Oxford Left

The students to change OUSU

For Free Education and a Powerful Student Movement

We are a grassroots group of students drawn from campaigns and causes across our university. We’re not just standing to win an election, but to build a different sort of OUSU, a responsive, campaigning and more democratised union.

We think the Cost of Living is a key issue for students, with a 4-5% average rent rise, and funding reductions. We will campaign for a University Rent Subsidy to support poorer students/students at poorer colleges with rents, for college rents to not exceed the basic state maintenance loan, and for the preservation of strong bursarial support over fee waivers if necessary. We will use OUSU resources to support JCR living costs campaigns.

Higher education is under attack, with sweeping cuts (leaving gaps of £6k per student per year in tutorial costs at some colleges) and the introduction of the private sector. Our vision of education is one where we are students, not consumers. We want an OUSU that will build resistance to the government’s attacks on higher educations, through mobilising for both national demonstrations such as the one on November 21st in London, and local action, resisting library closures and opposing all cuts to the academic experience. We want to see increased university support for postgraduates and international students, who are currently among the most economically deprived in the student body.

We will create a comprehensive living cost index in order to plan  priorities.

We also seek a more democratic and inclusive OUSU. We will look into university-wide referenda and general meetings where all students, not just OUSU reps, will be able to decide policy and priorities, and aim to ensure OUSU reps bridge the gap and engage closely with JCR meetings. The problem of apathy towards OUSU can be tackled by giving people the chance to make a difference, as well as empowering OUSU by campaigning against university restrictions on its funding – Oxford student representation receives £500k less than the Russell Group average. We will  also look into creating an OUSU Student Legal Officer, to ensure students are properly represented in disputes.

We oppose and will resist racism, sexism, homophobia and all forms of discrimination on campus, by working closely with liberation campaigns and building grassroots resistance toward any discriminatory organisation that comes to Oxford. We oppose the racist deportations of our fellow students at London Met, and will  fight for a fair deal for international students. We will campaign against the victim-blaming campaigns on rape  that Thames Valley Police have organised in Oxford.

Community and environment are central. We will support the Campaign Against Climate Change’s call for a million green jobs nationally by pressuring Oxford to create green jobs insulating university buildings, and working with interested parties towards a plan for a Green Oxford. We fully support the campaign for a Living Wage for all Oxford staff, and will work with councillors and local campaigners to enhance the integration of university and city. Due to a shared vision of education, we support local campaigns against the dangerous and rapid conversion of Oxford schools into unaccountable academies. Defending our lecturers and staff against attacks on their pensions, pay and conditions is also of fundamental importance to the university community. We will support the work of students in outreach on homelessness and poverty in Oxford.

Access is another key campaigning area. It is in part linked to the cost of living issue, in that by securing better funding settlements we are likely to encourage recruitment. In addition, we will aim for regular meetings of college access reps to create integrated strategies and campaigns, target younger students (which studies have shown is highly effective) and continue to open up Oxford’s resources to local schools, as well as supporting programmes to mentor underprivileged school students.

Oxford also has its place in the international community. We will extend the campaign against Oxford’s investment in the  arms trade, as well as following the model of other UK student unions and supporting a boycott of Israeli goods and services in protest against the treatment of Palestinians. In addition, we aim to raise awareness of, and support the work students have been doing in reaching out to asylum seekers imprisoned at Campsfield House in inhumane conditions, just north of Oxford, and against asylum detention centres.

We have a wider vision of what our student union should be. Whilst we are aiming to defend education, we are not just defined by what we oppose, but by the sort of student union we want – one that is campaigning, integrated, grassroots and responsive, and puts the student at the heart of their education.

Our candidates are

Part-time executive

Arianna Tassinari #1 for Graduate International  Students Officer

Nathan Akehurst #1 for Access and Admissions Officer

Lucy Delaney #1 for Women’s Campaign Officer

NUS delegates

Matt Myers

Emily Cousens

Arianna Tassinari

Sophie Williams

To find out more about any of our policies or candidates, just drop us an email at oxfordleft2012@gmail.com, visit us at facebook.com/groups/oxfordleft, tweet at @oxfordleft4ousu

Lucy Delaney for Women’s Campaign Officer- Policies and Commitments

  • Only 20% of Oxford JCR presidents and society chairs are female.
  • Men are more than 1.6 times more likely to obtain a First in their degree at Oxford than women.
  • 7% of female students in the UK will experience rape or attempted rape during their time at university.

This is not acceptable.

I aim to bring a new dynamic to the role by taking direct action and reaching out to the Oxford community around three main proposals.

Sexual Safety and Health:

  • Women’s and men’s rooms in every college
    • These rooms provide free contraception, sanitary towels, tampons, information on sexual health and a bed for the night in the event of a problem.
  • WomCam hotline/support service for victims of rape and assault
    • This is a service providing support for victims of rape or attempted rape, making going to the police less daunting and traumatic.
    • It would be a non-judgemental service; this is one place which would NOT question the length of the victim’s skirt, or how much they had had to drink.
    • It would link to Oxford Left’s overall policy of campaigning for a Student Legal Advice Service

Widening Access and Improving Representation:

  • Outreach programmes
    • I want WomCam to become directly involved in Target Schools and other access campaigns to encourage more underprivileged women to apply to Oxford, particularly with STEM subjects.
    • I want to create more workshops encouraging more women to stand for leadership positions in colleges and societies.
  • Women’s Officer meetings
    • I want to hold meetings between the Women’s Campaign Officer and the Women’s Officers of each individual Oxford College.
    • This would connect OUSU directly with students and would thus be more representative and democratic.
  • Target Academic Disparity
    • I will work to campaign for funding investigations into the gender disparity regarding degree achievements.

