Scrap tuition fees
Fight for free education
Build for budget day walkouts
Clare Laker-Mansfield, Socialist Students national organiser
Tuition fees can be beaten. Chancellor Phillip Hammond's announcement that he will consider lowering them in the next Tory budget is an indication of his government's enormous weakness. This vulnerability is clear both in a general sense and on the specific issue of fees.
The move by the DUP to back a Labour motion aimed at blocking the increases planned under the Higher Education Act indicated the huge fissures that could open up on the issue. It highlighted the potential for a mass movement to break this government.
The 8 June general election represented a revolt of working class people, but particularly youth and students. If on autumn budget day (22 November) Hammond does what he has suggested and moves to reduce university fees, it will be as a concession to that electoral revolt. But it will not be enough.
Under the current system, students beginning university this year face half a lifetime of debt. With interest rates on student loans now set at a staggering 6%, and with huge fees being combined with the abolition of what remained of maintenance grants, the amounts owed by today's students are at record levels.
No wonder some commentators are talking about a 'debt time-bomb'. Estimates indicate that a young person beginning their studies in 2017 will have to earn over £50,000 a year before they begin paying back the capital on their loan.
In austerity Britain, with its gig economy and low wages, this means most graduates will never come anywhere close to paying off their debts. In fact most will find that, despite handing hundreds of pounds over to the loans company, the amount they owe will continue to grow year-on-year.
This underlines the importance of us demanding the complete abolition of fees and the reintroduction of grants for students. The promise to reintroduce free education was among the most popular in Corbyn's manifesto. But this should also be combined with a pledge to write off student debt. Such a possibility was hinted at by Corbyn in an interview he gave in the lead up to the election, though he subsequently appears to have stepped back from it.
Rather than accepting the faulty logic of the capitalist establishment which deems this 'unaffordable', Corbyn should boldly demand that the money to fund it is taken from the pockets of the super-rich. After all, why should recent and existing students continue to pay for the pro-1% policies of the Tories or the Blairites?
The task of students beginning their studies this week is to organise. Free education has been placed firmly back on the agenda. We need to use the momentum generated during the election campaign to help make this an autumn of resistance. That means getting organised on every campus. But it also means coordinating the fight on a national level.
That's why Socialist Students is demanding that the National Union of Students (NUS) uses its resources to build and mobilise a massive national demonstration this autumn. In 2010, when tuition fees were tripled to £9,000, an NUS-called demo saw over 50,000 students on the streets - sparking a mass movement of school, college and university students.
Disgracefully, NUS's right-wing leadership subsequently abandoned the struggle - condemning students who occupied Tory HQ and refusing to organise or even support further action. It was this, combined with the failure of the leadership of the trade union movement to move into struggle against the vicious Con-Dem coalition government at that point, which ultimately led to the defeat of the movement.
Today's NUS leadership is cut from the same Blairite cloth as those who abandoned the fight against fees in 2010.
Unless there is a radical change of course, including, as a first step, the organisation of a huge protest in the next months, they will occupy a similarly cowardly position.
Nonetheless, with or without the leadership of NUS, it's clear that the raw ingredients for a mass struggle on a similarly large scale to 2010, are present in the situation. This is true not just because of the anger that exists at sky-high fees, but because of the increased confidence that an alternative to austerity can be won.
As well as building the pressure on the NUS leadership to act,Socialist Students is calling for a huge day of action - or 'education shutdown' - on budget day. We will be organising for protests on every campus or college where we are present, and encouraging all those who want to join the fightback to take up the call and mobilise students to protest on this day.
Not only stunts and protests, but occupations and walkouts, could potentially be posed. If it were widely taken up, this could act as a spring board to building a mass campaign to win free education and kick out the Tories.
Since Socialist Students called for action on budget day, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) subsequently announced their intention to organise a protest on 15 November.
The Socialist Students committee wrote to the NCAFC leadership with the aim of opening up a dialogue about the way forward for our movement and how different organisations can work together to maximise the potential for mass resistance to the government. We have yet to receive a reply. An extract from the letter, the full version of which can be found at socialiststudents.org.uk, is carried below:
We write today in the hope of opening up a discussion on how best to build and take forward the student movement this autumn and beyond. The general election on 8 June raised the sights and expectations of hundreds of thousands of university and college students that the demand for free education is winnable.
Alongside this fresh politicisation of a huge new layer of students and young people, the Tory government, before the election confident that it could strengthen itself in parliament ahead of fresh attacks on the education system and wider society, has instead been severely weakened.
Reflecting this drastically altered political situation, Socialist Students has consistently stated the need for national demonstrations, and that they be coordinated by a fighting and democratic NUS leadership. Without NUS, a national demonstration on 15 November - if it goes ahead - will need to be organised democratically by all capable forces within the student movement.
This should include Socialist Students, which has grown to be a national organisation present on 40 campuses up and down the country. Our organisers have collective experience in leading various student protests and days of action, and we have roots among students on numerous university campuses.
Socialist Students would play a hugely positive role in building and mobilising for a national demonstration in the autumn time alongside NCAFC and other student organisations. Organising a successful national demonstration, especially in the absence of the leadership of the NUS, will take the involvement of Socialist Students and other organisations which have a national presence on university campuses.
The setting up of democratic planning committees, with participants from NCAFC, Socialist Students, and other groups willing to participate, should be central to achieving this aim. By establishing structures which allow for the participation of different groups in democratic discussion around the different aspects of building for such an action (including the tasks of mobilisation, political demands, speakers lists etc) we can have a greater impact as a united movement.
Socialist Students agrees with NCAFC that it is necessary to build further action beyond simply one isolated national demonstration. Socialist Students, under the banner of an 'education shutdown', has called and already started preparations for action on university campuses on budget day. This could potentially be received very enthusiastically and pull new layers of students into struggle, especially if built cooperatively and democratically alongside other groups.
We look forward to hearing your response to the points we raise here and furthermore suggest an urgent meeting ahead of the start of the new term. We hope this will be helpful to building alongside you and other groups for elevated student struggles in the future.
Socialist Students steering committee