unions, so students can continue to hold the landlords to account through regular dialogue and talks.
- Mental health support for all students who need it. Link up with NHS campaigners to fight privatisation.
- Guaranteed tech support, with free provision of laptops for those who need it. Scrap printer charges in university libraries.
- Take our curriculum, housing and university services under our control by forming democratic oversight bodies run by students themselves, to make sure these policies are fully carried out.
The failings of capitalism are being exposed to people through the process of struggle. Winning concessions and victories builds the confidence that not only things should change but also that when we fight, we are able to win that change. In this way, the current student rent strike could lead to a generalised fight for safe and affordable housing, to reclaim our education and ultimately a society organised along truly democratic, i.e. socialist lines
Also raised was the idea of challenging notions of education as a product that is consumed, as opposed to a public good that benefits society as a whole. This mentality is consciously pushed by the system of tuition fees. Many students understandably feel like they want to ‘get their money’s worth’, which is pushing thousands to positively get involved with their local rent strikes. But socialists must also be upfront that this will never happen under a marketised education system, rather than one that is publicly funded and democratically controlled by both students and staff.
Finally, the need for a democratically organised movement with a unified national structure was raised. Coordinated action is more effective than disorganised action and formal structures are needed to make sure negotiators and the movement’s leadership are accountable and decisions can be made in a democratic way. The NUS are in a great position to build such national structures. Already, the ‘Students Deserve Better Collective’ has been formed by them, which exists to federate rent strike organisations with the support of NUS President Larissa Kennedy.
This is undoubtedly a step forward and must be strengthened by both forming a clear and consistent leadership that can not only keep drawing local campaigns together, but also take the lead in organising coordinated days of protest action, coordinated student drives to actively support university staff on strike action when necessary, and plan out occupations on university campuses across the country, putting demands on managers to meet our demands immediately. Action committees should be elected in every rent strike group across the country to put this into effect!
Student Socialist Alternative stands in solidarity with all those taking action in the ongoing student revolt. Join us today to build a Marxist voice in our movements!