Promotional Campaigns and Activities:

  • Feminist Festival
    • Following the example of Wadham College’s ‘Queerfest’, I want to establish an event to celebrate feminism. This would involve famous guest speakers, gender equality workshops and live music and entertainment.
    • It would raise the profile of WomCam and make the fight for gender equality fun. relevant and important to the entire student community.

Oxford University already offers a wealth of opportunity for women but there is so much more that can be done. I have proposed action on both a local and greater scale in order to combat the gender disparity and safety issues which have a daily impact upon the lives of students here. I also share Oxford Left’s wider vision of a democratised, campaigning student union that genuinely fights to improve the lives of its students. To find out just how much can be achieved by the Women’s Campaign Officer, vote for me next week.

OUSU elections open on Tuesday of 6th week at 8am and close on Thursday of 6th at 6pm. Don’t forget to cast your vote!

No room in Oxford for David Willetts

 

Students from all quarters of Oxford gathered today to send a resounding message of no confidence in universities minister David Willetts, in a picket at St Peter’s College that lasted around two and a half hours. I came expecting a reasonable turnout, but was impressed nonetheless with the sheer number of people who had gathered on New Inn Hall Street on a November evening to help defend our university against cuts and privatisation. (For more details on why we picketed David Willetts, it is well worth reading this piece by Emily Cousens, one of Oxford Left’s NUS delegate candidates in the Oxford Student.)

From the occupation of the Radcliffe Camera to the large and lively protest against Vince Cable in Oxford in 2010, we have a strong tradition of opposing attacks on higher education. And at present, our education sector is at the most vulnerable it has been in decades.

Despite being internationally renowned for our higher education institutions, the government seem to display an endemic disregard for it. We rank below Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic for university participation. The UK spends around 1.3% of GDP on higher education; the OECD average is 1.4%. As it stands, UK universities generate 2.3% of GDP and employ 2.6% of the country’s workforce; cuts are engendering huge job losses- and a smaller student population means lower revenue, since graduates repay more as a proportion of income in tax than the average person. In 2011, some 180,000 students who applied to university were left without a place. We are also witnessing creeping privatisation in both secondary and tertiary education, undertaken by a government with an ideological vision of students and lecturers as producers and consumers as opposed to partners in a mutual endeavour of educational enrichment. The OECD states “Public investments in education, particularly at the tertiary level, are rational even in the face of running a deficit in public finances. Issuing government bonds to finance these investments will yield significant returns and improve public finances in the longer term.” Student choice’ has been a catchphrase bandied about by the White Paper’s architects. Logic says otherwise. So does the Higher Education Policy Institute. It claims the sector will be split into a small elite that top-rate £9,000 fees and garners top students at the expense of social mobility, and a ‘lower class’ that charges average fees of below £7.5k (after waivers and not always willingly). The government’s logic on cuts and student numbers does not make sense.

When top-up fees rose in 2006, poorer students experienced no huge disadvantage, and so their application numbers remained unwavering. Participation among those who were hit with rises that are small in comparison to those proposed by the coalition dropped by 3.2% – and this is among the more privileged classes that are in a far better position to repay their debts. Debt aversion is a serious barrier to access (which is why if elected Access and Admissions Officer I would make fighting the cuts a central part of my platform) and the solution being all too often proposed is marginalising bursary support in place of fee waivers. Yet the student experience is being damaged by soaring living costs- in rent, catering charges, and everyday prices. Courses and teaching budgets are meanwhile falling, with a £6k gap per student per year in the tutorial system at some Oxford colleges. The higher education system is being precipitated into a crisis- and this is why Oxford voted no confidence in David Willetts almost unanimously a year ago.

Today’s protest reflects a growing anger among the student body, as the first year hit by the fee rises enters Oxford. Turnout was considerable, and swelled further by students from Brookes and Ruskin. The mood was energetic and militant, and Willetts was prevented from speaking for more than ten minutes due to the protest.

The message was clear- stopping Willetts being welcomed to Oxford was just the beginning. The next step is to join the thousands of students that will be in London on November 21stand demonstrate that when Willetts and his colleagues attack our education, we will fight back.

One part of building such a fight is being able to create grassroots organisations of activists empowered by the resources our student unions have to offer. This is one of the reasons Oxford Left is standing- so that we can pressure OUSU into actually standing up and fighting for our education.

See you in London on the 21st.

Nathan Akehurst

So what is OUSU, anyway?

A few decades ago, the Oxford Union used to form the centre of political involvement in Oxford, with presidential elections being a left-right contest in most cases. Of course, the Union is a port-quaffing debating society where people pretend to be in the House of Commons and wear dinner jackets in order to open debates- it was never really going to be the hub of student-led activism, hence OUSU. It was only under the threat of legal intervention from the Government that the University recognised the right of the Student Representative Council to exist- something it had been trying to deny for centuries.

