“we want to inspire other people to take a stand”: interview with a college student activist

Joe Thorne spoke to a student at Leeds City College who has been involved in the protests around education cuts and in the new Really Open Student Union.  The interview is followed by statements from a number of other young people, some of which are featured in this bulletin which you can print off and distribute to support students walking out on Wednesday.


How are the cuts going to affect you?

I’m worrying about my future.  I don’t know if I can stay in college.  This has cancelled out my hope of going to uni.  I’m living with my parents.  They’re both disabled and we’re living off disability allowance.  I don’t know how we’re going to get through the next few years, and bills are going up, especially electricity and gas.

Are a lot of other students you know worried about their future?

Definitely.  I was talking to a girl on Level 1 Health and Social Care . . . she doesn’t know how she’ll stay on, what with the free bus pass going as well as EMA.  And with unemployment like it is round here it’s ridiculous.  There’s no jobs, there’s no future.

What do you think about EMA at the moment?

It is important that we fight to keep EMA.  But it isn’t enough as it is.  It’s also used as a threat – if people are late, or miss a day because of one of the walk-outs, or question what they’re being taught. . .

Question what they’re being taught?!

Yeah.  For example in a psychology lesson we were being taught that anti-social behaviour disorder is the preserve of white working class men; that white working class men just have this disorder more than other groups.  A lot of people were questioning this, but the teacher was saying not to.  They wouldn’t provide any evidence, or show the original study.  But people wouldn’t accept it.  This lead to threats about being kicked out of class and about losing EMA.

What’s been good about the movement against cuts so far, in your experience?

Lots of different people from different backgrounds are getting involved, from different circles of friends.  People have worked together to build a community and support each other in the struggle.

How have you got people involved?

Just gone round and spoken to people.  Alot of people are scared about threats to EMA coz of their attendance.  Alot of people still think we get the Christmas and summer EMA bonuses of £100 (if your overall attendance in high enough), but they got scrapped last year.  They used to help people get through the summer.  Leeds City College has a number of campuses, so we’ve been to those to leaflet and speak to students and staff.

Why did you decide to start the Really Open Student Union?

It basically came from a few of us going to local anti-cuts groups and being giggled at and patronised by middle-class student Trotskyists.  I think they were mostly from Workers Power and Socialist Party . . . I think maybe the SWP agreed with us but they mostly stayed quiet.  They think everyone at college is doing A-Levels but alot of us are on BTEC diplomas and NVQS, doing GCSE re-sits, or mature students doing access courses.  We thought we were being ignored and misrepresented.

Had you heard about the Really Open University?

Yes, that’s where the name came from.  I’d heard the name and looked it up online, but hadn’t been able to go to any meetings.

What are your plans for the ROSU?

Our main goal at the moment is to stop the EMA cuts, but we’re about the whole attitude of Further Education.  We want respect.  If you’re from a council estate. . .  we’re treated like idiots, like “benefit scroungers”.

What about the official, existing student union?

Earlier I got called over by one of the members of staff involved in the SU, they were trying to encourage me to run for SU President.  I know it’s to try to shut me up.  I couldn’t do any of what I’m doing now if I was in that position, because of the rules.  Also I’ve noticed that the security guards are keeping an eye on me.

But – for the sake of argument – couldn’t you just become SU president and then break the rules?  Transform it?

I was involved in it last year and it’s because of that experience that I’m not involved in it this year.  It was infiltrated by staff, who bullied students who were involved in it.  Last year the SU president was campaigning, she wasn’t going by the book.  And the staff were bullying her.  She was going to come back to study again this year but “somehow” the form got lost.  And she was also going to stand again for the SU but there was “some mistake” with the form for her nomination.  So she didn’t get to stand either.  So there are real risks.  They’ve got someone who’ll do what they want  – he’s a mature student in his ‘40s and really out of touch and patronising.  He was giving names of people who were at Millbank [on 9th December] to the head of the college.

What would you encourage other people to do now?

Speak to people and speak out in their colleges and also in their communities – and to workers, and with trade unions.  Because we are future workers.  And we have to support our communities.  It’s about building those bridges.   Set a group up, even if it’s only a few of you who want to do something.  We’re going to be encouraging people to join the walk-outs.  Other people might disagree, but I don’t think lobbying will make any difference.

It’s also about giving unconfident students the confidence to speak out. We should be treated equally and at the moment we are not.  We want to inspire other people to take a stand, this is what this is about.

Other voices from around the country…

Jamie, Queens Park 6th Form, North West London

Getting rid of EMA will deprive most people at my sixth form of money that is from my own experience and from what others at my sixth form do used mainly to buy basic products necessary for education. Already my sixth form is angry and most of the students here have been on at least one of the protests or walkouts in November and December. What would be encouraging now would be to see networks of support forming across colleges and schools and discussions between school workers and students about the cuts with the goal of future collective struggle.

