Soup Seminars #3 – Building an alternative

BPP free breakfast

The Free University of Sheffield is pleased to announce its third soup seminar at Union St!

We’ll be having our third ever soup seminar on Thursday, July 23rd at 6.30pm. In the soup seminars we come together to cook and eat food, and discuss how we can act to change society’s problems. We are creating a community of thinkers and activists to come together and work out constructive solutions to the problems we face today. (All food is vegan).

We have set out three principles of the soup seminars: (1) education must serve the needs of society, not the interests of the individual; (2) we cannot leave it up to academics or ‘experts’ to come up with ways to solve our problems – we are all experts; and (3) if we are going to change anything, we must study and act together.

If you want to be added to the mailing list for the soup seminars, please email freeunisheff[at]gmail.com with your name and email address.

A major theme of last week’s discussion was creating an alternative: activism should not just be about resisting something, or making demands of those in positions of authority, it should also be about trying to build alternative structures. One example that was given was the Black Panther Party: they did not merely resist white supremacy, they also built support networks and provided for their black communities, such as through their Free Breakfast for School Children Programme.

It was a really productive discussion, and it would be good to carry on the discussion in our third soup seminar. In a book called “Deschooling Society”, Ivan Illich proposes that we need to create alternative education systems which are decentralised and try to promote interaction, collaboration, creativity and fun. The Wikipedia page (click here) is a good starting point to give some ideas of what an alternative education system might look like. The ideas fit with our discussion of taking responsibility for ourselves and creating alternatives, and might be a good talking point for next week.  Click here for the PDF of Deschooling Society.

Other good things to read about would be the crèche that Plan C ran at the recent anti-austerity demonstration in London (for the article click here) and, of course, the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for School Children Programme (for an article on this click here). If you have suggestions for other articles, please send an article in to us! We’ll send it back out to the email list so everyone can read it in time for the next meeting. You can either email us at freeunisheff[at]gmail.com or message our Facebook page.

Perhaps some good questions to think about for next week would be:
– What sort of support programmes are needed today, in our own communities?
– What makes these support programmes so important? For example, are they important simply because they provide support (a bit like a charity), or are they important because the support they provide is clearly political? Or are there other reasons?
– How could we begin to build our own alternatives, and our own support systems?

Another important theme in the discussion last week was how important it is to focus on the day-to-day. We discussed how a lot of activism focuses on spectacular actions like marches through London, but often miss out the importance of trying to change how we interact on a day-to-day basis. This was linked into the discussion of building an alternative. In order to create an alternative, we need to know how it would work day in, day out! If you want to suggest articles for people to read on this subject, then please send them in!

If you have any questions, please email us or contact our Facebook page.

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.

Soup Seminars #2 – Successful Activism

maagdenhuis black and white

 

The Free University of Sheffield is pleased to announce its second soup seminar at Union St!

We’ll be having our second ever soup seminar on Thursday, July 9th at 6.30pm. In the last seminar we agreed that we’d like to discuss stories of successful activism from elsewhere, and discuss why they were successful. It would be great if some people could send in some newspaper-length articles that they think would give us some food for thought about how to organise successful movements. Just email them in to freeunisheff[at]gmail.com and we’ll send them back out to the rest of the group.

In the soup seminars we come together to cook and eat food, and discuss how we can act to change society’s problems. We are creating a community of thinkers and activists to come together and work out constructive solutions to the problems we face today. (All food is vegan).

We have set out three principles of the soup seminars: (1) education must serve the needs of society, not the interests of the individual; (2) we cannot leave it up to academics or ‘experts’ to come up with ways to solve our problems – we are all experts; and (3) if we are going to change anything, we must study and act together.

We will be discussing short film called Street Politics 101 about the Québec student movement, and two articles by George Blaustein about the recent “New University of Amsterdam” movement: ‘Letter from Amsterdam’ and ‘On Horseshit’.  The discussion won’t be just about these, however – they’re just there to give us ideas and inspiration.  If you have any other suggestions, please email us at freeunisheff[at]gmail.com.

