James Elliott writes:
Over the last year the student movement has seen something of a comeback from the low ebbs of 2012 and early 2013, with new waves of occupations, landmark campaigns such as , the inspirational militancy of the , and a renewed conflict between students and workers’ right to organise, and the management’s will to stifle dissent.
What is encouraging about many of these new struggles is that they are organic, creating new campaigns centered on building student-worker solidarity, such as those of the SOAS cleaners and King’s College London’s union-run Living Wage Campaign.
Yet one issue could pass students by altogether, and represents arguably the greatest single threat to hopes of a free, democratic and public education system in the UK.
That is of course the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a colossal EU-US trade deal, that has been slowly gathering union and civil society opposition over the last few months.
TTIP is an attempt to remove ‘non-tariff’ barriers to trade, supposedly to grow the economies of both the EU and US, yet in reality it poses threats to public service, workers’ rights and our democracy.
A recent , concluded that looking at existing patterns of US-UK trade, there was “’’, yet there is much it will destroy.
The secret negotiations over TTIP are believed to include talks on ‘Investor-State Dispute Settlement’ apparatus, which could see private companies successfully suing democratic governments for exercising certain policy choices, on the grounds they represent a threat to profits.
These ISDS mechanisms already exist, and have been used by US companies to mount legal challenges to governments that try to regulate or take industries into public ownership.
This alarming use of international courts to reject any right to oppose privatisation has already taken place.
French transnational Veolia challenged the Egyptian government’s increases in the minimum wage; tobacco giant Philip Morris challenged Uruguay and Australia over anti- smoking laws; and Achmea, one of the largest suppliers of financial services in the Netherlands, challenged the Slovak Republic’s reversal of health privatisation policy.
The specific threats to UK healthcare have already been laid out. Len McCluskey, addressing Unite’s recent policy conference, correctly warned that TTIP would make NHS privatisation ‘’, while Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has pledged that Labour would exempt the NHS from a TTIP deal.
With the end of negotiations and the finalisation of the TTIP deal due to take place sometime at the end of 2015, there is hope that a Labour government could veto what amounts to neoliberalism made permanent in international law, but current noises from the Opposition bench have remained quiet.
Certainly the German and French governments have gone further in stating their desire to see ISDS mechanisms removed altogether, which would be a good start.
The threat to education sits around the partial privatisation of Higher Education carried out by the current coalition.
the education sector is also directly threatened by this treaty; for-profit education companies have become bigger and more powerful lobbyists in national and transnational political spheres.
Underhand privatisation of HE has been going on since 2010.
While students were alarmed at the headline £9,000 fees, markets were created, the block grant to public universities slashed to create a ‘level playing field’ for private providers, with students not the state becoming the funder, while private providers operate outside of regulations and monitoring.
The entry of private capital into the HE sector is brilliantly documented in Andrew McGettigan’s , which explores the creation of internal markets, the changing university structure to reflect corporate interests rather than public value and the setting up of overseas campuses to draw in revenue.
McGettigan spells out a negative future for UK HE, as we head down the road of American universities such as Phoenix, which is owned by Apollo, who have now acquired BPP university in the UK (one of six private institutions with ‘Degree Awarding Powers’).
Apollo are also known to have had meetings with David Willetts. Without rehearsing the calamitous policy of privatised education in the US, it’s suffice to say it is a model the Tories have been keen to import into the UK, with scant opposition from Labour.
As Willetts put it himself:
The global higher education providers that operate in many countries from India to Spain to the USA need to know that we will be removing the barriers that stop them operating as universities here as part of our system.
The threat that TTIP poses is to make all this permanent.
Should a Tory government be re-elected and TTIP go through unimpeded and as it stands, students and workers in the UK would not be able to achieve a public education system without undoing what will be the biggest free trade deal in global history.
Opposition has already come form the European Students Union and the education committees of the European Trade Union Confederation.
It’s now well past time for UK students, workers and their unions to join the campaign to stop this monster free trade deal and the threats it poses to our struggle.