Without grassroots political agitation and campaigning, OUSU would never have been here.

That’s a reputation it now tries to deny. Recently, when a motion came to Council to back our lecturers and support a trade union demonstration, one of the major objections was that taking a political decision would be ‘divisive.’ Surely any decision anyone makes is ‘divisive’, in that some agree with it and others don’t- and the only alternative is to make no decisions at all. Something certain people within OUSU who are more concerned with their future careers or disguising their right-wing views behind bureaucracy would be perfectly happy with. (and not all, there are dedicated and brilliant OUSU full- and part-timers out there.) The allegation that politicisation threatens OUSU’s pastoral role is nonsensical- the Student Advice Service and similar open-to-all support networks are exactly the sort of thing we’re trying to preserve.

We also need to challenge the university. Even when JCR/MCR funding is taken into account, we still receive 500,000 pounds less in funding per year than the average Russell Group student union. OUSU is restricted from alternative fundraising methods. Thus far, letter-writing has been the main form of protest against this shocking state of affairs.

Equivocating is not an option when the Higher Education sector faces privatisation, cuts and funding gaps, soaring living costs, rising educational inequalities, higher fees, and more. Student unions need to be at the heart of the fightback.

If OUSU doesn’t engage, then no-one will care about it. Hence, the useful myth of student apathy becomes perpetuated. Why not be apathetic when you don’t even get a vote at OUSU unless you’re already an elected official? OUSU should have the power to call General Assemblies where the entire student body can not only turn up but vote. That way you might get deepened participation

One of the other slates’ slogans is ‘Refresh OUSU’. If only that were true. Perhaps it is, only inasmuch as one ‘refreshes’ Google to bring up exactly the same page.

We want a campaigning student union that is responsive, grassroots and democratic, and genuinely leads the fight on issues that affect students. That’s why we didn’t call ourselves ‘Team Insert Someone’s Surname Here’. We’re less about personalities and more about creating a long term campaign for long term change.

Widening access, defending education

Last night, Oxford Left candidates joined the debate at OUSU’s Central Husts, hosted at Wadham College.

Access and Admissions Officer candidate Nathan Akehurst outlined Oxford Left’s vision for access, stressing the importance of both targeted outreach and living cost support. He argued for a range of access policies, including

-         targeting outreach at younger students in order to dispel myths about Oxbridge early on

-         working alongside other universities

-         working with CRAE, WomCam, LGBTQ and the International Students’ Campaign to streamline access strategies toward recruiting from a diversity of backgrounds

-         convening regular meetings of student, JCR, OUSU and university access campaigners to encourage integration and idea-sharing

-         linking Oxford Left’s plan for a Cost of Living Campaign for access. Lobbying the university for a Rent Subsidy Programme to ensure no college rent exceeds the basic state maintenance loan, strengthening bursary support, etc., will help encourage recruitment as well as supporting current students through difficult times.
When it came to questions, people in the audience raised concerns about graduate access. We resolved that the biggest barrier to graduate access was the financial one (although the fact that the vast majority of access work is targeted at UK potential undergraduates does need tackling), and thus Access cannot lose sight of the bigger picture, and what we are doing internally to encourage recruitment needs to be backed up by grassroots activism against fees and cuts. Free public education would be the greatest leap forward for access, and that is why we argue these positions cannot possibly be depoliticised.

Oxford Left is also extremely concerned with the policy seemingly adopted by both main slates of encouraging colleges to sponsor academies. We strongly oppose the idea that the University should in any way be part of the privatization of secondary and further education. The argument has been made that university-sponsored schools are better than the alternative under further academisation- yet this does not mean that Oxford should be a part of the problem. Instead, as a cornerstone of modern academia, Oxford should be putting its resources behind the Oxford Against Academies campaign, helping students, parents and teachers on the ground resist the creeping privatization of their schools. From an access perspective, Nathan Akehurst adds, ‘academisation is set to deepen educational inequality and become a massive barrier to access. Academies do not have to recruit qualified teachers, are licensed to bring down staff pay and conditions, and exist as a model closer to a business than an institution that puts the children it teaches first. This quiet sell-off of Britain’s schools will do untold harm to the quality of education in the long run, and as academics and people concerned about access, we must resist it.’

Lucy Delaney, our Women’s Campaign Officer candidate also returned for her second hust, and reiterated her vision for the future development of WomCam, based on the three policy areas of sexual health and safety, widening access and participation, and awareness-raising campaigns.

And as for the other slates? One individual standing on one of the presidential slates claimed that ‘most of them are just in it for their CVs.’

OUSU elections open on Tuesday of 6th week at 8am and close on Thursday of 6th at 6pm. Don’t forget to cast your vote!

Why I support Oxford Left for OUSU 2012

 

Oxford students face substantial problems in their own lives. We have just seen a massive increase in fees and student debt and funding cuts to the education system nationally, while the cost of living, already high in Oxford, continues to rise. Poorer students in particular are having difficulty making ends meet. Students are subject to arbitrary disciplinary procedures and arcane regulations. We are also underrepresented within the University’s governing structures. The academics have a powerful democratic body, Congregation, to express their interests, and this has played an important role in resisting plans to make Oxford’s administration more managerial and market-driven. But students’ voices are scarcely represented at all in University governance, while our student union is underfunded (compared to the average for Russell Group universities), and University regulations make it difficult for it to even raise its own funds.

