Category Archives: Opinion

Opinion or comment pieces written by members of the Free University of Sheffield. These are not official statements by the group; they are personal opinions.

Free Education and Queer Liberation

The following is an opinion piece by Charlotte, one of our members; it is not an official statement by the Free University of Sheffield.

This talk was originally given as part of a Free Uni discussion meeting called Free Education: Why Do We Want It? Free Uni runs open discussion meetings every other Tuesday at 6:30pm, alternating with weeks where we focus on organising. Check our Facebook page for updates if you fancy coming along in future!

This discussion on free education and queer liberation can only give a small sense of the wide-reaching interconnection between the two struggles; it would be great to hear feedback from others, too. As a point of clarification, I will be using ‘queer’ as an umbrella term for members of the community as a whole; I’m aware that not everyone is comfortable with its reclamation, and if any LGBT+ reader experiences discomfort with this (or anything I say here) I would be very open to your critique.

It’s something I like to re-affirm to myself generally, as an activist, and something that’s important to start with here: the history of queerness is intensely political. We know that Stonewall started with a riot; here in Sheffield, 100 years ago, activist and writer Edward Carpenter mobilised for socialism, environmentalism and women’s liberation, directly connecting these causes to his experience as a gay man. (More on Edward Carpenter can be found at

The political nature of queerness does not diminish with the passage of time. Though much has changed in the contemporary experience of being LGBT+, major developments in queer rights are often coupled with cishet society’s attempts to depoliticise our identities and discredit our anger at the injustices we still face. The mainstream media often frames the legalisation of gay marriage as the end point in our narrative of struggle. Rainbow flags emblazoned on corporate brands tap into queer consumers as a new ‘niche market’. We are expected to beam with gratitude at the police officers dancing at pride rallies, as if the police have not consistently enacted violence against us or turned a blind eye towards queerphobic hate crime (something which happened in Sheffield only this year:

Our lives are political, crucially political, because the mechanisms of society continue to structurally oppress LGBT+ people. Cuts to the NHS continue to diminish trans people’s access to free medical care, whilst the medical system itself is routinely discriminatory. Despite our higher risk of suicide, healthcare cuts affect LGBT+ people’s access to crucial mental health care. The legal system continues to do violence to queer people of colour, whilst racist attempts to close our borders make it increasingly difficult for queer people to seek asylum from hate crime in the UK.

I could go on, but here is my main point: the continuing assault on higher and further education is bound up in the oppression of queer people, too. The removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance, the abolition of student maintenance grants, and the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (threatening unbridled increases in tuition fees) makes it increasingly difficult for people in precarious financial situations to access further or higher education. The government’s tacit assumption that familial financial support is always around to supplement the maintenance of students and cushion their debt—an assumption favourably geared towards middle-class families—also overlooks the experience of queer people, whose identities often lead to estrangement from their families. The impact of austerity on HE/FE creates further precarity for queer people dealing with the financial pressures of transition.

Our ability to participate in the university is essential for making changes to the treatment and safety of queer people on university campuses. The increasing cuts to university budgets mean they channel money into student recruitment, often in ways that don’t benefit the students already present, or the quality of education itself. This directs time and money away from the development of safe and inclusive spaces for LGBT+ students; The Diamond, for example, is the university’s new showpiece, but only includes one gender neutral toilet.

But of course—like everything about free education activism—fees and funding are tied to wider-reaching considerations. The threat to LGBT+ participation in higher education enables educational institutions to continue to shut out queer voices, both those of students, and of staff, who must face the financially fraught and exploitative pathway to academic employment. We need syllabuses and seminars which do not erase and oppress queer contributions to, and visions of, history, medicine and science, literature and art, geography, philosophy and sociology; the list continues.

As a marginalised group, our voices must be amplified; amplification isn’t about filtering queer voices through an institutional megaphone which ultimately remains cishet in structure. It’s not about acts of performative allyship, such as fulfilling representational quotas by shoehorning a lecture on queer theory into a hetero/cis normative philosophy module. It’s about queer people leading, queer people participating, and queer people speaking for themselves. Active participation is integral to the structure of a free university, whereby students are not just passive consumers, but also co-producers of knowledge. Our community is fluid—as we gain new confidence and understanding, it grows and evolves—foregrounding and hearing our voices is essential in this process.

