- 40,000 march in Cologne for free education
- Join the Student Campaign Forum!
- Get involved in the UK protests
Europe's students face the same attacks
By Faz Velmi (NUS national executive) and Sacha Ismail
Imagine if privatisation were not only government policy, but the law. That, without too much hyperbole, is the threat represented by the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), currently being negotiated under the sponsorship of the World Trade Organisation.
Where the 1994 GATT treaty liberalised trade in material goods, GATS would require the creation of free market for 'trade' in service-provision - with very few exemptions, and including vast swathes of public services.
Despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that GATS constitutes such a major attack on the principle of publicly funded services, there has been an eerie silence about it in the mainstream press and mainstream intellectual debate in Britain. Both the labour and student movements have been slow to take up the issues.
It was therefore extremely encouraging to visit Cologne on 14 September, where a major trade union and student mobilisation against GATS brought 40,000 people onto the streets.
The demonstration, called by ATTAC (the 'Citizens Campaign for a Tobin Tax') and the youth sections of the German trade unions, aimed to put pressure on the German political establishment in the run-up to the general election of 21 September. Among the most popular slogans were those attacking ultra-conservative Christian Democrat leader Edmund Stoiber.
As well as large numbers of young trade union members, there was a contingent from Cologne and other nearby universities, carrying the banner of the 'Education is Not for Sale campaign'. This organisation had sponsored a forum on education and privatisation the day before, where we learned more about the issues involved.
The last two or three years have seen European governments moving to radically reshape their education systems along commercial lines. These changes, like the GATS treaty itself, are fundamentally a reflection of capital's constant drive to open up new markets for exploitation - and education is an extremely profitable market.
This process has expressed itself in three ways.
Firstly, cuts in public funding (e.g. the introduction of tuition fees) free resources for diversion to business through reductions in taxation or increases in subsidies.
Secondly, increasing business influence on what is researched (e.g. through corporate sponsorship of research) and taught (e.g. through government policies which prioritise the basic skills at the expense of everything else) helps provide firms with human and other resources.
And last but not least, privatisation can open up the education system to full-blown, direct profit-making. GATS will mean both the legal entrenchment of these trends and their extension from a national to an international arena.
This process is gathering speed across Europe, under governments of all political colours. If the Spanish conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar has introduced a law effectively privatising universities, the German Social Democrats have handed over hundreds of schools to the giant Bertelsmann media corporation. As a French message of support to the Education is Not for Sale forum put it: "The ministers come and go, but the policies sit tight."
As well as highlighting these threats, however, the forum focused on the growing strength of European student resistance to them. Although the attacks faced by British students are more severe than those in many other European countries (one speaker asked the audience if they wanted the German education system to end up "like the UK"!), we still lag behind many others in terms of fighting back. Last winter, for instance, saw the Spanish student movement mobilise more than half a million people in demonstrations and mass occupations against the 'LOU' law establishing university privatisation.
This year has witnessed huge student strikes and even an occupation of parliament in protest at the possible introduction of tuition fees in the German state of North Rhein-Westphalia (of which Cologne is the capital).
Education is Not for Sale has now established a European wide network of student campaigning organisations, including the Campaign for Free Education and the Student Campaign Forum in Britain, which will be working to raise the issue of education at the European Social Forum in Florence this November.
With GATS, student and labour movement activists face not only the traditional problem of mobilising large numbers, but the fact that so few of the people threatened by the treaty are even aware of its existence. At the forum, student activists from ATTAC and a representative from FZS, the German national union of students, discussed the way in which Germany's corporate media, though they are occasionally willing to discuss protests against individual neo-liberal reforms (e.g. the threat of tuition fees), maintain a complete silence about the bigger issues involved. The challenge in Britain, too, is to link protests for free education to over-arching themes of privatisation, attacks on the welfare state - and, of course, GATS.
Join the Student Campaign Forum!
As well as fighting against GATS and for free education, the Student Campaign Forum campaigns on a whole range of other issues - against war on Iraq, against racism and in solidarity with the trade union movement.
We'll be out on the anti-war demo on 28 September, working with the No Sweat campaign to take transport to the European Social Forum in Florence and getting student support for the firefighters' strike. We believe that student campaigns over issues like education funding are not self-contained but intimately connected with struggles for democracy and justice throughout society.
Our stalls at freshers' fairs have already got a very good response, with dozens of students signing up to get involved. If you believe in a student movement that stands in the best left-wing tradition of activism, political discussion and solidarity, join us!
Get involved in the UK protests
The Blair government, unsurprisingly a strong supporter of GATS, will be announcing fresh reforms to student funding sometime later this year (unless of course it delays the announcement for the umpteenth time). There will be protests to make sure it listens to students' agenda, not the WTO's.
There will be a free education demonstration in Manchester, sponsored by Salford University SU, on 22 October and a NUS action in London within 72 hours after the Government makes its announcement (contact the SCF for more details of both).
The NUS national demonstration against tuition fees and for student grants will take place on 4 December, and we will be organising a picket of Margaret Hodge's constituency surgery before then. Contact us and get involved in the action!