At Oxford, we need a student union that is prepared to challenge the government over Higher Education funding and the University authorities over arbitrary disciplinary procedures. We need a union that will support lecturers’ campaigns to defend academic democracy against marketisation and unaccountable bureaucracy, but also push for greater transparency and more representation of students in University affairs. We need a union that will stand up for us.

But we also need a union that will stand up for others. At other British universities, international students face deportation, and institutions are in danger of actual privatisation or closure. Meanwhile, working people and those who rely on public services across the country are facing even worse problems, as a direct result of the current government’s misguided economic policies.  Austerity continues to bite, and this will affect our families, friends, neighbours and fellow-citizens – perhaps more than it will affect us. Most of us have relations and friends abroad, who may be facing even worse situations: austerity across the European Union, World Bank-imposed budgets in Asia and Africa, the violence fuelled by the arms trade (in which the University still invests) worldwide. The problems Oxford students face are minor by comparison.

We are, after all, at one of the best universities in one of the richest countries in the world. We are privileged, and this can allow us to remain uninterested in politics. We assume that our fortunate situation means that we will be alright whatever happens politically, while others in more exposed situations simply cannot afford to be indifferent to the issues that determine their lives. On the other hand, our privileges as Oxford students bring us many advantages. We have the space, time and freedom to study and reflect on the world we live in; we have the resources and skills to change it. We can bring an enormous amount of energy and intelligence to bear on behalf of progressive movements and campaigns, if we choose to. We have resources which the more disadvantaged do not have, and we face a choice: do we use them to make common cause with those who are less privileged than us, or simply to advance our own careers?

The Oxford Left slate’s answer to this is clear: we need a vision of student politics that involves standing up for students and standing up for others. Oxford Left is made up of people committed such to a vision. These people are not standing for election because it will look good on their CVs or because they see OUSU as a good career path. They are standing to represent us as Oxford students because they care about the issues that affect Oxford and the world, and because they have concrete proposals for working towards solutions to these issues. For far too long, Oxford students have buried their heads in the sand of privilege, and remained indifferent to politics. Oxford Left is working to change that.

Peter Hill is an Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Left Review and an Election Agent for the Oxford Left slate for OUSU 2012.

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Student solidarity and the Quebecois example

The streets of Quebec have been echoing with the sounds of the student uprising that has swept over this province in the last eight months. Sparked off by the provincial government’s move to raise tuition fees by 75 per cent, over 300,000 students went on strike in the longest and largest popular movement in Canadian history. Armed with squares of red felt clinging to their collars, students underwent months of nightly demonstrations, daily direct actions and monthly general strikes, morphing into a ‘social strike’ encompassing a significant cross-section of Quebecois society, and finally succeeding in toppling the government and reversing the tuition hike. Its greatest legacy, however, was in infusing a generation of young women and men with the spirit of democratic discourse, politicising not only the entire student body but also civil society at large.

Quebec students demonstrate. PHOTO/Jonathan Bertucchi

“It started off in February as a small strike of radical student bodies. We stopped going to school, started having regular protests in the afternoons. From the outset nobody expected the proportions the strike would take…”

Jonathan Bertucchi, student at the Université de Montréal (UdeM), fondly recalls the events of the past year.

“The epiphany came on 22 March. At that point there were about 120,000 students on strike, but when 300,000 people came onto the streets of Montreal, with thousands more throughout the province, there was a huge take-up of the strike, with over three quarters of the Quebecois student population participating in the ‘Unlimited Strike’.”

The General Assemblies (AGs or Assemblées Générales) became the hub of student democracy and opinions gradually matured to unheard-of levels of politicisation. The vast majority of the protestors were first timers. Many students had never been involved in politics, had never even considered the idea of expressing themselves. They began to stand up and make themselves heard. Not only were these opinions well-informed and eloquently argued, but they were permeated with a high degree of solidarity for the student body.

Student associations such as CLASSE (Broad Coalition of Associations for Solidarity amongst Student Unions) adhere to a highly decentralised structure, allowing for free and open debate to flourish at the bottom whilst being accurately represented at the top by the spokesperson of the executive body.

I spoke with the spokesperson for CLASSE, Jérémie Bédard-Wien.

“The advantage of the student unions in Québec is that they are the main body through which political opinion is channelled on campus. Politics on campus is not organised around political parties; not even through affinity groups with single-issue campaigns. These just don’t exist. All of these positions are expressed in the AGs for the consideration of the entire student body.

“I think we can combine democracy and structures. We have perfected this model of direct democracy in ways that allow students holding a variety of different persuasions to be able to express themselves democratically whilst maintaining radical aims.”

I asked Jonathan about this process.

“From the beginning of the strike, the whole careerist elite of our student institutions were kicked out, and we began to release political statements.

“We had to ask ourselves: ‘How do we want to be as a political institution? What are our demands?’

“Before the strike, we spent our time at the AGs deciding what the theme for the end-of-year ball would be, what our alcohol budget would be spent on. But during the strike, we would discuss the most important issues facing the student body for hours at a time.”