Marlow, Buckinghamshire

‘I believe the march was a highly successful local protest. It highlighted to the local and national media that the youth in Marlow were standing up in arms against the disproportional increase in student fees and the scrapping of EMA in which many students from low income families highly rely on to help them attend higher education. Although the protest create a few heckles from a group of older privileged members of the public the protest can be seen as a success as it highlighted that the youth today can hold a high awareness protest. During a time when the youth do not have a representative of their view and have to rely on a government that is listening to a middle age electorate who voted them in on a basis of a high amount of cuts on government expenditure.’

From Patrick in Oxford

– “I’ve been on the December 9th protest in Parliament square in london where everyone got kettled, I missed a day of school for that one. I also missed a day of school for the NUS protest which turned into Millbank and I missed half a day to go to the radcliffe camera occupation [http://www.occupiedoxford.org/?page_id=95] also missed half a day for the brief county council occupation”

– “the parents of year 11 and below students were phoned up and told that their children could face dire sanctions such as suspension. noneof the threats made were actually carried out” “no [that didn’t put us off], we’ve seen the same students turn out again for the county council protest so I think that overall it was a positive experience which encouraged us to get more involved” “I think in general we were supported by school staff”

– “the cuts have definitely affected my decision to go to uni… I could have taken a gap year but now there’s no way I’d do that, because the fees rise will come in year after next year. also there’s increased competition this year, because everybody else is trying to get a place before the fees go up so the entry requirements are a bit higher so I’ve had to reconsider some good courses, I didn’t get very good grades”

– “OEC [Oxford Education Campaign, group for students from schools, colleges, sixth forms, as well as Oxford Uni, Brookes Uni and Ruskin – not controlled by Trotskyists at all, very radical] on the other hand is wonderful, it’s democratic, and everyone can take part”

– “students should support trade unions wherever they can, and keep their dynamic style of activism/organisation. like, where there’s a big march called by the trade unions, I think students are capable of making that march more than just a simple walk from A to B” “I think we should be linking up to uni occupations where they can”

– “I like it when students do stuff like that [shutting down Vodafone, etc.], because it sends out the message that the issue is not just tuition fees, it’s also a broad anger at the way society is run as a whole and also in general a neo-liberal doctrine followed by all three main parties”

Also, students at Cheney School were locked in by management, but then because of a lively demo by uni students outside, and one student inside “guiding students through some back passage” they got out.

Liverpool

Celia:

A few things that incense me as a young person unemployed:

Job seekers under 25 receive roughly £10 a week less, no housing benefit available, and neither are tax credits for those on low wages (including self-employed).  Why do they think we need or deserve less? It is just as hard for us as it is for older people to survive. We end up stuck at home. But even then most of us have to contribute to the household living costs.  Also minimum-wage differences are a joke too. Internships are also a rip-off of our generation (and job-seekers will stop if you get one even though they’re not paid).   Complete exploitation!

It’s as if they are saying we are worth less, or that they don’t mind condemning us to poverty and a lack of options.

Jack:

EMA is not the only thing to have been abolished, social mobility is set to be a thing of the past. I am a student at Liverpool Community college and I live on the Wirral. The ever increasing travel fares take a huge part of my EMA payments as like many who receive EMA I am not entitled to a free bus pass. So now that EMA has been Abolished I now have to find a way of getting to college which is harder for me than most students as I cannot cross the river Mersey without using public transport. But it is not just the transport that is an issue I will no longer be able to buy crucial materials which student of a better-off background can afford such as text books which don’t come cheap and other material such as pens, files and other stationary. My college is facing huge cuts so job losses are expected to be announced next week. I doubt that after the five years of Conservative government that my college will still be in existence as many students are already talking about having to leave at the end of the academic year.  Many high school students I have spoken to no longer plan to go to college as they cannot get there and cannot afford to go to university even if they could get to college in the first place. I will now have to get a job in order for me to support myself through college and this is going to have a huge impact on my academic studies but then again I am going to have to find a job first which in Liverpool/Wirral there aren’t many.

Stockport

I’m a college student currently at Aquinas College in Stockport.

Though there are many students who support the movement, the threat against EMA not being given to the students who attend the marches has meant that I am essentially the main activist in my college. On the November 24th march, many of the teachers gave authorised absences to the students who attended in support of their right to protest. However, I do believe the principal later refused to acknowledge these absences as acceptable and dismissed them, causing many students not to get EMA, which since then has been a deterrent.

I myself have faced harassment from my college about my attendance of the protests, which has left my attendance very low, and caused the college to threaten to kick me out on many occasions, such as when I went down to London on December 9th and became stranded due to the kettle on Westminster bridge, resulting in me missing two days of education and practically being asked to leave. Though the college has not followed through with anything, their reaction may change in the next few days, as I intend to put posters up advertising the January 19th march against EMA cuts so that the students can be informed about the upcoming action.