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Speech to NUS Cuts Conference on 29th June at the Birmingham NEC January 1, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in Uncategorized.
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Introductory Remarks at the HE Sector Cuts Conference – 29 June 2010

Link to more details: http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/news/article/fundingourfuture/388/

Aaron Porter, National President

 Good afternoon.

I will get straight to the point. We are meeting today because we are threatened with the most drastic retrenchment in public spending for sixty years. The new government, an extraordinary, unbelievable coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats, have resolved to remove the full 113 billion pound deficit within four years. To get there, they plan 83 billion in spending cuts. The scale of this is enormous; its impact could be devastating. This is a grave emergency for the student movement and it comes at a moment where the future of higher education funding is itself in considerable doubt. Students are seen by ministers as part of the problem and seen by vice-chancellors as an easy solution. We are neither. We must be crystal clear in our response to the situation, and equally clear about our strategy. I set the ground for both those aims, and I will be simple and direct in doing so.

Let me begin with my own assessment of George Osborne’s budget. There are four key points.

One. The deficit does not need to be balanced completely in four years. The sheer speed and depth of the cuts is a political choice, not a fait a complit, and we should oppose it.

Two. There should be at least a ratio of two-to-one for spending cuts to tax rises, not four-to-one as the government has determined. The budget reduced taxation for big business by fourteen percent over the parliament, while putting VAT up – this is a case of appalling double standards and we should oppose it.

Three. The things to cut first are Trident, unwinnable foreign conflicts, and fat cat pay in the public sector. We need to be clear that these cuts would be good, not bad, and there are real choices available to limit the damage to more important things like education and welfare.

Four. Spending on further and higher education, along with schools and early years support, should be prime candidates for some level of protection. The budget proposes average spending cuts of 25% across all departments – but within that it may be possible to keep the cuts down in some areas. Ministers, Vince Cable in particular, have signalled that they may seek to give education spending some protection. We should welcome that, but he has to put his money where his mouth is.

I know there are those who think that it is possible to prevent education spending cuts altogether, and that this should be our aim. Let me say this from the outset, as it is my first opportunity to do so. I respect your position. My predecessors were sometimes guilty of pushing their rhetoric a bit too far. Well, no, let’s be honest – they did too much trot baiting. I don’t plan to do that.

We are coming to a moment in time where one economic and social settlement has broken apart and another may come in its place. The student movement has played an important role at moments like these in the past. We must do so again now, and to deny any role in that for the left wing of NUS would be wrong and self-defeating. To do it, we need to be open to new ideas; in fact we need to create the new ideas that will transform our education system in the future. We also need to be honest and respectful about our differences.

It was famously said that student politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low. Today the stakes are the greatest they have been for many years. So let’s cut the viciousness. It won’t get us anywhere.

Let me deal with the substantial issues. In keeping with what I have just said, I will set out my position without hyperbole or grandstanding. I think it is possible to successfully limit the cuts to further and higher education in the forthcoming spending review, and that will be our aim. I think the basic case, that public education creates economic growth and stands in the way of social division, is the right case and it is something the whole student movement can unite behind. I think the way we campaign in the next six months must be at the centre of that effort, and we will have a national demonstration to prove that we are a united force that can build real political pressure – both against cuts and against the marketisation in higher education. This event will provide an opportunity to influence our planning for campaigning activity in the year ahead, and to discuss how to build for those actions on the ground.

But I do not believe, in all honesty, we can stop all the cuts to our education system. The fact is that cuts to the baseline of the higher education budget of at least 500 million pounds have already been made since this time last year. The chances are there will be more to come – indeed, the Labour government had already scheduled an additional 600 million cut from the baseline, before George Osborne even moved into the Treasury. We need to be prepared. Our work has begun with modelling the front line impact of worst-case scenarios where the government decides to take the full twenty-five percent out of the higher education budget. This modelling shows that depending on which high level policy decisions are made, the institutional budgets are likely to decrease by between 8 percent and 14 percent. We need to keep cool heads and discuss how we would take that money out of the system to do the least damage. This event will therefore also provide an opportunity to start to deal with this problem. It’s a nasty debate to have, but it is absolutely necessary to have it.

So this event has two main purposes. We need to fight for the best, but plan for the worst. The policy determined by national conference is the right policy. We are opposed to cuts that run too quick and too deep and threaten the economic recovery. We recognise that the scale of the fiscal imbalance is so huge that some cuts will have to be made. We will pile on the pressure to save education from the worst of the cuts that do come. We will work positively to shield students from the impact of that process. It really is not hard to see that this is the only approach that makes sense.

The same principles apply at the local level. When your institution is staring into a black hole in a year’s time, you have to be there. At Sussex, Middlesex and Liverpool, activists have proved that it is possible to mount campaigns to save courses and departments, and win. The third purpose of this event is to enable you to share information about different tactics and approaches for tackling cuts on the ground. Sometimes that will mean direct action and exposing your institution in the media, but sometimes it will mean sitting down with senior managers in the university and talking through the issues. Both are valid, and both can deliver for students if they are done right.

I am due to meet university leaders in the next fortnight to begin talks about how the sector should respond to the threats and pressures ahead. Their public rhetoric has been overblown but tells a depressingly familiar story. Talk of a ‘valley of death’ may impress newspaper editors, but it is a thinly disguised code for the usual demands. Universities see the path out of the valley being laid down by our members. Vice Chancellors see higher fees and worse terms for student loans as easy ways to plug the gap. Some of them want to cut the loan subsidies in the most aggressive and regressive ways possible – by reducing the threshold so poorer graduates make payments, and by increasing the 25 year write-off period, hurting the poorest graduates the most. A few even want to create a situation where some people are forced to go to private banks for student finance, where the wealthiest students will pay the least interest, and where students who can get a parental guarantee would get a better deal. These proposals are an all out assault on students from disadvantaged backgrounds, women, black and LGBT students, and I will stop them.

But to do that, I must not have my hands tied before I even go into the room. We must have a clear message for vice-chancellors about where they should go first to reduce costs, to limit the damage to our members. There is waste in every higher education institution, and we have to trim that waste. We know that the headcount of management and professorial grade staff in the sector has increased by 3,300 since 2006, with 80% of them in pre-1992 institutions, driven by the race for higher research status. Despite the events of the last two years, we have seen the usual rises in VC pay, and I know of at least one institution where more than 150 people are paid over a hundred thousand pounds a year.

These are tough times and they require tough choices. Ministers and university leaders will not shirk from that task, but if we are not there, whether that is out on the streets of London or inside the smoky rooms where the deals are cut, they will make the wrong choices. To be truly powerful in this, we need to do both and do them well. 

So I ask for your support in the next six months. I need to you to do three things. Firstly, I need you to inform our response to the spending review and the talks we will have with university representatives. Second, I need you to build for a year of action on a scale that we have not undertaken since the higher education bill six years ago. Third, I need you to prepare for action within your own institutions to defend the things that are most important and, if and when it comes to it, control the cuts as they close in.

If you are one of those people who would consider yourself my opponent, I hope you will recognise a serious attempt here to put aside, even temporarily, our old battles. The truth is that we are only divided by our division. United, we can win.

If you are with me, then all to the good. It will be hard work and there will be bad days. But we were all put in our jobs to secure and defend the rights of students, and there can be none more important right for them than the right to a good, properly funded education.

That is what we intend to do, and using every weapon at our disposal, we are going to do it. So let’s get to work.

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