The Socialist 15 September 2010
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How will the Browne Review into university funding affect you?
In October the review into university funding will be published. This report, initiated by the previous New Labour government with the backing of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, is focusing on the question of university fees.
In recent months though, differences seem to be emerging between the two ministers with responsibility for universities. Liberal Democrat business minister (who has overall responsibility for universities) Vince Cable, has publicly stated he is in favour of a tax on graduates.
On the other hand, David Willetts, Conservative minister for universities, has made it clear that he opposes the idea of a direct graduate tax because it may encourage more students to study abroad rather than in the UK.
This reflects the Liberal Democrats' long-standing opposition to university fees which was a big contributing factor in them obtaining 50% of the student vote in the general election.
In the coalition agreement, the Conservatives granted the Lib Dems the right to abstain on a vote which proposed fee increases. But if the other parties are left to vote with no opposition, university fees will almost certainly be increased, possibly to more than twice the current level.
Many possible problems have been raised with a graduate tax. Most importantly, a report by the lecturers' union, UCU, showed that this system would mean the lowest paid public sector workers would end up paying more for their degrees than they already do.
Many details of how the scheme would work are unknown. In most models a graduate tax would be a debt that you never pay off, affecting graduates throughout the entire course of their working lives. Even if it is introduced at a relatively low rate, as with any other tax it could be increased by the chancellor at any stage.
The Socialist Party opposes any charges for education, whether up front, loaned or taxed. This is to guarantee access to university for all, regardless of their ability to pay.
One of Labour's arguments for introducing fees 12 years ago was that it would mean workers did not have to pay for the education of the rich. But slashing corporation tax means that the contribution from the rich has been massively reduced.
A graduate tax is opposed by the Conservative Party and the heads of the most prestigious universities because it conflicts with their vision for higher education. Funding education through taxation would tie universities into public ownership and state funding.
The government review is clearly skewed towards big increases in fees and further privatisation. The board is made up of bankers, former advisors to Tony Blair and of course is chaired by Lord Browne, the ex-chief executive of BP.
Leaked reports indicate that the review panel is going to recommend fees of £7,000 a year. This, or some variant, is undoubtedly going to be the Tories' preferred option.
However, the issue of university fees has proved to be one of the most publicly contentious issues of this weak coalition government. Under the pressure of a movement of workers and young people, as well as the discontent of Liberal Democrat members, they could be forced into a u-turn.
A recent report for the Scottish Parliament recommended introducing fees. This will correctly be seen as a huge attack on Scottish youth and could provoke a mass response. If this develops parallel to a movement in England and Wales, the two could reinforce each other.
A growing tide of protest in the universities has been seen over the last two years. Increases in fees, on top of cuts to places and funding, could give a big impetus to these movements.
However, it does not currently seem like these movements will be led by the National Union of Students (NUS).
Their alternative to higher university fees is to call for a graduate tax! The model that they propose is better than many others but would still mean that the average graduate would end up paying more than they do at present.
Aaron Porter was the first ever NUS president to address the universities vice-chancellors' conference this year and 'outlined the importance of meaningful collaboration' between students and management.
Under pressure, NUS has called a national demonstration on 10 November. But it will be up to genuine activists on the demonstration and in local anti-cuts campaigns to formulate a strategy to defeat the government and to fight for free education.
In this issue
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party youth and students
Feature: Socialist Party women
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party review