One of the people who attended the talk raised a brilliant question at this point: to what extent does fighting for representation and amplification in a structure which, ideally, we would overthrow and rebuild, represent settling for something, accepting a bone which the university has thrown us? I think this question is attendant on all activism: free education, queer liberation, or otherwise. I’m still mulling over this—and would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts—here are my initial ideas.

Queerness is ultimately about radical receptivity, radical community; connections between people so radical, so limitless, that they threaten the very cohesion of cishet patriarchal society. The history of queer liberation is about solidarity, forming a community so strong it can continue to fight back against centuries of oppression. At its best—when all the voices and identities it encompasses are amplified— queerness is antithetical to the atomising values of capitalism and marketization which underpin the current education system. It strikes me that a university where queer people are able to speak, where we contribute to knowledge-creation and the university’s overall operation, cannot remain structurally the same.

These thoughts sprung to mind after hearing the word ‘solidarity’ come up over and over again in the open discussion after my talk: we agreed that solidarity, the mobilisation and collective resistance of different people together, was essential for the success of the free education cause. We have to build bridges between colleges and universities; students, academics, and non-teaching staff; universities and their surrounding communities; students and workers: or our movement is exclusionary and stands for no-one. I think there are many lessons we can learn from the queer community about collective resistance and radical, all-encompassing solidarity. But the question we ended the discussion on–which I will leave open–is, although solidarity and community sound great on paper, how do we enact them meaningfully in practice?

I have attempted to show that the education system’s oppression of queer people goes much deeper than management’s decision to have staff members wear rainbow-coloured lanyards can resolve. As a community, we need to reclaim our anger, and mobilise against the way queerphobic oppression manifests in the structure of the university; a big part of this is, as my friend put it, queering the university: extending our own system, one of radical and wide-reaching solidarity.

As things begin to heat up, what should we be doing?

The following is an opinion piece by Josh Berlyne; it is not an official statement of the Free University of Sheffield.

cameron pig pinata

Just like the weather, the political climate in the UK is beginning to heat up (a little bit).  There are still brief cold spells and rainy days, but the breeze of political sentiment—certainly amongst the young—is blowing leftwards.

What’s going on?

At the beginning of March we saw a big surge in actions.  Many of these are still bubbling beneath the surface: the #DontDeportLuqman campaign is ongoing, although the occupation is over; students and staff at Birmingham are still resisting the cuts to the Modern Languages department; students at Brighton are still resisting the closure of their Hastings campus (sign the petition here); and UCL, Cut the Rent and Goldsmiths, Cut the Rent are still pushing forwards with their rent strikes.

At the University of Manchester, 43 workers are facing the sack.  The University’s subsidiary company is cutting back its spending massively, and as a result 43 out of the 60 chefs in catered accommodation are facing redundancy, while the remaining 17 will get a pay cut.  Free Education MCR, alongside the staff union Unison, are organising to resist: there will be a demo on Thursday 14th April at 12.30pm, University Place, Manchester.  Furthermore, there is a big appetite for industrial action among the rank-and-file union members.  Sign the petition here.

The #SaveBISSheffield demo on 9th April attracted hundreds of protestors.  Jobs at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills offices in Sheffield are set to be slashed as the government moves their offices to London—so much for the “Northern Powerhouse.”

Unite Young Members are launching their Fight for 5 – Decent Work For All campaign in Sheffield on 11th April at The Shakespeare.

The #CameronResign demo in London attracted thousands of demonstrators (at the same time, the demo to save the Carnegie library in south London attracted around 1,000).  As Aaron Bastani pointed out, the average age of the demo was very young—Bastani reckoned it was the youngest protest he’d seen since the 2010/11 student protests.  However romantic it is to think the reason for this is “youthful idealism”, it isn’t: our generation’s collective experience of neoliberalism is one of cutbacks, precarious work and rising living costs.  This has made us cynical and angry, not idealistic.

The Junior Doctors have their next strike dates on 26th and 27th April.  The National Union of Teachers have threatened to strike at the same time as the doctors, protesting the government’s plans to turn every school into an academy.  Furthermore, the #BursaryOrBust campaign have been encouraging nursing students to walk out alongside the doctors, to protest the cuts to NHS student bursaries.

Finally, things are really heating up around Europe, with massive protests in Iceland, France and Greece.  The ROAR Collective is predicting a “hot spring” in Europe this year.

What do we do?

