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From The Socialist newspaper, 19 January 2010

Stop the cuts in higher education

Youth Fight for Jobs demo 2 April 2009 called for free education as a right, photo Paul Mattsson

Youth Fight for Jobs demo on 2 April 2009 called for free education as a right, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

The Russell Group, consisting of the top 20 UK universities has attacked the government's cuts in higher education. The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that savings of 2.5 billion will be needed in the higher education (HE) sector as part of an overall plan to reduce the public deficit. New Labour has already announced plans to cut HE by at least 600 million by 2013 should it win the election.

Matt Dobson, Socialist Students national organiser

The situation for students is bad enough already. Along with the threat of higher fees, these cuts could affect every student on every course. Teaching and learning resources will be decimated, campus buildings will not be maintained and many 'non-profitable' courses will be axed.

The UCU education trade union estimates that 14,000 academic staff will be forced onto the dole queue and that within three years British universities will have the largest class sizes in the world.

But this revolt by the Russell Group is not motivated by heartfelt concern for the overall state of HE. One author of the Russell Group's statement in the Guardian was Michael Arthur, vice chancellor of Leeds University. From the start of the academic year Arthur has attempted to force through huge cuts in courses and jobs, even before universities minister Peter Mandelson's cuts package was announced.

Instead this is a press campaign to remind the government and the Tories that the group's research base and output is lucrative for big business and that their academic standing is key to the international reputation of British capitalism. The Russell Group doesn't oppose cuts on principle - it thinks the Group should be protected at the expense of other public services.

They are not concerned about young people, who hope to get jobs in hospitals, schools and the civil service after they graduate, finding no opportunities as these services are slashed. Also these cuts will be used as an excuse by vice chancellors to plead poverty and put more pressure on the politicians to raise university fees.

The Russell Group's funding for research is largely protected by the government and they can tap into funds from the private sector, wealthy alumni and charities that are not accessible to lower ranked universities.

If this agenda, shared by both the politicians and the Russell Group, is implemented, access to a high quality university education with the opportunity for postgraduate study will be even further blocked to those who can't afford it.

Since the late 1990s, on the basis of working hard, saving, getting into debt and making huge sacrifices, a minority of working class young people and their families, despite rising fees, have been able to get into HE - but this will now be out of reach for many.

Recent protests at Sussex, Leeds, Bangor, London Metropolitan and other universities show the anger of students and staff. This will only increase as the implications of these cuts become known. The need for a united struggle against cuts would be clearer to the mass of students if student unions nationally and locally had shown they were willing to organise a fight back.

The pro-New Labour National Union of Students leadership has met Mandelson's cuts with silence. Bar a few exceptions like Sussex, most local student unions have failed to act. Even worse, student unions like Leeds and Gloucestershire are supporting the cuts agenda of management and have condemned strikes and protests of staff and students.

Organise action

Nonetheless the angry mood that exists can be escalated into organised mass opposition capable of making attacks from the government and university managements unworkable.

Socialist Students calls on students and workers to unite to stop all cuts, fight for every job, every course and demand the scrapping of tuition fees. This could be organised on a national basis by the trade unions taking industrial action and student unions mobilising students.

We call for a one day walkout strike of all education workers and students against cuts, fees and job losses, coordinated nationally by the trade unions, student unions and campaign groups.

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