Students and education workers have taken action across Europe in recent months in response to the so called ‘Bologna Process’; a vicious attack on the provision of public education centred around privatising public institutions and stripping down staff numbers and facilities to a bare minimum. In response to this there have been large demonstrations and strikes of students and workers in Austria, Italy, Spain and France. In Britain there are now proposals for a huge funding cut back at London Metropolitan University and the selling off of Strathclyde University in Glasgow, amongst other attacks. The clear class bias in these decisions is evident; it’s certainly not a coincidence that attacks on education should start at the less prestigious universities and not those attended by the children of the great, good and wealthy responsible for the crisis that has signalled these cuts.
The proposal, due to being to take hold in the semester starting after the summer, would see forty per cent of Strathclyde sold off, including the student union and several of the major buildings that the university requires to function. The university management has all too predictably justified these changes in terms of ‘rationalisation’ and ‘modernisation’; all very nice from the ladies and gentlemen who spend much of their time wining and dining with corporate heads. The ‘rationalisation’ would see the student union accommodated into a sports centre currently under construction. Originally this building was proposed to serve just as a sports centre yet now apparently it will also have space for a major part of the university which currently has its own seven storey building. In the mean time the student union would be placed into the library. Allegedly the library is also inefficient; perhaps the books do not work hard enough or the staff are too big? Strathclyde is to move from an institution officially based on knowledge, learning and research towards one mainly focused on just research. Follow the money! As a university focused largely around engineering it already has lucrative private research contracts with armaments companies such as BAE systems. This proposal only takes this to its natural conclusion and would see the Strathclyde re-orientated from a focus on the education of students to the evidently socially useful purpose of weapons research! This raises the much wider question of the financing of universities. Although officially state owned universities posses a large degree of autonomy in financing and many of the established “red brick’ universities are able to gain funding not just through research contracts but via the patron of wealthy ex-students. This means that they are advantaged in comparison to newer universities, creating a clear hierarchy within higher education.
The so called ‘modernisation’ of the university would in fact represent a step back to the past. Historically a technical college that almost exclusively taught engineering, Strathclyde now offers a wide range of subjects to students. The proposal would see the law, social sciences and arts faculty merged with that of languages in a clear cost cutting measure. One hundred and forty staff are also to be sacked under the plans. Apparently as only forty of these are directly involved in education then students should not be concerned as to the effect this will have on their education. As with cut backs in the rest of the public sector attacks on over worked and under paid staff are always justified as cutting back on ‘bureaucracy’, as though the university did not need these workers to function effectively. The loss of staff would lead to the student union and university’s services being merged. This represents a serious threat to democracy at the university and the power of the student body. The union has traditionally offered its own services to students, separate from the university as a whole. In relation to disciplinary hearings in particular these are of vital importance; without independent representation, students will be at a clear disadvantage.
The student union at Strathclyde only learned of the proposals at the last minute, through a leak, yet three hundred and seventy students came to an Emergency General Meeting on May 7th which passed three resolutions in opposition to the plans almost unanimously. No students spoke against the resolution. The strength of feeling was demonstrated by the fact that one hundred and fifty people took part in a hastily organised demonstration on the cold wet morning the day after. James Nesbit, an organiser of the demonstration who was also involved in the occupation of Strathclyde earlier this year said, “This is only the beginning of this struggle. People are angry at this proposal and as today demonstrates want to fight against it.” Importantly the University and Colleges union also took part and have raised the possibility of strike action. However, particularly at the current time with the university in an exam period, action would only be of maximum effectiveness if it was part of joint action alongside the maintenance and administration staff, whose jobs are also under threat.
It must be noted that for a university apparently experiencing financial difficulties there was no trouble in prioritising expenditure. Alongside a consistent police presence throughout the day the university also hired the services of private security guards for the day. Dressed as thugs in suits they played the role of provocateurs, smirking at students and asking them if they were lost. Obviously showing concern at the potential loss of a large part of their university is not what students should concern themselves with!
The government officially has a target of half of all high school students going on to attend university, yet the raft of cuts being outlined show that the opposite is planned; higher education is to once again become the preserve of an elite few. Already it has been estimated that up to thirty thousand people will miss out on a university place this year due to funding cuts. This attack at Strathclyde comes at the same time as primary school closures are faced with the stiff resistance of parents and Glasgow City Council care workers, on strike since November, continue their battle against a pay cut. In Austria youth and workers marched on May Day under the slogan “we won’t pay for their crisis”. This slogan can only become a reality through the escalation and unity of the emerging struggles.