What is London’s student rent strike all about?

Join the rent strike stickerOver 1,000 students in London students who are refusing to pay their rent for university accommodation. The rent strike is part of a wider Cut the Rent campaign against expensive university accommodation which campaigners say pushes studying in the capital out of reach for students from less-wealthy backgrounds.

A few weeks ago I spoke to students from Goldsmiths and University College London (UCL) about why they’ve joined the rent strike and New Internationalist have published my article about the campaign.


Student activism, free software and meeting inspiring people

My recent articles on or in New Internationalist

I’ve had a couple of interviews published in the magazine recently, including a Q&A with Man Booker Prize nominee Jeet Thayil, for November (online here), and an interview with the amazing feminist activist Khanum Lateef from the the Kurdistan region of Iraq, published in December’s issue.

On 21 November I went to London for the NUS demo and wrote a couple of blog posts – before and after.

For December’s podcast I spoke to NI’s Hazel Healy and Charlie Harvey. We had an interesting discussion about digital freedoms and non-freedoms, privacy, the practicals of free software and why tech is so dominated by men.

For anyone interested in the free software movement check out this month’s massive web hit, Hazel Healy’s interview with Richard Stallman.

When town meets gown, communities can flourish

First appeared on The Guardian Mortar Board blog on 19 September 2011

Students are an important part of any town, bringing skills and enthusiasm, says Amy Hall

Anyone who has lived in a university town or city will have heard – or maybe uttered themselves – “bloody students“, when being kept awake at night by midweek celebrations, or tripping over rubbish strewn across the pavement.

But there are many people around the UK who will be looking forward to the return of the students to their towns and cities as many community groups and projects get a boost in active members.

Bath Student Community Allotments was borne out of frustration from a group of students on long waiting lists for allotments. They wanted productive gardens but were only around for three years. Starting up in a space at the back of a pub, the group now has use of a plot at Bath City Farm. Members teamed up with the Growing Together project to match students and local residents with unused gardens, increasing their productivity and the relationship between students and other Bath residents.

Local campaign groups can also benefit from students, who often bring with them experience of activism in a student setting. As local anti-cuts groups spring up across the UK, many are taking advantage of their local student populations to strengthen their campaigns, and building on the popularity of campaigns around student fees and cuts to education.

One of these is the anti-cuts network based in Newcastle upon Tyne, which started meeting in January as a coalition between students and other members of the community. It has organised protests against tax havens and a day-long anti-cuts gathering with discussions and skill sharing workshops.

Many societies based in universities, and specifically for students, put a big emphasis on helping people in their local communities. The Cardiff University Student action for refugees (Star) group runs English conversation sessions at a weekly drop-in for refugees and asylum seekers, which in turn helps others to participate more fully in their local community.

Students are also big charity fundraisers, often through Raising and giving (Rag), making thousands of pounds for local, national and international charities. Bristol University’s Rag society has raised more than £40,000 for local charities, including a grant to a community group for yoga and meditation classes for children with severe learning difficulties and paying for a Wii fit for the residents of a retirement home. They raise money through events like ‘jailbreaks’ where teams have 36 hours to get as far away as they can without paying for public transport, bar crawls and a yearly street procession.

It’s not just from the goodness of their hearts that many students get involved with community projects; they are also facing an increasingly competitive jobs market and anything they can do to stand out from other graduates will be an advantage.

Students can bring life to their neighbourhoods and engage with their local communities. They also help the local economy as consumers and a workforce.

Relying on students can be frustrating for groups and projects which need commitment all year round, but when students and non-students work together it can benefit the whole community as different schedules and experiences complement each other.

As an example of the ‘big society’, when both sides of the town and gown divide work together towards community cohesion, life becomes a little easier for everyone.

Comment: Leave The Banks Out Of Student Loans

First appeared on The National Student on 27 June 2011

First he blamed feminism for the the unemployment of working class males (not lack of social mobility and jobs), then he said universities would end up “looking rather silly” if they rushed to charge £9,000 fees (which of course a growing number are) and now David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science is, according to The Observer, in secret talks with banks to fund student loans.

With so many universities charging the maximum fee of £9,000 a year the cost of the loans to students to cover these fees will have grown massively. Under the new system students won’t have to start paying back loans until earning £21,000 which may not be for a long time, if at all. The delay of repayment is one of the only positives of the current system for students, especially important now graduate unemployment is at its highest level for over a decade. But with such massive loans now needed for fees, not to mention maintenance, waiting for repayments could be a problem.

It isn’t likely that banks are going to want to loan to students with such little chance of them being able to pay it back any time soon. They are according to The Observer article, only likely to be on board if someone, most likely the university, is going to be relied on to take responsibility for the loan if the student can’t pay it back. Taking into account funding cuts to universities, this can only have a negative effect on education.

Relying on banks for funding is what people looking to study at postgraduate level, without access to thousands of pounds, currently do in the form of Career Development Loans on which the interest is paid to the bank by the Young People’s Learning Agency until a month after the end of the course, then repayments are expected to begin.

I am about to do a Postgraduate Diploma and, after a year of looking for other ways of funding it, am applying for a £10,000 Career Development Loan. The thought of that makes me feel sick, but as I can’t afford to work for free in London for longer than a few weeks it seems to be my best option for greatly increasing my employability in journalism.

