French lessons on accessible education

Back in 2010, the 50,000 students that took part at one of London’s largest demonstrations in recent memory were very sure of what they were protesting against: the Coalition’s proposals, now realised, to cut state funding for higher education and to triple the cost of university tuition fees. Unfortunately, the protest is remembered more for the violence of a few students and heavy-handed police tactics than for its political influence. Towards the end of the afternoon the focus of the demonstration had waned to the extent that some groups swapped their placards and chants for dubstep and dancing.

A local protest at my university around the same period spurred an impromptu occupation in front of an important administrative building. Eager students scaled the fence and gave leg ups to their friends to fill the lawn. Yet, as was the case in London, once protest at the plans had been demonstrated there seemed to be no agreement about what should be done next. Hard-hitting slogans dissipated into a disorganised mix of anarchist rhetoric and directionless ‘fuck-the-system’ rants. The crowd became smaller as people decided to escape the cold and go home for tea.

Labour, like the protesting students, is sure of what it opposes. This is no bad thing when faced with Michael Gove and David Willetts’ drastic cuts and policies, such as the promotion of a ‘military ethos’ in schools that seems to lament the death of the cane. The GCSE marking scandal and confusion over the free schools scheme and the expansion of academies have resulted in what Chuka Umunna recently described as an “omnishambles”. However, also like the students, Labour must be careful that it does not let lack of focus undermine the strength of its criticism. A clearer vision for education would not only create a point of common ground for Labour supporters and students beyond the opposition to Coalition education policy, but would also lend any future protests greater impact.

Labour does have some ideas for education reform. Ed Miliband recently announced plans for a Technical Baccalaureate, for what he termed the “forgotten 50%” who do not obtain the grades necessary for university, as a serious vocational alternative to Michael Gove’s plans for a stringently academic English Baccalaureate. Yet soon after the announcement of the Tech Bacc at the Labour conference, the idea was adopted by Gove, leading some to suggest that he had stolen the idea. Labour would perhaps be better focussing its campaign on the provision of a broader curriculum than the Ebacc allows, as music and art risk being sidelined for exam-focussed lessons on the key subjects, vital for the all-important league tables.

The switch to a single, government-regulated exam board and the decision to raise the education participation age to 18, supported by both Labour and the Coalition, are evocative of a more European-style education system. The espousal of the word ‘Baccalaureate’ suggests an admiration for the French system in particular. This may be no bad thing – although elitism is still present in France, sciences are held in higher esteem as they rely less on the cultural capital that can give middle class students an advantage in arts subjects. Vocational qualifications are also well developed, highly regarded and most often lead to a job, which is more than can be said for the UK’s system of NVQs (initials sometimes jokingly referred to as standing for ‘not very qualified’).

There are two main differences in the French system which allows it to outstrip the UK on equal access to education. Firstly, state universities are free or at most a couple of hundred pounds a year to attend, with generous bursaries offered to cover living costs. Labour could be stronger in its proposals to reverse or lessen the UK’s £9,000 yearly fees, especially for poorer students, to re-establish education as a right, not a privilege.

However, the most striking difference between the two education systems is the relative non-existence of private education in France, where the few private schools are in general either religious or no better than their state counterparts. The divide between private and state education in the UK continues to represent in stark relief equalities ingrained in our education system and politics. If Labour wants to mobilise its voters on the Left and provide a vision for a truly equal school system, it could take a harder line on private education, ensuring private schools better serve local communities, as well as continuing to improve the state sector so that eventually no one will want to go private, as is the case in France.

Labour must return to focus on ‘Education, education, education’ with strong radical policies that favour a good quality education available for all.


‘Stand with the Palestinian people’

The recent outbreak of violence in Gaza is the most significant attack on the Palestinian territory since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. Airstrikes have already killed at least 14 including an 11 month old baby. Numerous other casualties have been inflicted on Palestinian civilians, with an estimated 250 maimed or wounded, despite Israeli assurances these bombings are “surgical” and “targeted”.

Reports across the media claim that, before his extra-judicial assassination by an IDF airstrike, Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’ military leader, was considering a permanent truce. Israel’s act of pre-emptive aggression now appears to have ended any chance of a peace deal in the immediate future and has only served to escalate violence and inflict more suffering onto innocent civilians.

Despite calls from Palestine’s envoy to the UN for the “Security Council to act in accordance with its responsibilities to stop this aggression against our people”, the international community has failed to stand up for Palestinians and hold the Israeli government responsible for this new attack.

