Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/327/9297
Facts Behind The Fees
Exposed: Labour's plans to bring the 'market' into higher education
THE UNIVERSITY top-up fees Bill is causing a major headache for Tony Blair. He is desperately trying to sell it to an angry public and to rebellious Labour MPs. Zena Awad is the national coordinator of Socialist Students, who are campaigning against fees. She spoke to the socialist about what this Bill will mean for students and for higher education.
What are top-up or variable fees?
Currently university tuition fees are £1,125 a year. If the Bill is passed, universities will be able to increase fees to up to £3,000 a year.
At the moment tuition fees are paid up front. The Bill proposes that from 2006 up-front tuition fees will be replaced by a form of graduate tax.
After graduation students will start to pay back fees at a rate of 9% of earnings once they earn £15,000 a year (this may be increased to £20,000 as a 'concession' to buy off rebel Labour MPs).
Why are Socialist Students opposed to top-up fees?
Students, especially from working-class backgrounds, will be turned off the idea of going to university if they are faced with thousands of pounds of debt at the end of a course.
'Variable' fees will encourage competition between institutions leading to a multi-tier higher education system. Some of the poorest universities may be forced to close down departments. Tony Blair wants to introduce the 'market' into higher education but we've seen what effect this had on on the railways!
Poorer students will end up choosing courses because they're cheap, in under-funded institutions lacking basic resources. A recent survey of school students doing their GCSEs found that the majority would be put off going to university by huge debts. 62% said they would try to study where living costs were not too high and 70% would pick a course that wasn't too expensive.
Fees will be capped initially but not indefinitely. The top universities are saying that £3,000 is too low. The ˇlite universities like Cambridge and LSE already charge overseas students up to £18,000 a year in fees. That gives an indication of what a market in higher education would really mean. In the US over the past ten years tuition fees in public universities have increased by 85%. That could be the future here if Blair gets his way.
Won't there be help for the poorest students?
Students from poorer families (a joint income lower than £10,000 a year) will get the first £1,125 of their fees paid. They will also get a grant of £1,000 a year.
But how can students live on that? It's three times lower than the maintenance grant was over ten years ago! The average cost of accommodation, food etc. outside London is around £7,000 a year. Students are already in massive debt from loans because New Labour abolished the student grant. 60% of students have to work while they are studying. 1/5 of students drop out of university due to financial hardship.
Some university vice-chancellors have ridiculed Blair's proposals of bursaries for the poorest students. One vice-chancellor said: "Most of our students are working-class. I'd be lucky to be able to offer them a fiver from my fees income, whereas Oxford and Cambridge could afford to give the few they have thousands".
If this Bill becomes law even the poorest students could leave university with debts of around £20,000.
What is the alternative?
Universities definitely need more money. Funding per student is nearly £3,000 less than it was in 1989. Students in many universities have got inadequate facilities and university lecturers are badly paid.
Tony Blair says that students have to pay for their education because they will be better off when they have graduated. But that disregards the fact that many graduates, mostly those from working-class backgrounds, enter low paid, casual work after completing their degrees, often in jobs unrelated to their field.
Blair dismisses the alternative of general taxation saying: "Is it really fair to ask an ancillary worker in the NHS who has not got to university to pay more taxes and allow (others) to get a good education and earn considerably more?"
But there are plenty of low-paid workers who want their kids to have the opportunity to go to university and could see it taken away if this Bill goes through.
Britain is one of the wealthiest countries in the world with one of the lowest levels of taxation on big business.
A first step would be to restore corporation tax to the level it was before New Labour cut it in 2000 - which some analysts calculate would generate around £11 billion a year.
Higher education should be free and not the privilege of a small elite. All tuition fees should be scrapped and a living grant introduced for all students.
A pro-big business agenda is being pushed through all of our public services, leading to struggles developing amongst workers against cuts, privatisation, job losses and attacks on living standards and on trade union rights.
Increasingly people are drawing the conclusion that if this system cannot afford free, quality public services for all, then we cannot afford the system.
What we need is a system where students, education staff and the community democratically decide how our education institutions are managed. We need a socialist society, where the resources are democratically planned by the majority to meet the needs of all, not planned by the minority to meet the profits of a few rich at the top of the pyramid. Let's turn this pyramid upside down!
More about Socialist Students
Socialist Students fights for a socialist alternative, on campuses, in the workplace and in communities. We have links with groups and trade unionists across the country.
Socialist Students will be lobbying MPs in many areas about top-up fees. If you are interested in joining or finding out more about Socialist Students and helping build the opposition to fees, then contact us at: PO Box 858, London E11 1YG or email:
In The Socialist 13 December 2003: