Nathan Akehurst and Jack Matthews debate whether it’s OUSU’s place to support workers and trade union movements
A university is a community of people engaged in the process of academic enrichment at all levels. It is not the divided institution of customers and providers that our government seems intent on turning it into.
When students at Oxford and across the UK rose up en masse against the tuition fee rise, lecturers and staff supported us through their own representative organisations, the trade unions. Now their jobs, pensions and conditions are under threat (from a government that has openly lied about the rising cost of pensions) and so as members of an academic community it is our duty to defend them. On a purely practical note, unity is strength. The struggles of students are inextricably linked to those of education workers, and collective solidarity between the two makes us more likely to win. Conversely, if they lose, we lose. Even if we lose anyway, we are brought closer together as a community, and where is the harm in that?
One of the criticisms I received when putting the motion to support the TUC demo to OUSU Council was that it was divisive and didn’t reflect a majority of student opinion. This is nonsensical; any decision OUSU makes will inevitably be divisive. People disagree with each other – that is the nature of representative democracy. In terms of representativeness, how do we know? Are OUSU to go out and conduct polls before passing every single motion? A perceived lack of decisiveness is in fact one of the main reasons cited in my conversations with people about why OUSU is so unpopular.
Students so far have had to contend with £9k fees (bearing a disproportionate burden of austerity), the creeping privatisation of our universities to their quantitative detriment, course cuts, place cuts, bursary cuts, and more. Oxford may be more sheltered than other institutions, but we have been hit too, and so have our staff. Hitting back in more than a token way requires the building of grassroots campaigns involving both students and staff, through the backing of our respective representative bodies.
Such a move requires a wider vision of a student union and the role we play in our university and society. I, for one, do not subscribe to a vision whereby we sit around in isolation running (undoubtedly worthwhile) small campaigns while around us the entire higher education sector is cut to pieces.
In first week, OUSU Council, the governing body of our Student Union, quite rightly voted against supporting and funding students to attend the Trade Union Congress (TUC) march. Apart from the simple fact that anti-cuts groups were already offering transport to London (and so funding our own coach would have been a supreme waste of students’ money), passing that motion would have sent a clear message to the student body – that OUSU was out of touch.
The majority of students, just as the majority of our politicians, recognise the need for our country to rebalance its spending – to live within our means. Conservatives, Liberal Democrats – and yes, even Labour – understand we can’t go on spending more than we collect in taxes. That’s why all parties committed to cuts before the General Election.
The TUC however reject this common sense economics. They would rather we continued to borrow, spending money we don’t have. And let’s not forget, it is the fiscal restraint shown by the current government that has kept interest rates low, helping millions of families with their mortgage repayments, and keeping money in the pockets of graduates by reducing the interest charged on student loans.
A Future That Works. That was their slogan for the march. And how true it was. They were marching for a future that works to pay off our debts. A future ten or twenty years down the line, where people not only work to support themselves, but also to pay for the overspend of today. The overspend that the vast majority, student and general public alike, realise we need to get to grips with now.
OUSU Council, in rejecting the motion to support the TUC march, not only reflected the greater view of our University, but also stood up for the best interests of students at the same time. In opposing the ideas of the TUC, we may not have shown solidarity to the trade unions and their one-track minds, but we certainly have with the workers of tomorrow.
If everything I have just said has enraged you, or, like me, you recognise the need for a balanced budget, come along to OUSU Council once in a while. For as much as Nathan and I can debate what’s best for students, we will only truly know if you turn up and make your voice heard.