30 May 2010

Speech to UCU Congress, 30 May 2010, in support of Youth Fight For Jobs

Another for the archives. I ended up never actually delivering the speech, but the motion went through unanimously.

Thank you chair.

The free-market assault on post-16 education heightens every day. Vice-chancellors' irresponsible spending sprees have put universities in hundreds of millions of pounds of debt, which educators are being made to pay for with redundancies and the closures of entire departments. Students in higher education face oppressive fees and crippling debt, with the new-minted education minister, Michael Gove, having argued for lifting the cap on fees in the past, while in further education EMA grants for students most in need are threatened and forced mergers require students to travel miles and miles from home to study their courses. Young people leaving education for the job market find no recourse, with nearly a million youth now unemployed and the few jobs available being dead-end work for insufferable pay. Inside and outside education, students and educators together face offences against human dignity while governments both old and new treat all of us as an inefficiency.

This Union campaigns valiantly. It, alongside the other education unions, works tirelessly to defend the jobs, pay and conditions of its members, and I am proud of my membership and of the work my colleagues do. The problems we face however cross sector lines, cross age lines, cross the barrier between student and teacher and go outside the walls of our institutions. We must build a mass, united response against the attacks on education, and Youth Fight For Jobs is the campaign to do so.

In the past few years we've seen an alphabet soup of pro-education campaigns. Youth Fight For Jobs, though, has broken out of the mold of the others. It counts among its signatories John McDonnell MP, a dedicated campaigner and the leading light of the left within the Labour Party. It has the full backing of the Socialist Party and discussions are ongoing with the Green Party. But party politics is not enough, so more importantly we need the backing of the mass working class. I can proudly note that the PCS, the CWU and the RMT, all fighting trade unions that have scored victories for their members in the past year, support Youth Fight For Jobs and dozens of individual trade union branches both in education and elsewhere, along with two students' union branches, have given affiliation as well.

The demands of Youth Fight for Jobs are simple. First: an end to age discrimination in the minimum wage and an increase in that wage to £8 an hour, with the right to a decent job for all. Second: No to unpaid apprenticeships, with all apprenticeships to receive at least the minimum wage with a job guaranteed at the end. Third, no to university fees.

Last year, this Congress adopted the slogans of “jobs for all” and “education for all”; what Youth Fight For Jobs calls for is the realization of these slogans. The fees system in university, meanwhile, is fundamentally broken and cannot be fixed; even with the punitive fees now in place, funding per student still falls well short of its peak under public funding, while discriminatory fees have distorted the education marketplace by allowing vice-chancellors to focus on return on investment, not in education for the sake of society.

With regard to the question of the minimum wage, I can say simply: a decent day's pay for a decent day's work is a principle. If you work a 35-hour work week, as many students do just to keep their head above water, the minimum wage would need to go up to £8 an hour merely to reach the poverty line. Research by the TUC has found that raising the minimum wage does not destroy jobs; indeed, the unlivability of the current minimum wage has led even politicians like Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson to call for a minimum wage somewhere above £7 an hour!

We can call for whatever we like, but actions speak far louder than words. I marched in Youth Fight For Jobs' first large demonstration, a year ago in London, which took hundreds of young people and educators through some of London's poorest areas. In the intervening year those demonstrations have grown to include over a thousand marching on Parliament. In Swansea, Leeds and elsewhere, Youth Fight for Jobs brought students out to stand and march against cuts alongside their lecturers. Recognising the threat of the far right to the working class, Youth Fight For Jobs brought hundreds together in Barking to march and leaflet against the British National Party in the general election; and just yesterday Youth Fight for Jobs campaigners in Newcastle took to the streets against the English Defence League sending a clear message that racism and Islamophobia have no place in the discussion of how to restore the status of the British education system.

Congress, the demands that Youth Fight For Jobs puts forward are eminently sensible. Their tactics are well-chosen: we know not just from Swansea but from Aberystwyth and Sussex that to win against the cuts we need to bring educators together with students and the broader working class. With the support of trade unions and student unions, Youth Fight For Jobs' base is broad and building, across racial lines, across religious lines, and along working-class lines.

Speaking as a postgraduate – someone who is both an educator and a student – I feel that the growing fight for fairness and integrity in the education system is the anti-poll tax campaign of our time. If we recall the history of that movement we know that battles for basic rights like voting and education will not be won in Parliament, but instead in the workplaces and on the streets, through mass campaigns, bringing together millions of people, run democratically and choosing the best tactics. Youth Fight For Jobs is the kernel of this fightback, and I hope that Congress today will choose to affiliate to Youth Fight For Jobs, and help build the mass movement that believes in jobs and education for all.

Thank you.

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