Instead Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander laid the blame firmly upon Gaza, which has been under Israeli blockade for over five years without access to medical supplies, restricted freedom of movement and no ability to trade with others.

Alexander’s statement completely disregards the severe power disparity between Gaza, one of the most densely populated territories in the world forced into poverty by sustained embargoes, and Israel, a military superpower with a nuclear arsenal and full Western backing.

In a week when Israel has threatened to topple the democratically-elected President of the Palestinian West Bank territory Mahmoud Abbas, it is difficult to believe that their intransigence is any thing other than an indication of the contempt with which they hold the Palestinian people. Israel’s already questionable commitment to a meaningful peace plan and an equitable solution to the almost 70 year conflict has been cast even further into doubt.

As a principled and progressive government-in-waiting, Labour should reassert its commitment to an ethical foreign policy grounded in peace, solidarity and justice. The Tories have made clear they are unwilling to pursue a more balanced approach and deviate from the path set by Bush and Blair, who were the only two Western world leaders who failed to condemn Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2008.

Ed Miliband said in his Conference Q&A in 2011 that “you are no friend of Israel if you defend the status quo”. It is time that Labour’s foreign policy reflected this truth and embraced a commitment to standing together with the Palestinian people and rejecting Israeli apartheid. Labour must ensure it unites with global majority on the right side of history.

By Calum Sherwood and Tom King

  • Protests in solidarity with the people of Gaza will take place on Saturday 17th November outside the Israeli Embassy in London and in other cities across the country – see Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Defend London Met

One of the greatest exports we have in the UK is Higher Education. Looking at the new QS University League Table published this week it is clear why – four UK universities are in the top six in the world. That explains why the UK is the second most popular destination for international students after the United States. In 2010-11 the UK Council for International Student Affairs published the number as 428,225 international students studying in UK institutions. This is a thriving industry contributing to our struggling economy with a BIS research paper published last year reporting the total value of UK education and training exports to the UK economy at £14 billion and a projection that this could rise as high as £26 billion by 2025.

With a double-dip recession, longer than any recession in our lifetimes, you would expect a government to support any industry which contributes so positively to a failing economy. But this is a Tory-Lib Dem Coalition government, so continuing their pattern of making life difficult for everyone and every industry (other than the rich who get tax cuts) recent policy decisions have made things more difficult for universities.

UKBA have revoked London Metropolitan University’s highly trusted sponsor (HTS) status – which means that over 2000 international students studying there were told they have to either find a new institution within 60 days, or face having to leave the country. It is not acceptable to force thousands of students to find a new course at a new institution, particularly when we are just weeks away from the start of a new academic year. Whilst this is terrible for the students who have applied to the University in good faith, and in many cases are already years into their studies, it also has a huge impact on international students at other universities and future potential international students.

The government pledged to cut immigration from ‘hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands’ and cutting international students is a quick and easy way from them to cut the numbers of immigrants. Often the rhetoric we hear is that we want ‘the best and brightest students at the best universities’ but what does this mean for newer universities who are not Oxbridge or other redbrick institutions? It’s a worry for students studying at newer universities that whilst now it is London Metropolitan University, next year it could be their university.

Similarly, for future students looking to study in the UK it will be a worry for them and if they hear accounts from students deported before the end of their courses it might just persuade them to apply to a US institution in preference to a UK one. Rather worryingly, a NUS survey carried out earlier this year found that 40% of international students would not recommend the UK as a destination for study and the NUS have recently reported receiving increasing communications from students who now feel unwelcome in the UK.

The universities are increasingly taking in more money from UK students, but nowhere near as much as they are taking in from international students. Tuition fees for British students are capped at £9,000 a year, but UCL in London, for example, charges international students £14,000 for most arts and humanities courses, rising to £16,250 for science courses. Medicine costs £27,500 a year.

In recent years, international students have been the golden goose for the UK Government, attracted here by our international language and world class education. However, those fees paid by international students attracted to the UK as a result of the globalisation of the education market have ultimately been used to subsidise higher education and allowed cuts to the sector rather than investment in improvements.

The worry now must be that, despite the superficially positive achievements of the UK higher education sector, the use of international students as cash cows with uncertain visa status will make future sets of international students think twice about where they study – and given the now symbiotic relationship between international students’ fees and university education spending, it will be all students who lose out if they start to think that other countries are a more attractive study location in future.


For information on the NUS campaign see