Trials and tribulations of the Teesside free education campaign (part 1)
In the first installment of our ‘WTF is wrong with education?’ series, launched with this article, Alex Jones-Casey shares his experiences campaigning for free education at Teesside University.
Sitting in the pub on the eve of my sister’s A-Level results, my dad made a passing remark about the education system that stuck with me.
“She’ll probably run up a bigger bill on the phone to UCAS then I did during my three years at university.”
Amongst the ambient noise of laughter, pool cues ricocheting and swinging door hinges, his fleeting comment resonated with me.
Not for nothing, as part of Teesside University’s Green Party Society and the Teesside Free Education Campaign Group, I’ve been part of a team campaigning to change the university’s stance on free education. Our campaign took us from campus to the capital, and makes for one hell of a story.
If you will, allow me tell it to you.
It started, as many intrepid ideas do, in a bar. Sat around a table in the corner of the Dickens Inn, the prospective initial members of the Teesside University Green Party Society discussed campus’ sparse political landscape. And it was sparse; besides a very small contingency of students that constituted the Labour Party Society, political activity on a student level was either non-existent or drastically under-promoted. Which was odd, considering everyone I’d walked past en route to the bar was being hustled by the government (and the previous one and the one before that) to the tune of around £9000 a year.
So that’s where we started. Free Education.
Fortunately for our small group, the members of Teesside University’s Labour Party Society were equally as enthused by the concept of free education; and following a meeting with Labour Society members and Chair (now Borough Councillor for Kader) Jordan Blyth in the Student’s Union lounge, the Teesside Free Education Campaign Group, made up of Green and Labour students, was formed in October with the goal of making it official Teesside University Student Union policy to support the cause of free education.
Our first undertaking as a collective came in the form of a trip to London as part of the NCAFC’s ‘Free Education Now!’ demonstration in November.
Understandably, at least to us, we looked to the students union in hope of some financial backing for our trip down south; predominantly to help cover the cost of a minibus to and from the capital. Unfortunately, our Student’s Union was unwilling to assist this small group of students in their choice to protest the tens of thousands of pounds of debt they were being saddled with post-university. Their reasoning? Because our desire to protest was ‘too political’.
Heaven forbid students become politically active, so Teesside Free Education Group disbanded out of respect for the Students Union and accepted the £30,000 debt looming on the horizon with a smile on their politically-inactive faces.
That wouldn’t make for much of a story, would it?
No, despite TUSUs reluctance to support our journey to London, our plans for November 19th 2014 remained the same. Thankfully, well, perhaps not thankfully, various other universities like Durham and York were facing similar adversity from their SUs. As such, Green students from each of the aforementioned institutes came together to organise a coach that would leave Durham just after 4 am on November 19th, stopping in various other locations including Middlesbrough to pick up students en route to an 11 am arrival in London; funded largely by donations from unions such as Unite and Unison.
With our plans to go south for the NCAFC’s protest resolute, we turned our attention back to campus and the local campaign for free education.
As is required by Student Union regulation, 50 or more signatures must be compiled to call a General Meeting of the student body on, in this instance, free education. We collected the 50 signatures as requested and handed them over to the then President of the TUSU; who admitted to being unsure of the exact procedures required to present a motion to the student body at a GM, as no such action had been taken by students in several years.
Regardless, we were told “We’ll get back to you.”
They got back to us.
TUSU President, Will Ridley and Education Officer Ryan Marshall tabled a motion suggesting the university adopting a pro-free education policy would have “no realistic prospect” as well as harming the prospective lobbying of MPs as “it is not a credible position in the current economic and political situation” and “our efforts should continue to focus on a fair deal for all Teesside University students within the present system.”
It’s hard to throw the term ‘fair deal’ around when students this year are paying triple what those who enrolled in 2011 were, and we weren’t inspired by the TUSU team’s lack of inclination to back its students. Thankfully neither was anyone else, and the motion was rejected at roughly 9-1 after impassioned speeches from Green Party society member and former MP candidate for Middlesbrough, Hannah Graham and Labour society Chair Jordan Blythe that left the hundred-plus students packed into the Student Union lounge raucous and united in their rejection of TUSU’s proposed motion.
I strongly urge you to see for yourself. The Free Education ‘debate’ begins around the 26 minute mark.
Riding the high of attending the NCAFC’s London demonstration in spite of TUSU and the rejection of their dismissal of free education en mass, we decided to use the momentum to keep pushing the agenda.
On December 4th, over a two hour-period, we collected over 400 signatures from students, lecturers, cleaning staff and receptionists. After presenting this second petition to the TUSU, it became suddenly/conveniently apparent to them that taking a pro-free education stance was illegal.
Cue two months of legal back-and-forth between outside firms that established nothing other than the illegitimacy of TUSU’s flippant statements; to the surprise of approximately no one.
And with that, comes the half-way mark of this story. The second instalment will cover our attempts to hold a Question Time-esque show on campus that led to another colourful dispute with TUSU; as well as their attempted disqualification of a free education supporter standing for President of the Student Union.
Have you noticed a disturbing trend or policy at your school, college or university? Have you been trying to organise and fight for the future of education, either nationally or locally? Or have yo simply become aware of a national trend in education and wish to share your thoughts on it? We want to hear from you and help share your experiences with others going through similar situations.
Together we can form a network of similar individuals and pressure groups that work together to reclaim our education. Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to write something for the series and get the conversation going. We would especially welcome submissions from women and black and minority ethnic (BAME) people.