Jérémie noted how the AGs helped to engage the broader student body.

“The Left in other countries have kept to themselves, not attempted much dialogue outside of themselves. This kind of politics will never be able to spark a mass movement. That may be a harsh assessment, but you need to create the conditions for these affinity groups to make sense. The strike legitimised the existence of these groups, who were able to conduct direct action backed up by a broad popular movement.”

The strike nevertheless had its moments of violence. On the 20th April, encounters broke out between police and students protesting against the Plan Nord, the controversial proposal to exploit natural resources in the North of the province. For the duration of the strike, over 3,000 people were arrested, with many still languishing in prison. This radicalised the strike and brought it out onto the streets.

“No longer were the students content with pacifism; the idea became to obstruct economic activity in the city. They went to block the ports, they caused traffic jams. These were radical actions in order to disturb the workings of the economy. If they were always going to talk about the economy, then we would speak their language.”

« Manif chaque soir, jusqu’à la victoire »

« Demonstrate day and night, our victory is in sight »

A month later, with the adoption of Law 78, tens of thousands of people began to take part in nightly demonstrations, playing cat and mouse with the police, weaving through the streets of Montreal, banging their pots and pans along the way. The controversial law sought to impose strict penalties on citizens demonstrating without notifying the police in advance. Fiercely proud of their society’s values, the Québécois people were outraged at the government’s attempts to undermine their legitimate right to assemble and protest.

“When the law passed, we started noticing many protestors who were not students.”, said Université de Québec à Montréal (UQàM) student Jeanne Dupuits. “We weren’t just demonstrating for what we believed in, we were demonstrating for our basic democratic rights. Everyone walking past you on the street was wearing the red square.”

The red square became the ubiquitous symbol of the student movement. You can find them everywhere in the province.

“Never had I thought this square of felt could become something that unifies people. You feel that you’re part of the movement when you see others wearing it, you feel an instant affinity with them.”

The red square is much greater than the issue of tuition fees. It represents an informed and engaged populace, freedom of speech and direct democracy – and these issues, and thus the red square itself, transcend the ebbs and flows of electoral politics.

The student strike captured the imagination of the wider population, and transformed into the social strike…

According to many commentators, Canada-wide support for the militant determination of the Québec students was undermined by the province’s relatively low tuition fees. With an increase from $2168 to $3793 (£1370 to £2400) over the course of five years, the higher fees would have brought the province in line with Canadian standards.

For the Québec students themselves, however, this struggle represented much more…

“It is not just about money: it is ideology, pure and simple. Even if they asked for a raise of ten dollars, we would still have been 300,000 on the streets.” Gabriel Tremblay, student at UQàM, tells me as he tries to suppress his passion.

“We are fighting for a just and equal society, for which we have fought so hard throughout our history.”

The rage is palpable. For many in the province, the struggle against the raise in tuition goes hand in hand with their national identity. Jérémie also identifies the common struggles across borders:

“We have already identified the problem: the corporatisation of education. The UK is clearly ten years ahead of Quebec in terms of this model being imposed, which is a frightening thought…

“All the support from around the world gave us so much confidence. Striking can feel so lonely: when the government doesn’t want to talk to you, when the police is so aggressive, when the university administration were giving us shit, and the national media were not even reporting on us! This shows that students all over the world care about us and that our message strikes a chord with them.”

The grève générale illimitée (unlimited general strike) thus became the rêve général illimité (unlimited general dream).

“We are making kids around the world dream: we bring them hope, showing them that this is possible.”

Quebec students strip down in tuition protest. PHOTO/Jonathan Bertucchi

For the students of UdeM, however, the return to school was not as joyful as expected. With several faculties deciding to continue the strike, the administration called in the police in order to enforce the return to classes. Not only was this seen as an affront to the sanctity of these institutions, but also an attack on the legitimacy of student democracy.

“Do democratic rights exist for students?”, exclaimed Jonathan. “Is democracy something to care about? We have learnt that democratic rights are only relevant when exercised. We enforced the strikes so that nobody would doubt the credibility of the students’ movements.”

After eight months of strike, provincial elections succeeded in ousting the Liberal government of Jean Charest and putting a freeze on tuition fees: however the future remains uncertain.

Former spokesperson for CLASSE, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, sees this as the first step towards a radical political shake-up in Quebec. Thanks to these ‘no-good students’, the public discourse of hockey, the weather and reality TV has been replaced with the real issues on peoples’ minds.

“The greatest legacy of the strike can be found on our campuses, in our work-places, in our cities and villages, where people are coming together to do something which they will never be able to stop doing: talking.”

James Kleinfeld is a member of the Education Activist Network and a supporter of the Oxford Left slate for OUSU 2012. This article originally appeared in the Oxford Student.

Equality at the heart of our campaign: Lucy Delaney for WomCam Officer!

Oxford Left’s candidate for Women’s Campaign Officer, Lucy Delaney (Wadham) made the slate’s first appearance in the WomCam hustings earlier this evening.