Things are heating up, but we’re not about to see militant protests like the #LoiEmploi and #NuitDebout demonstrations in France.  As Joana Ramiro points out, the left needs to be more organised if it’s going to have an impact.  With that in mind, what do we need to be doing, as Free Uni activists?

Communicate.  Arguably the most important task right now is to build strong links with other groups.  The end goal is to create a strong alliance, or coalition, of groups opposing austerity, neoliberalism and (dare I say it) capitalism.  Creating this requires an infrastructure with formalised lines of communication between these groups.  It’s much more desirable to build a movement, rather than wait, hoping one will coalesce spontaneously.

The first step towards this is to build links with other student groups nationally, as well as building links with worker groups locally.  This means taking every opportunity to go to the events, rallies and protests of other groups (and in other cities) and making an active effort to talk to the organisers and exchange contact details.

The next step would be to formalise those links: this would mean having “contacts” who attend other groups’ meetings and report back.  This would allow us to…

Coordinate.  With these lines of communication set up, we need to coordinate actions with other groups.  This means demonstrations, occupations and more, carried out with multiple groups involved.  It means when one group takes action, the others can be prepared to act in solidarity: releasing statements, publicising the action, helping out with arrestee support, fundraising, and more.

When the political climate really starts to heat up, it’s our role to organise, coordinate and sustain the wave of action.

Institutional Racism, Marketization and the National Student Survey

The following is an opinion piece by Shelly Asquith; it is not an official statement of the Free University of Sheffield.

Last week, Times Higher Education reported that Black academics are being scored lower than their White peers in the National Student Survey (NSS). Those familiar with the context of institutionalised racism in higher education will not find these results surprising, and will recognise that it merely scratches the surface of the problem. As we approach peak NSS season, the article provides a welcome invitation to begin discussing the wider issues the survey perpetuates.

The NSS facilitates a passive analysis of ‘satisfaction’ and encourages the notion of student-as-consumer. It is aggressively marketed to final year undergraduates, with its results used to inform league tables: measuring the commodification of the university ‘experience’. With the outcomes of the Green Paper (or “HE Bill”) on the horizon, methods like NSS become even more useful to the market. As institutions with a 100% score attract more students, they are also more likely to raise their fees. As proponents of free education, we must be clear how we respond to such mechanisms.

Students and Students’ Unions have previously been very vocal in our criticism of NSS, but in recent years it has been deprioritised as an issue. This is partly due to the movement having to respond to a swathe of fundamental reforms: higher fees, budget cuts, as well as a focus from the Left towards pay disputes and other workers’ struggles. It is also, importantly, due to our own internalisation of the market. NUS, students’ unions and student reps are encouraged to promote and indulge in its outcomes, sometimes even being financially rewarded for doing so. Institutions sell these anonymous, bureaucratic feedback methods to us as empowering and democratic; and in the absence of a genuine, mass movement it is easy to fall for it. We have quickly forgotten that the NSS is an indirect cause of the issues we have been diverted towards, and allowed it to demobilise our resistance to them. We are, unwittingly, pushing the agenda of the Vice Chancellors who lobby for the fee rise we so fervently oppose.

Bin it, ban it, burn it: opposition to NSS in 2006.

Bin it, ban it, burn it: opposition to NSS in 2006.

UCU, the lecturers’ trade union, has long criticised NSS, describing it as ‘measuring cost effectiveness rather than the real value of educational experience.’ Instead of meaningfully questioning how transformative our time at university was, we are encouraged to question whether the £9k (or more) price tag was worth the money. We rate our product out of 5 at the end of 3 years, as if it were an app. In fact, in its promotion, the NSS even boasts that it can be filled in quickly on a smartphone.

Consumerist cat: this is not what meaningful feedback looks like.

Consumerist cat: this is not what meaningful feedback looks like.

UCU also criticise the impact this has on the workforce, creating a culture of fear and pitting students against staff. It has long been noted that university managers will point to low NSS scores as a reason to discipline and dismiss, cut back and close courses. Low satisfaction caused by management failings will be blamed on front line, low paid academics. Terrified staff have been consistently reported to have written stock answers, watched students as they fill it in, or threatened of reputational damage to a course if a score falls.