If you want to be added to the mailing list for the soup seminars, please email freeunisheff[at]gmail.com with your name and email address.

If you want to get involved in the organising of the soup seminars, including sorting out ingredients, cooking, designing leaflets, and publicity stuff – then just email us or message the Facebook page!

To find Union St follow this link.

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**Here’s a summary of our last soup seminar, sent out to the mailing list**

Hi everyone,

To those that came to the soup seminar on Thursday – thank you for coming! I really hope you enjoyed it and plan to come again. To those that couldn’t make it – don’t worry! We’ll keep you in the loop about what’s happening each seminar.

Here’s a quick summary of what we discussed:

We started by chatting about why we came to the soup seminar, and what we hoped to get out of it, as well as discussing the issues we’re interested in tackling. There was loads of overlap, but also lots of differences in our interests, which is great. Here’s a few of them: class systems; welcoming refugees; forms of protest and direct action that go beyond marches; inequality; communes; setting up projects similar to the soup seminars in other communities; alternative ways of learning; ownership (of knowledge, of institutions, etc.); and the idea that institutions are places of struggle, where we can make change.

We then discussed the problems that we saw in the modern university, in particular the question of how we challenge those in power and how we can actually change our universities (or if we even do want to change them). Discussion soon turned to the question of students, and the question of why students don’t seem to be doing more. We then broadened it out and discussed how we could empower people to become activists or community organisers themselves. This seemed to be a really important point of discussion, and lots of great points were raised: the idea that we need spaces where people can meet together regularly and safely, preferably spaces which people feel ownership over; making political connections with people by sharing food, such as the soup seminars or the Real Junk Food Project; hosting a sort of ‘radical societies fair’ for activists to meet others and form connections; encouraging housing co-operatives to be started; rent control activism; linking up students to activists in the public service sector and the NHS. Basically, we discussed a lot.

The fundamental point which people seemed to agree on was that we don’t need to be telling people what to do or what to think. Instead, we need to facilitate conversations and spaces where people can come together and come up with their own solutions – and as organisers we should be making this happen. Stuff like teaching people how to occupy a building, or create a contact list, or write a press release, or pointing people in the direction of political theory which might help develop their ideas, and so on.

So, here’s what we’ll be doing in two weeks:

We’ll be having the second soup seminar on Thursday, July 2nd at 6pm [please note that this has now changed to Thursday, July 9th at 6.30pm]. We agreed that we’d like to discuss stories of successful activism from elsewhere, and discuss why they were successful. It would be great if some people could send in some newspaper-length articles that they think would give us some food for thought about how to organise successful movements. Just send them into this email, and I’ll email them back out to everyone.

I’ve got some of my own suggestions here, and for people who want to read something longer and more theoretical, I’d recommend chapter 17, ‘The Pedagogy of Excess’, written by Mike Neary and Andy Hagyard in the PDF which I’ve attached [see here]. They discuss the student protests of May, 1968 in Paris. Don’t feel pressured to read this though – it involves a lot of heavy-going theory about the relationship between teaching and research in universities, which isn’t totally relevant to what we’ll be discussing.

My first suggestion is a great short film called Street Politics 101 about the Québec student movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zO9d4ODtP4

Second, I’d recommend these two articles by George Blaustein about the recent “New University of Amsterdam” movement: ‘Letter from Amsterdam’ and ‘On Horseshit’. They don’t give a particularly in-depth analysis of what happened in Amsterdam, but they’re a pretty enjoyable read and give a good overview of what happened. I’m not totally sure if this is mentioned in the articles, but the New University of Amsterdam managed to force the resignation of their university executive board, and have won a massive governance review which might result in their university becoming much more democratic, and might stop the cuts to jobs. We’ve got to wait and see how successful they are, however.

Finally, if anyone wants to get involved in the organising of the soup seminars, including sorting out ingredients, cooking, designing leaflets, and publicity stuff – then just reply to this email and let me know!

See you all in two weeks!