Before doing so, we went to do a little primary research. A brief trip to St Aldate’s Police Station – who have recently reneged on a promise to take down victim-blaming posters regarding rape that have been displayed – conveyed disturbing confusion on how one would go about reporting a sexual assault. The officer on the desk was unable to deny that the defendant in some cases would first receive a copy of the victim’s statement in order to be able to rebut it in their own. The visit confirmed what we had suspected; the importance of the Women’s Campaign as a safe space for discussing and working together on the aftermath of harassment and sexual assault. We support looking into establishing a ‘hotline’ operated by WomCam for support in these issues. This in turn links to Oxford Left’s policy of establishing a Student Legal Officer on the part-time executive, whose role (in addition to advocating students’ rights in other dispute) would be to work with WomCam and a legal advice service in providing victim support. This would be important in tackling the vast number of unreported assaults.

Oxford Left’s holistic vision of campaigning, based on horizontal integration, would enable the Womens’ Campaign to coordinate with others where necessary. For instance, the slate’s Access and Admissions Officer candidate Nathan Akehurst, concurs with Lucy on the need to organise distinct outreach strategies to reach underprivileged women as part of Oxford’s overall access programme. Other issues Lucy raised during the hustings included the aim of a Feminist Festival and other speaker events that would be accessible and enjoyable whilst also presenting a serious message of campaigning and liberation. Importantly, all the candidates agreed that the issue of intersectionality is of paramount importance when the Women’s Campaign sets its agenda.

We also believe her position as a first-year is important; currently, despite forming nearly a third of the undergraduate population, first-years are not represented on the OUSU part-time executive. This is something that has to change; and Lucy’s record of direct campaigning and research on feminism and gender equality makes her absolutely up to the job.

Lucy and Oxford Left’s further list of gender equality policies include

-       supporting the establishment of women’s (and men’s) rooms in colleges along the Wadham model, able to provide a safe space as well as free emergency contraception and hygiene items

-       a counter-offensive against victim-blaming posters, and the centrality of innovative and activist poster campaigning

-       the importance of direct action, and linking gender equality to the struggle against cuts to higher education and public services

Vote Lucy Delaney for Women’s Campaign Officer in the 2012 OUSU elections, and vote for all your other Oxford Left candidates, for a fairer Oxford.

If you want to ask Lucy any questions, drop her an email at lucy.delaney@wadh.ox.ac.uk, and if you have any questions for our slate, contact oxfordleft2012@gmail.com!

The case for a Student Union that is more than work experience for the managerial class

Broadly speaking, the role of a student union is to represent the general interests of the students within a particular institution. However, what do we actually expect of our student union and why is OUSU the joint worst in the country?[1]  I will argue that politics is an important part of all student unions but in fact – given the disconnected structure of Oxford’s representative bodies – politics is crucially important to the relevance of OUSU in particular.

At the beginning of this term, just before the excitement of freshers’ week among nervous newbies and well-rested returning students, National Student Survey (NSS) data was released that showed that our student union was rated the joint worst in the country. The ranking itself is not worth dwelling on for too long: Oxford’s collegiate structure gives the student union a different relevance to that of other universities where the student union is a central social and political body. Cambridge’s union only ranked 6 places above Oxford’s and Durham’s, the union of another collegiate university only 17 places above that – still failing to sit among the top 100 institutions. This raises the question: what form of representation should our student union provide?

The functions of a traditional student union are split in Oxford. JCRs and MCRs deal with the day-to-day resolution of smaller issues within a college and the social and entertainment side. The Oxford Union currently takes a chunk of the political role and benefits from a lot of the financial support that might go to an ordinary student union; this allow it to provide social events, as well as offering a cheap bar.  OUSU is then seen to take on the less exciting roles of student welfare and minority representation; and most students pass their three years at Oxford without having any contact with it.

Clearly, however, there are two problems here. Firstly, these less exciting roles are in fact very important. The role of minority representation for example is vital, especially in an institution as traditional and conservative as Oxford University. Jess Pumphrey’s tireless efforts last year culminating in the de-gendering of subfusc shows the vital role the institution can play, even if this is for a minority of people.[2] Secondly, the idea that many students hold – that the political functions of a student union are served by the Oxford Union while OUSU is just full of politically-correct bureaucrats – worryingly reinforces OUSU’s perceived irrelevance. Moreover, the Oxford Union has an extortionate membership fee of £229 – way beyond the means of most hard-pressed students – and its committee positions tend to be dominated by students from privileged, conservative and private-school backgrounds. This is compounded by the fact that many JCRs refuse to endorse ‘political motions’: for the majority of students, political representation is only achievable through OUSU.

In fact, at the time of OUSU’s official recognition less than 40 years ago, senior university members were so worried about its political potential that giving the central student body its own building was deemed to entail a risk of inciting political activism. The reluctance of the university staff to grant this led to sit-ins in Exam Schools. [3] Clearly, the body has a thoroughly political history, and in 1974 was seen as hugely important to students. Yet now the institution is perceived by some to be so wilfully unrepresentative that Trinity College JCR and a number of MCRs are disaffiliated from it.

Whilst OUSU’s relevance is declining, the importance of students in politics is increasing. The last four decades saw the numbers of students in higher education expand enormously from 1.7 million in 1971 to 3.5 million in 2009, meaning that students now represent a large and distinct force within society.