A lot of resources go in to NSS. Large sums of money are spent on encouraging students to complete it; or on making small, cosmetic changes in response to feedback. In the hope that high turnouts will boost results, institutions will go to any lengths to achieve it. Our opinions are bought, as we are offered freebies, iPads and other perks in order to get favourable feedback. Committees are formed to plan our entire NSS strategies, with budgets assigned for changes to be made in order to influence results. Have you noticed that universities will announce new library opening hours at this time of year? It’s no coincidence that it’s NSS o’clock! Departments splash out on new equipment, and so it tends to be the institution’s finances that dictate the survey results year on year: the rich, White academies come out top.

This is not to say that improvements in response to feedback is negative – far from it – but it is a cynical model standing in the way of real, democratic involvement of students in their education system. For the duration of a three or four year course, the one time management will take note of a matter is weeks before you graduate. To make us feel empowered by the process though, NSS have started to co-opt symbols of activism, using megaphones and placards in its promotion.

NSS results are in: We are the 95%!

NSS results are in: We are the 95%!

There are so many other ways we could capture student opinion and measure excellence in academia. For instance, investing in course representatives and students’ unions, or encouraging dialogue between students and staff. A move from merely ‘satisfaction’ towards assessing how supportive students found the mental health services; or how safe, included and welcomed they felt in their institution. Meaningful engagement comes from adapting to our circumstances; not adopting a one size fits all approach. The survey makes no allowance for the fact that students’ academic, assessment and access needs differ according to their learning environment. Our diverse institutions and pedagogies are being forced to standardise as NSS attempts to compare what should be celebrated as incomparable.

Long term, the strategy for overhauling NSS must be a mass opt-out. We are not currently at a point where consciousness of the critique can achieve this. To most, the NSS exists, and that’s that. To some, it has managed to actually convince that its usefulness in providing a snapshot of opinion outweighs the fundamental flaws and outcomes. There is a long way to in convincing the wider movement that the survey is 5/5 unsatisfactory and to “definitely agree” it needs overhauling. We must avoid small, localised opt-out protests. These would only result in clusters of low scores that would at best be dismissed by management as an anomaly – at worst, be used to root out staff. In the immediate term, the activist Left needs to work out a response to NSS – and proposed replacement – before it’s too late.

Budget 2015: Is this punishment for Millbank?

This article is an opinion piece written by a member of the Free University of Sheffield; it is not an official statement.

This week we mourn our lost futures.  Student maintenance grants are gone.  Housing benefit is gone.  No pay rise for young workers.  No debt relief for students.  Executioner Osborne tells us that economic security is at the top of his agenda.  Economic security for whom?  Our future looks far from secure.

The Tory government is trying to crush the dreams of a whole generation.  No housing benefit for 18-21 year olds is nothing more than an attempt to beat people into employment.  “Go back home and live with your parents”, they tell us.  But what about the people who have been chucked out of their family home?  What about the hundreds or thousands of trans* youth rejected by their parents, for whom independence means the chance for a safer life?  What about the working class youths from former mining communities, whose hopes for employment in their hometown were obliterated by Thatcher?  They tell us we’ve either got to ‘earn or learn’, but in reality the choice is between earning a pittance or learning to live with a debilitating level of debt.

Osborne wants to create a legion of exploited young workers to supporting his failing economy (see page 34, paragraph 1.126 of the Budget Document).  The new, age-discriminatory minimum wage—I refuse to call it a living wage (see why here and here)—excludes under-25s, leaving us to fend for ourselves in the Wild West of the labour market.  It’s been dressed up as employment “opportunities” for young people when the reality is the opposite.  The Tories are driving a race to the bottom, creating a class of highly-skilled young workers ripe for exploitation.  Bosses will be guzzling up this wellspring of cheap labour in no time.  Grossly underpaid work isn’t an opportunity for young people.  It’s an opportunity for the rich to get richer.

Then there’s tuition fees.  In his budget, Osborne announced that universities would have the chance to increase their fees with inflation—but only if these institutions offer “high teaching quality” (page 59).  This means that elite universities will be able to raise their fees and rake in the extra cash while poorer universities struggle to make ends meet.  The gulf between the elite universities and the rest will widen, and the universities which are already struggling will be left out in the cold.  It’s no surprise that these are the most working-class universities.