But if I had faced getting a loan from the bank before my undergraduate there would have been no way I would have considered going to university in the first place. Three times the worry I’ve had over money for my postgrad, no chance – and I come from a relatively middle class background.

We are increasingly told there are too many people going to university, but instead of a system open to all and based on merit university will increasingly be something only the rich will consider. Maybe we should give up, leave the graduate jobs to the rich and the rest of us can do whatever is left or continue to be ‘scroungers’ on JSA where we belong.

Direct action at Millbank: Where’s the hijack?

First appeared on The National Student on November 17 2010

‘A small minority ruined it for the rest’ seems to be one of the favourite phrases from those commentating on last week’s protests over rises to university fees and cuts to contact time in Higher Education and Educational Maintenance Allowance to college students. There was still another 50, 000 people on that march so I would say nobody ‘ruined’ it for anyone.

But the movement against education cuts is now in danger of being ruined, not by violence or criminal damage but by the reactions of people like NUS President Aaron Porter who described the thousands of people at the Millbank Conservative Party HQ as “distracting from the message”, although he has now back tracked after intense criticism and says he supports direct action but still talks of ‘undermining’ and ‘infiltration’.

I was there when Porter was challenged on lack of support from the NUS for student activism by Jess Worth from the New Internationalist at student campaigning conference Shared Planet. They were both on a panel discussing how to build a strong student movement and he said the mistakes of the past would not be made again. He also said that the NUS would support students taking direct action unlike the NUS in Ireland which had recently distanced itself from student protest and occupation which ended with violence at the hands of riot police. I spoke to him after the debate was over and he reiterated how he was committed to taking action and would communicate this to Students Union officers.

When I was in university lack of NUS and student union support for student activism was obvious on many occasions. Many students’ union officers are thrown into roles with little to no experience of campaigning on the issues student activists are fighting for, and even though they may support them in this many are career politicians wanting to toe the party line or scared of being too ‘out there’.

A lecture theatre at my former university was occupied over the university’s involvement in the arms trade and divestment, part of a wider UK student movement at the time which saw occupations in universities all over the country. We received support from many lecturers, some of whom came to do talks and show films, while our Ethical & Environmental officer described a peaceful sit in as ‘intimidating’ to other students. Being involved in protest or direct action is all too often portrayed as something for the fringes of society, not a justifiable way for people to act despite the fact that it often gets results.

That’s not to say that our student officers were completely unsupportive of campaigning. For example, towards the end of my time at university earlier this year our city got paid a visit from the ‘Welsh Defence League’, the Welsh version of far right group the English Defence League. A few sabbatical officers, including our President attended meetings about counter demos to the EDL and I even spotted a few of them on the day. Although they were reluctant to outwardly encourage others too loudly to join it, the fact they were there made a real difference to students that saw them and could feel that the people we had elected into our union, to be the voice of students actually took interest in important issues and not just party politics and sports teams. I visited my former university this weekend and was glad to see students still wearing their “no to cuts” t shirts with student’s union branding.

Largely thanks to NUS motivation and organisation 52, 000 people took to the streets on last Wednesday. For many of these students it was their first protest and they wouldn’t have been there without the active encouragement of their students union’s. There is now thousands of people who will have caught the bug, enjoying the thrill of making their physical presence felt, thanks to encouragement from the NUS they aren’t worried about being in trouble for protesting or being seen banner waving.

Every campaign will have different reactions and different methods but its important it stays united in its aims. People are angry and this is just the beginning, by attempting to distance themselves from direct action Porter, and others risk delegitimising and disempoweriong the whole movement.

The direct action taken at Millbank represented the anger of thousands of students. While only a few people caused any damage to the building many just took advantage of the opportunity to get inside the building and make the space theirs. Hundreds of genuine students and lecturers were outside cheering them on. A lot of people who had never taken direct action before were compelled to ignore stewards telling them to carry on to the march and instead joined the hundreds outside Tory HQ, whether from being swept up in the excitement, a need to make their anger known or just realising the importance of the moment.

Clegg warned of “Greek-style unrest” over cuts in an interview with the Observer before the general election and now this is beginning he is enemy number one. Many students voted for the Lib Dems on their tuition fee policies and much to the joy of the other two parties, especially Labour they have betrayed their promises and, it has now emerged, they planned to break this promise before the election even happened. There is also a Tory villain, reducing public services and looking after the rich is what they’re known for, something the Labour Party seems very keen to promote.

The issue of cuts in education can’t be dropped now with the excuse of a few smashed windows or a movement disunited at the hands of politician types. One passive protest won’t unfortunately change much, there needs to be a sustained campaign that goes down every avenue: Negotiation, protest, direct action and anything else.

Students are already organising: Manchester and Sussex Universities have had occupations over the issue and a mass student walkout has been planned for November 24. Some lecturers have also spoken out in favour of grassroots action: Last week 100 lecturers and staff from Goldsmith’s University in London signed a statement in support of the protests part of which said, “The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation.”

After a media onslaught of shock that ‘adults’ were sticking up for the ‘student trouble makers’ another statement was released saying that while the lecturers did not condone violence but wanted to “condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ.”

A fear of being too radical seems to be behind a lot of NUS rejection of the direct action. But it is the politicians who do not always tow the party line, who aren’t afraid to let their voices and more importantly the voices of the people whey are meant to be representing be heard who end up being most respected.