Furthermore, the importance of this expansion is in its opening up of higher education to a broader range of backgrounds. It is no longer the case that university is the preserve of the elite: while examples such as the Bullingdon Club photo and Sutton Trust findings that students from private schools are 55 times more likely to get a place at Oxford than state school students who receive free school meals [4] do little to support arguments that Oxford is now anti-elitist, there is no doubt that since the Student Union was officially recognised in 1974, there has been a increase in the breadth of student voices that require representation.

On top of this, students are among the best placed in society for political engagement. Students find themselves at a transitional point in society, between childhood and full incorporation into the world of work. They are less constrained than workers by routine, bureaucracy or financial responsibility and are less affected by demoralizing experiences and far more likely to assert that another world is possible. This enables students to be astute in making connections between struggles and to generalise from immediate experience to big political questions. Often their hopes are dashed by an overbearing neoliberal orthodoxy, especially in economics and social sciences, but there is still far more space for such aspirations at universities than in the wider society. The student movement in Britain has highlighted this, from the prevalence of Palestinian flags at anti-fees demonstrations, the adoption of the red square symbol of the Quebec student movement CLASSE, or the naturalness with which demonstrators marched to the Egyptian Embassy following the London demonstration in January, linking the struggle against austerity with the struggle against Mubarak. A student union should support and enable this political and intellectual development and be a place where people can come together and find resources that will help them campaign, and one that informs and educates people.

Yet in many ways OUSU is travelling in the opposite direction to students themselves. Political activism has persisted across Oxford over the last few years; from the occupation of the Clarendon building to protest the actions of the Israel military in Gaza in 2009, to a large protest against the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, in October 2010, and the demonstration against the Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts being planned for 9th November 2012. In wider student activism Oxford also fares well, with a strong presence in the national Education Activist Network.

One of the key problems with OUSU lies in its view of representation. Instead of recognising the issues that students are involved in, representation is seen as being simply mediation between students and university management.  Funds and facilities that might be used for campaigning on both local and national issues are rarely harnessed, and OUSU’s £2000 discretionary fund often remains untouched at the end of each presidency.  Local issues such the existence of the Campsfield detention centre for asylum-seekers just a few miles from the centre of Oxford, and the treatment of migrants who are kept there; the University’s investment in weapons manufactures and dealers; and international issues such as Palestine solidarity are ignored by OUSU for much of the time. The link between such political apathy and student engagement is evident from the fact that Sheffield Student Union – ranked as the top university Student Union in the recent survey – is willing to be political; it recently passed a motion to support BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel). [5] When student unions attempt to situate themselves in the political activism of the wider university then they become popular and democratic institutions.

This is ignored by candidates running for sabbatical positions in OUSU. Professionalism triumphs over political engagement. Even if a more politically engaged student is elected to a sabbatical position, they can expect to be faced with endless bureaucracy, cost constraints and only 24 weeks of term during their tenure: an impossible situation in which to try to transform an institution. It is hardly surprising then that voter turnout for OUSU elections is so low: last year’s poor result of less than one in five students voting was hailed as a relative triumph.

OUSU has moved from its strong popular origins to become a distant, faceless service provider for students. Much of its work is focussed on providing student support, rather than representing students against the university authorities. The notion of enhancing or protecting the ‘student experience’ has overshadowed any opportunity for meaningful change. This even extends to a situation of pitting students against staff: celebrating the ‘best lecturers’ through lecturer of the year awards, which effectively encouraging students to choose between the good and the bad and distinguish who is providing a better service for the student consumers.

The culture of OUSU has thus shifted from being a representative body to a service provider and manager. Depoliticisation and commercialisation have led to the importance of the OUSU ‘brand image’. OUSU endorses certain club nights, sells ‘stash’ and has recently rebranded its website to make its service more visibly attractive to students – despite the fact that nothing has changed in the day-to-day bureaucracy.

OUSU needs to re-think the way it works if it is going to ever be relevant to the student body beyond the cliques of insiders and managerial careerists who attend OUSU council. Intervening in an election on a political basis and proposing motions in support of strikes or demonstrations can go some way to breaking the ice of depoliticisation. Such interventions can also inspire and engage a larger audience, polarise debate round definite issues, and provide a uniting campaigning focus. OUSU’s support for the NUS demonstration on 21st November is a step in the right direction, and is strongly supported by the Oxford Left: a Slate standing in this term’s Student Union elections, which aims to make OUSU more democratic and inclusive.

Our university’s Student Union must address its position towards the students it claims to be representing. As Higher Education institutions are being threatened, a representative student union must defend education in the interest of current and prospective students.  Making OUSU a campaigning, integrated and responsive student union that puts the student at the heart of their education is what is necessary to tackle its current irrelevance in the eyes of the majority of students.

Oxford is one of the most middle-class universities in the country – its social profile shows it is 89% upper- and middle-class [6] – and its political apathy is a reflection of privilege. The financial problems many students face are less of a problem at Oxford and governmental changes are less devastating at a university where the majority of its funding comes from external donors, not central government.  However given the importance of the student voice and the lack of other representative political institutions within Oxford, it is necessary to tackle OUSU’s crisis of irrelevance and ensure that our University has a central political body that actively and inclusively represents its students.

Emily Cousens is standing with the Oxford Left slate for OUSU delegate to NUS conference 2013.

