Twenty seven years ago, my sister and I ran home through the streets of Constantine, Algeria, after a group of terrorists entered our school and there was open fire with bullets flying everywhere. A few weeks later my father narrowly escaped assassination when a bomb planted in his university exploded too early. After these events, my parents decided to move to England despite their deep love for their country. If they could not guarantee our education, then exile was the only option.
I learned then the importance of education, for those who wish to control society as well as those of us who fight for its liberation. The first moments of the Algerian civil war were fought over and in institutions of learning. It was clear to everybody that the future of our country would be forged there.
In the following years, education was at the heart of my parents' message to us. Study, work hard, discover the world and don't let people with power define your future by keeping you out of places of learning. At its best, education is a tool for personal growth and collective liberation. It is a place for reflection, debate, and re-imagination of the world around us. It is a personal and social good that needs nurturing and defending. When in danger it deserves to be fought for.
On Saturday November 19, thousands of students and lecturers from up and down the UK will do just that. We will march through the capital in defence of post-16 education, and put forward, collectively, our vision of a free, liberated and accessible education for all, at any point in life.
Tories are imposing funding cuts and area reviews on colleges. Job losses, ever growing student numbers, and shoe-string support budgets are the reality for a growing number of FE students. Add to that the previous governments scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowance and a very bleak image of colleges in the UK emerges.
In universities, not content with the tripling of tuition fees and the rolling back of allowances and grants, the government is coming back for more.
The Higher Education and Research Bill, currently discussed in parliament, proposes to lift the cap on fees, easy so-called market entries and exits for private companies wanting to set up for profit universities, and increase competition between institutions, departments, and academics through its so-called Teaching Excellence Framework. It is worth pointing out that this framework, rather than focussing on teaching, will take discredited satisfaction ratings and post-study employability as its key indicators.
But we have to be clear. This government's assault on our institutions of learning is also an assault on our futures.
We live in a time where young people are struggling through a housing crisis, a jobs crisis, an ecological crisis, and a welfare crisis. We live in a time where we are increasingly told by politicians and the media to fear and exclude migrants, Muslims, and Black communities. We live in a time where so many want an alternative but that alternative is taking too long to take shape. In this context, the struggle for an open, accessible, and critical education system is crucial in determining what tomorrow will look like.
The situation is at a crisis point and business as usual is no longer on the agenda. It is in this context that we are marching.
The NUS and UCU have not come together for a similar mobilisation since 2010 when the sector was facing a tripling of tuition fees and the cuts in funding. It was in this period that I discovered the strength, the creativity and the importance of the student movement.
For weeks students occupied, marched, and held mass meetings on campuses and in colleges. Further education students were at the forefront of the movement and brought an energy and a determination, which was as electrifying as it was contagious.
The movement was defeated, but it changed the face of politics in the UK. Our movement brought opposition to austerity and the possibility of articulating a credible, popular alternative to the centre stage of politics. In its direct aftermath we saw the biggest workers strike wave in a generation and the remobilisation of social struggles on issues of racism, state violence, and women's liberation.
The energy, the broad democratic spirit, and the ability of our movement to collectively reflect, debate, and put forward ideas of what we believe our education should look like, remain important examples for the struggles to come.
Furthermore, students put down a marker in the world of electoral politics. By electing the Lib Dems and subsequently punishing them for their lies, our movement made clear the space that existed to the left of the electoral status quo, and the consequences of betraying our futures in parliament. The consequences of this are still being felt today.
As a young girl I learned the importance of education. As a student I discovered the power, and the beauty, of collective action. Today, I call on all students, tutors and lecturers to join us on November 19. But my call is also broader than that. It goes out to everyone who is shocked by the current direction of travel of our society, to everyone who believes that solidarity should remain our guiding principle, to everyone who rejects the idea that profits and wealth should trump human lives and our collective futures. March with us. Fight with us. And let's lay the foundations for a different, and a better, tomorrow.
Malia Bouattia is president of the NUS
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