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From The Socialist newspaper, 14 September 2001

Growing Crisis in Higher Education

THOUSANDS OF university places are going unfilled because students can no longer afford to go to university. Meanwhile some universities' futures hang in the balance because of lack of funding.

Kieran Roberts

Many universities and colleges are planning brutal cuts in courses, staff and facilities. Several campuses have already closed in the last 12 months. Higher and further education in Britain is in crisis and the education of many thousands of students and young people will suffer as a result.

Over four years of New Labour, education policies have not just failed to alleviate the problems facing education in Britain, they have compounded the crisis. The introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of the grant in particular have had devastating consequences.

Across Britain, young people are being denied their basic right to a free education. Thousands have been left without the means to pay for university. After fees were introduced and the grant was abolished, applications to university collapsed.

Between 1996-7 and 2000-01 the numbers of undergraduates studying in Britain for their first degrees fell by 48,100. Applications fell most dramatically amongst more disadvantaged groups, such as black male students.

Meanwhile, levels of debt amongst graduates spiral upwards. 73% of students are in debt. 17.6% estimate their debts will have swollen to 9,000 by the time their studies end.

Fees have been massively unpopular from the day their introduction was announced. Working-class and middle-class people alike understood what they would mean.

Even Tony Blair is reported to have raised the idea of scrapping the current system of fees, so few friends do fees have, particularly amongst students. Blair seemingly said that canvassing during the election showed fees the most unpopular policy "on the doors."

The position of fees has become more untenable the longer they have existed. High levels of non-payment and drop-outs, concessions by the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, have all successively undermined them.

Tuition fees have not just had repercussions for the many young people deterred from going to university by the cost. Falling numbers of students means less income for universities, which in turn means worse education for those at universities.

The poorer new universities, in particular the ex-polytechnics, are especially badly hit by tuition fees and the abolition of the grant.

Government cutbacks

THIS FUNDING crisis bears out what the Socialist Party said when fees were introduced. The government claimed that fees would provide more money for higher education, but we said this was entirely false propaganda. It was a means of cutting government funding to universities.

Funding per student has actually fallen since fees came in; by 2.5% from 4,820 in 1998-99 down to 4,700 in 2001-02. Universities UK estimates that by 2004, they will need at least 900 million more a year.

Cuts could be more widespread than for many years as the effects of fees are felt. In London alone, at least eight universities plan redundancies this year.

South Bank University for instance, which has had an 11% fall in applications, is making 70 redundancies. The University of East London, where applications are down by 8.2%, is planning cuts of 800,000.

However, while many poorer universities are struggling to survive, some richer universities look to ideas like top-up fees to increase their income.

Due to the massive opposition to tuition fees, the government has pledged that it won't change the law to let universities charge their own top-up fees. However, this does not rule out the sort of U-turn we've come to expect from New Labour.

Neither has it stopped the deluge of propaganda in favour of top-up fees from the likes of the Russell Group (the 'top' 21 universities) and other advocates of top-ups.

Many advocates want to go further than that. They favour the virtual privatisation of education. In fact, this is big business' true agenda for higher and further education. They see rich pickings to be made from taking over and running many aspects of these sectors.

Internationally, the GATS agreement proposes the same. This international deal aims to get rid of 'barriers' stopping multinationals taking over state-run services.

Business also wants a two-tier education system. It wants an elitist, well-funded university sector for a rich minority. But for the majority it wants an education system geared towards providing skills for use in their sweatshop factories and call-centres.

The capitalists see no reason for paying for a university system that is free and accessible for all, out of their profits. Most jobs on offer under British capitalism are low-paid and casual. When this is the case, reason the capitalists, why educate working-class young people to degree level?

It is this, capitalism's over-riding concern for profit at the expense of the working class and middle class, that's to blame for the crisis in HE and FE. It is why, when many millions of pounds of profit is made every day in Britain, thousands are denied an education because they cannot afford it and courses are being axed.

Fighting back

HOWEVER THERE is a reaction taking place in society, particularly amongst young people, against the rule of big business. We have seen the growth of anti-capitalist protests, with participants numbering hundreds of thousands.

Many students as well are involved in these. This is also likely to translate into active opposition to the big business agenda in education.

Opposition among students to tuition fees and the abolition of the grant has the most potential to translate into a national movement. The annual NUS demonstrations against student hardship has grown over the last three years. Last year's numbered 30,000, the biggest in a decade.

This opposition is likely to increase as students and their families feel the effects of recession in the next year or so. At the same time fees are being increasingly undermined for all the reasons mentioned already.

The prospects for fees look more shaky than ever. The Socialist Party will continue to build the strategy of mass non-payment of the fees in order to force the government to scrap them and reintroduce the grant.

As many students as possible must be encouraged not to pay fees this term. If enough people refuse to pay, the fees system will be made unworkable. That is the best way to defeat them.

But non-payment must also be backed up by mass action, demonstrations and occupation. Wherever a non-payer is threatened with penalties for not paying, we will help build mass protests and other action to force universities to allow them to stay on their courses.

Unless this strategy is built around the country, many more of the thousands of students who cannot afford to pay the fees will be kicked off their course. Mass non-payment and action can stop this happening and defeat fees for good.

However, with crisis brewing in the higher and further education sectors, it will not just be fees that could prompt students to take action. At universities across Britain it will be necessary to fight cuts and redundancies. Strike action is likely over cuts at some universities, so it will be important for students to support this industrial action in defence of education.

Rent too is an important issue. A number of universities are intent on increasing the cost of living in student halls of residence.

Already rent strikes are being proposed at Goldsmiths college in London where rents are increasing by 5%. At Durham University rents will rise by 200 this year, while Sheffield University is raising rents by 3.95% against much student opposition.

New movement

WHILE SOME individual students' unions organise good campaigns on these issues, unfortunately nationally the NUS and the students' unions are abdicating their responsibility to defend students' education against attacks such as fees and cuts in services and staff.

Every year thousands of students, too poor to pay their fees, drop out while their 'leadership' refuses to launch a serious campaign of non-payment or even demonstrations and protests against the fees. Universities make massive cuts while students' unions don't even lift a finger in protest.

Nationally this is largely because the NUS is controlled by sympathisers and members of New Labour, who want to avoid a conflict with the government. Also few students' unions are led by people with a genuine commitment to defending students. Instead they see the sabbatical posts as something to look good on their CVs.

At a national level, the majority on the NUS national executive (NEC) are attempting to carry out massive cuts in the NUS budget, including job losses in the NUS itself threatening the existence of student-led liberation campaigns which have been relative strongholds of the Left.

These cuts won't just weaken the NUS structures and its potential to defend students. It's also an attack on democracy within NUS, long under attack from the New Labour majority on the NEC.

It is vital that a broad campaign is built in NUS, amongst students fighting back against fees and on other issues, which can win a new leadership for the student movement.

The Socialist Party argues for a conference, ideally in the autumn term, bringing together students from across the country to fight for a new leadership, against the cuts in NUS and for genuine democracy in the students' union movement.

We also need to build Socialist Students societies up and down the country. These can build a fighting opposition to fees and cuts as well as discussing and spreading the ideas of socialism in the universities and colleges in order to provide an alternative to capitalism.

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In The Socialist 14 September 2001:

After the carnage in the USA: World Crisis Deepens

World Recession Looms

Action not words to defeat privatisation

Scrap Fees! Restore the Grant!

Growing Crisis in Higher Education

Northern Ireland: Working Class Must Unite Against Sectarianism


 

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