The GERM will win – unless we fight

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The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) is the name given to the neo-liberal target of opening up education provision to market forces, a process started in the 1980s and speeding up today.  Education Notes has tracked the impact of GERM on the British education system which has been characterised by outsourcing, deregulation and shrinking local education authorities. At long last the leading teachers’ union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has published a political commentary on GERM in Teacher magazine in which the union’s General Secretary Christine Blower condemns turning pupils into consumers of education and teachers into private sector workers. Standardised testing, performance-related pay and competition between schools are preparing the way for privatisation.  The NUT may have the best intentions of fairness to all and does emphasise, officially, if not in practice, concerns about child poverty. 

However the union fails to even begin to explain why governments globally are selling off their stake in education and transferring public funds to private business. There is an implicit dishonesty in attacking the ConDem government’s policies of diverting funds to ‘free’ schools and academies, while failing to acknowledge that the last Labour government set the pace on outsourcing education provision and huge chunks of the social services. The Financial Times (18 November 2014) records that from 2006 to 2010 Labour spent £45bn on privatised services and since 2010 the ConDems have spent £88bn. Labour opened the door and the other parties rushed in. The NUT’s political weakness leads inevitably to a weak fightback so that ‘pressurising politicians’ is the only tactic on offer in the struggle against the power of the corporate education lobby. Evidence unfolds daily of the incompetence, waste and corruption of marketising the education system which should be seized upon and attacked by any trade union worth the name.

Wonga style 

One fine example of the scandalous mess of monetarising education is the history of the Student Loans Company (SLC) which was originally set up as a non-profit making venture. In the late 1990s, the government sold two tranches of the mortgage-style loans to investors, firstly in 1998 to Greenwich NatWest raising £1bn, and secondly in 1999 to Deutsche Bank and the Nationwide Building Society, raising another billion. The SLC’s remaining mortgage-style loans, for which payments were mostly in arrears, were sold to a consortium Erudio Student Loans in 2011 for £160m. In 2014, the government indicated that it would start selling the SLC’s £12bn book of 1998-2012 loans to improve public finances.

In July 2014, the SLC was accused of using controversial tactics similar to those used by Wonga, the pay-day loans company, for sending out letters from what appeared to be an independent debt collection agency called Smith Lawson & Company. (Wonga has been ordered to pay £2.6m in compensation for sending customers letters from fictitious debt recovery firms).  The SLC announced it was suspending the use of the letters, which it said had used the ‘secondary brand’ to avoid paying fees to a conventional debt collection agency. 

Can’t pay – won’t pay

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has reported that university students will have an average £40,000 debt at the end of a degree and unpaid debt is predicted to rise from £46bn in 2013 to £330bn by 2044. In 2012 student tuition fees were trebled to £9,000 and 73% of today’s graduates will not be paying back their loan in full. The HEC says that ‘a new model is needed’. Indeed. The only model worth demanding is that of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts which is ‘no fees, no debts, and no cuts’. On 19 November over 10,000 students marched in London under this slogan and they propose further actions. The National Union of Students did not support the demonstration due to ‘an unacceptable level of risk’ to its members. The NUS headquarters were daubed with paint as the students showed what they thought of this sell-out.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 242 December 2014/January 2015