IWD2014: education, women and change

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The theme for this year’s international women’s day is change. As we hit the fourth year of austerity UK with more cuts on the horizon, further and higher education changes mean we need to fight harder than ever for women’s futures. So, what has happened in the past year, and where do we go next to fight for change for the better?

Access education courses are level 3 (like A level) equivalents offered to those returning to FE with an aim of going to University. The main demographic is female working class women, usually returning to college after children. Under the current government funding for adult learners has been slashed, and as a result in the last year the courses have been hauled through radical changes with fees and loans similar to the University system introduced. The justification for this is that – so long as they complete and then graduate from university – debt will be written off at some future point. Assuming we have any trust left in the longevity of this kind of promise, It’s still typical of the kind of poor understanding shown by those who make decisions about education in the lives of people they will never share any common ground with.

An example of why this matters is the woman I met last week at a feminist event – she’s currently a mature student in HE, and as we got chatting she told me about how her life had changed following the Access course she began a few years ago. When she started her course she was with her long term partner, had a number of children, but no access to money or even a door key to her house. Fast forward a few years and she is well on the way to academic success with a new life in a new city. She is not exactly an isolated case – we all know the student who has regular rows with her partner who doesn’t want her to come to college, and some of these students will be the first to drop out of the system as the changes continue. It’s not just partners who sometimes try and keep women out of education either – in the last year we saw the incredible decision from BMET principal Christine Braddock to try to ban women from college if they wore the niqaab – following a huge public campaign, she relented. But the move was typical of a society where college and university leaders increasingly try to frame educational institutions as hierarchical structures which must be policed rather than community resources for all to share in and grow from. We need to look at how we reclaim our educational institutions for communities, not corporations.

Elsewhere in HE, union members in UCU, Unite, Unison and EIS have been fighting a sustained dispute over pay. They are angry that VCs continue to be awarded huge pay (for Birmingham VC David Eastwood, who tops the league, gets over 400K) whilst refusing to agree reasonable pay rises for staff to meet the rising cost of living, and in many cases, refusing to pay a living wage for support staff. At Birmingham strong industrial action from Unison supported by student activism has won the living wage, and there is a lot to be learnt from how this campaign has been fought.

Pay fights are equality fights, and it is no different in HE. UCU research shows that women make nearly half of non-professorial academic staff, but less than 20% of the professoriate. Even if they get there, female professors earn 6.3% less – and this is compounded by ethnicity, with black professors earning 9.4% less than white counterparts.

Meanwhile the ongoing drive for neo-liberalism means that “female” courses such as humanities and arts – pretty much anything where education is itself is treated as having value – are at risk of closure. Redundancies are happening on a large scale across FE and HE, with more forecast as the 14 – 19 budget takes another hit.

We need to continue to build and grow staff, student and community activism to see change for the better. The wider issue and the thing that we have to tackle if we want change is neo-liberalism. If we fight only to break glass ceilings in education then we are still fighting for the value of hierarchy that created the glass ceiling in the first place – for proper equality we need to act together for free, democratic, open education for all.

This has been written for an IWD special on http://www.slaneystreet.org.uk/

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