Why OUSU should support workers and trade unions

 

A university is a community of people engaged in the process of academic enrichment at all levels. It is not the divided institution of customers and providers that our government seems intent on turning it into.

When students at Oxford and across the UK rose up en masse against the tuition fee rise, lecturers and staff supported us through their own representative organisations, the trade unions. Now their jobs, pensions and conditions are under threat (from a government that has openly lied about the rising cost of pensions) and so as members of an academic community it is our duty to defend them. On a purely practical note, unity is strength. The struggles of students are inextricably linked to those of education workers, and collective solidarity between the two makes us more likely to win. Conversely, if they lose, we lose. Even if we lose anyway, we are brought closer together as a community, and where is the harm in that?

One of the criticisms I received when putting the motion to support the TUC demo to OUSU Council was that it was divisive and didn’t reflect a majority of student opinion. This is nonsensical; any decision OUSU makes will inevitably be divisive. People disagree with each other – that is the nature of representative democracy. In terms of representativeness, how do we know? Are OUSU to go out and conduct polls before passing every single motion? A perceived lack of decisiveness is in fact one of the main reasons cited in my conversations with people about why OUSU is so unpopular.

Students so far have had to contend with £9k fees (bearing a disproportionate burden of austerity), the creeping privatisation of our universities to their quantitative detriment, course cuts, place cuts, bursary cuts, and more. Oxford may be more sheltered than other institutions, but we have been hit too, and so have our staff. Hitting back in more than a token way requires the building of grassroots campaigns involving both students and staff, through the backing of our respective representative bodies.

Such a move requires a wider vision of a student union and the role we play in our university and society. I, for one, do not subscribe to a vision whereby we sit around in isolation running (undoubtedly worthwhile) small campaigns while around us the entire higher education sector is cut to pieces.

Nathan Akehurst is standing for OUSU Accsess and Admissions Officer on the Oxford Left slate. To see Jack Matthew’s response to Nathan’s arguments see the original debate in the Oxford Student.

 

No Confidence Means No Confidence

Last Year our tutors and lecturers sent out a resounding message of no confidence in David Willets. This Friday 9th November he is being welcomed back, on a shared platform, as part of a humanitus programme lecture series.

As  universities across the country face funding cuts; courses are being demolished and staff outsourced- St Peter’s have invited the figurehead of this overhaul to speak. Whilst ignoring the irony given the broad themes of the lecture series; the arts, social sciences and humanities (the degrees most at risk of becoming redundant due to their “unprofitability”) -the insensitivity and political ramifications of this matter.

Willetts’ presence as a speaker sends the signal of recognition and condonence for his position and policies. This will be particularly painful to first years in the audience who are part of the first cohort of an extortionately indebted generation. More widely it will be a sign of ‘back to business as usual’ as Oxford’s priviledged position enables it to abandon its defence of the values of Higher Education without significant material consequence.

The landslide vote of 283 to 5 in the Sheldonion Last June signalled a commitment to the values of a public education system. Staff from accross the academic and political spectrum joined together to express their diagreement with the government’s higher education policies of privitization and marketization.

Willetts’ higher education white paper proposed the slashing of funding to higher education institutions; the aboltion of courses that were deemed ‘not profitable’; ‘unviable’ universities being allowed to go to the wall and the outsourcing of staff. Private companies were encoraged to get involved in Education effectvely enabling public money to be turned into private profit. This marketization of universities along with budget cuts and the raising of fees to £9,000 create what Oxford history professor Robert Gildea called “a red carpet for the rich” describing the reforms as “reckless, incoherent and incompetent”.

Oxford academics in their vote, were confirming what a series of independent experts and the Public Accounts Committee had already made clear; that 80% cuts, trebling tuition fees and cuts to research facilities are unfair, unnecessary and unsustainable. Whilst success has been made insofar as the government has ‘indefinitely’ postponed the white paper; universities across the country, including some of the ‘top’ Russell group universities such as Manchester are experiencing job cuts, outsourcing and courses being slashed.

Oxford is lucky enough to be in a strong position to retain standards and independence from the government. Due to much of its revenue coming from wealthy donors and alumni as opposed to central government cuts to resources are having less of a devastating effect here than they are across other Higher Education Institutions.

However, as one of the most reputable higher education institutions in the country, Oxford must stick to the principles it so strongly committed to last year.  Tutors and Lecturers were voting not as academics or individuals but as citizens concerned for the future of the Higher Education community. When Kate Tunstall closed last year’s debate with: “This is a big thing for Oxford to do; it’s also not just the right thing to do, but the good thing to do. Let’s take a deep breath and, in unison, in concert, hold a single, stirring note: the positive sound of the tradition and values we wish to defend”, staff and students were in accord.

Inviting Willets to speak disregards the united front the Oxford Students and Academics took. Permitting him a platform as part of a series of high profile lectures, sends a contradictory message to that of no confidence.

When we voted no confidence we showed a commitment to the values of a public higher education system and support with Higher Education Institutions across the county. A protest has been called with the support of EAN and St Anthony’s GCR. We must signal to prospective students, the higher education community and the government that we still have no confidence in David Willetts.

Emily Cousens is standing on the Oxford Left slate for OUSU delegate to NUS conference 2013

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