The hike in fees will most be linked to the “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF), a dangerous new audit and league table for teaching.  Like the Research Excellence Framework, this will lead to the bullying of staff.  And it’s likely that the quality of teaching will be assessed on the grades that students receive, putting even more pressure on students to perform well in assessments.  Mental health issues are already at epidemic levels among students.  A recent study by the National Union of Teachers linked such “accountability measures” in schools with increased anxiety and extreme stress.  The same is certainly true of universities.  The TEF can only undermine teaching and learning.

Osborne delivered the final blow by bringing his axe down on maintenance grants.  These grants provide a lifeline to working-class students as they go through uni, helping with the cost of rent and food.  Unlike loans, grants don’t have to be repaid.  They don’t saddle students with a crippling amount of debt.  They give students the freedom to learn and study without a debilitating anxiety about how to pay the next lot of rent, or how to ever pay off this debt.  Debt acts as a form of social control, forcing students to work, work, work on top of their studies.  As the years wear on, we have less and less time to experiment, less and less time to study, less and less energy to think.

All this makes me wonder: is this punishment for Millbank?  Is this punishment for the riots in 2011?

Let them punish us, but let them know that we will defend ourselves.  Our generation will not be crushed.  In a society where humans have become resources and dignity has been swapped for productivity, the only way to assert our humanity and to assert our dignity is through resistance.  Our actions must scream no!  When support staff and lecturers go on strike, we must bring our universities to a standstill.  Remember, those at the top do not care for us.  So as we resist, as we occupy, we must also care for each other.  And as we demand a better world—as we demand free education, social security, genuine democracy—we must also try to build that world.  They will always tell us that there is no alternative.  There is an alternative, but only if we want it.

This week we mourn our lost futures.  Next week we build new ones.

Grants to Loans: Osborne is using student debt for social control

walking to work

This article is an opinion piece written by a member of the Free University of Sheffield; it is not an official statement.

“Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition Fee increases are a disciplinary technique, and by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalised the disciplinarian culture. This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.”

This famous quote of Noam Chomsky is so pertinent because of George Osborne’s recent announcement that, among a fresh wave of cruel austerity measures, living grants for the poorest students will be replaced by loans. These grants are important as they allow students from low-income families, often without a tradition of accessing higher education, to go some way to being able to afford university life, without the added burden of years of heavy debt.

Many have recently pointed out that greater student debt isn’t even of much economic benefit to the government, as it will have to absorb all unpaid debt. This will be a significant amount as around three quarters of students will still be repaying into their 50s, when it is wiped, 30 years after graduation. However, Chomsky rightly identifies the more deep-rooted problem of increased student debt, and why student loans are actually such a valuable investment for the government.

Debt is an incredibly effective form of social control, and this policy is as much about power as it is about a certain vision of economics. Debt is used to pacify the population into conformity and to quell resistance. Chomsky points out that, if you leave university with swathes of debt (upwards of £44,000 in the UK), your priority is unlikely to be fighting to change the systems which makes that debt necessary for a successful career or prosperous life. Instead, you are likely to work within those systems to make enough money to pay off your huge debt and live relatively comfortably. Eventually.

“They can’t afford time to think.” Graduates literally can’t afford time to think. They literally can’t afford the time to be critical of the system that has burdened them with such huge debt. They can’t afford to imagine a life outside of it or to fight to forge a better society. They feel that they must get a job as soon as they graduate and begin chipping away at the weight of debt on their shoulders.

“By the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalised the disciplinarian culture.” It is easy to realise the disciplinary nature of education from cradle to college: homogeneous uniforms, hierarchical organisation, authoritarian teachers, etc. Higher education, however, is more subtle in its disciplining of students. It uses debt to repress the creativity, imagination and activism that the human mind would be capable of when free from the crippling constraints of wage labour and the employability agenda which university forces onto students.

“This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.” Ultimately, this is what it comes down to: further entrenching this system of neoliberal economics, politics and society which thrives on consumption. With graduates forced into work by the burden of their debt, they quickly become another uncritical cog in the neoliberal machine. Too stressed, preoccupied or busy to imagine a society beyond neoliberalism, the machine keeps on functioning.

Student debt is a barrier to higher education for the poorest families, and the policy to abolish living grants is scandalous for this reason alone. However, we must be aware of the government’s more cynical use of student debt to control its population. Maybe many students will never repay their debt to the economic cost of the government. But they are making a great investment by creating generations of graduates who, as Noam Chomsky suggests, cannot even afford to challenge the system on which those with existing political and economic power continue to thrive.