Yesterday I attended a set of workshops at NUS’ ‘Student Activism 2011′ in London:
1. ‘Where is HE (Higher Education) going? Understanding the White Paper.
2. ‘Understanding political apathy (and defeating it).
3. Campus democracy.
4. What’s the point of Feminism? Should the women’s movement matter to students?
These have led me to formulate the following argument…
Let’s consider these points:
- 80% of the students unable to pay back their student loan back (due to low salaries) will be women under the new system proposed by the White Paper.
- Under current fees women take 50% longer than men to pay back their loans.
- Chances of employment for women are much lower than men: 70% of recruiting agencies have been asked by clients not to hire women of child-bearing age because they are ‘high risk’, and where redundancies are being made women are likely to be targeted for the same reason.
- The cuts being introduced by this coalition government are targeting the public sector, and its workforce which predominantly comprises women (65%).
- The majority of workers facing pay freezes, pay cuts and job losses are women.
- The UK has the highest gender pay-gap in the EU for full-time work (17%).
So, student political issues such as the tuition fee rise, the White Paper, cuts to courses, staff and resources means that women will be losing out even more than their male counterparts (though this is by no means trying to delegitimise their struggle) in that they have lower employment prospects, are likely to be earning less, and will take on average considerably longer to pay off this hefty debt. For these reasons, I postulate that:
1. Gender equality and women’s liberation is a student issue.
2. Student politics, and cuts to HE, is a women’s issue.
Women should be fighting hardest and shouting loudest against cuts to HE at a national and campus level. Accepting this, it is useful to recognise some important issues at hand.
First of all, on campus level, there is a very important battle we need to be involed with; that of democratising both the University and Guild of Students’ structures by ensuring that at every level of decision-making there are elected committees comprising, students, academic staff and non-academic staff. If this is achieved, HE at the University of Birmingham will truly be shaped in the interests of students and staff, presumably placing the value of education and the ‘student experience’ above that of profit. This is not a pipe dream; at University of Cambridge and University of Oxford (by no means radical institutions) the most important decision-making body is Congregation, comprising 3,700 members of the University’s academic and administrative staff – not a small group of executive managers as at the University of Birmingham.
The problem on campus does not stop at the unaccountability of the University. Perhaps a more worrying problem is the lack of student voice in the body designed to be our mouth-piece, the Guild of Students. Currently, ultimate decision-making power lies with the Trustee Board, a committee consisting of three alumni trustees (including the Chair), three lay trustees, three student trustees, a University representative and four Sabbatical Officers. Only the four Sabbatical Officers are elected meaning the ratio of unelected trustees to elected trustees is 10:4. Considering that this body has the power to override all decisions made by Guild Council, it is safe is conclude that democracy here at the Guild of Students is merely token and can be withdrawn at any time. This is a very significant handicap when students hope to lobby the University about decisions that will directly affect their learning, their employment prospects and their student experience; such as cuts to courses, staff and learning resources – all which are taking place at our University.
It is obvious that if decisions were made by students, academic staff and non-academic staff in a Parliament-style congregation, as showcased by Oxbridge, education and accessibility would be the main priority. We would have the power to influence issues at hand such as the University’s decision to spend £600 million on improving the aesthetic quality of our campus, £65 million on knocking down and rebuilding our library where our Sports Centre is now and £45 million pounds on moving the Sports Centre to where the Gun & Barrels pub now stands. It is not for me to comment on these investments, but for the student and staff bodies, who together have the greatest idea where such investments should be heading in order to ensure the University of Birmingham is a quality educative institution; not merely a beautiful campus.
What can we do?
- The Guild of Students is currently our primary vehicle for being heard, and as such it must be a priority to transform it into a democratic body. By all means, this is a difficult task considering the shackles we currently bear in the form of the unaccountable Trustee Board, but Guild Council must express its wishes for a democratic system of decision-making. A motion has been submitted to Guild Council calling for an expression of the belief that regular AGMs (General Meetings with the decision-making power above that of the Trustee Board should be called by the Trustee Board. Many Student Unions around the country already have AGMs as a mandatory part of their democratic process. At last Guild Council this did not pass through steering; a decision justified by the fact that it will have no actual effect, but I argue that if we don’t express our wish for democracy the Trustee will be udner no pressure to oblige. Lobby your Guild Councillors, Student Reps and RAs to support this motion.
- Attend the meeting held every Monday at 6pm in Nuffield Learning Centre, which discuss HE issues, and plan actions to combat the detrimental changes outlined by the White Paper and planned by University management.
- Support the Staff Strike on November 30th. Show the love for your lecturers and your support staff by standing with them against cuts to wages and pensions and job losses. Student-to-staff ratios are ever increasing, threatening the quality of our education here at University of Birmingham. Cuts to wages and pensions may lead to top academics leaving for better conditions elsewhere at other institutions or in the private sector. If the quality and diveristy of University of Birmingham’s staff depreciates, so will the standing of our institution. This is very significant, because if in 10 years we sink to becoming a second or third-class institution, our employment prospects will sink to match this.
- Engage with HE issues. There are many outlets for expressing dissent, or calling for the democratisation of this University. If we are successful we have the opportunity to mitigate the effects of government decisions or stop them altogether, meaning as students we won’t be suffering the losses to our student experience.
This is an issue that affects students and staff, now and in the future. Women face a lot of discrimination in the workplace and rising fees and declining quality is a cost that is far from just.
Make your voice heard.