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From The Socialist newspaper, 15 September 2010

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.

Ben Robinson

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.

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In The Socialist 15 September 2010:

Join the fight against cuts

Socialist Party editorial

Decisive action can defeat this government

TUC congress

TUC backs youth jobs demo

TUC told to name the day

TUC: Build for action against cuts

Socialist Party youth and students

Stop the 'slippery slope' to two-tier education

How will the Browne Review into university funding affect you?

Student strikes can win results

Feature: Socialist Party women

Women and the struggle against oppression

Socialist Party news and analysis

Royal Mail: Con-Demned to history?

Privatisation's giant wrecking ball

Fight the jobs cuts massacre

Middlesborough local union-led public services alliance set up

Fast news

General strike in France

Osborne targets the needy

Labour councillors challenged in Hastings

Shropshire: showing socialist alternative gets results

Socialist Party workplace news

London Underground: Action biting against job cuts

UCU executive pulls out of strike ballot

Fight for jobs at GSK

Workplace news in brief

Anti-cuts campaign

Mood of defiance in Huddersfield

Hull park rangers protest

How do we vote to stop the cuts?

Nottinghamshire: Campaign saves vital service

Lobbies warn councils of workers' action

Socialism 2010

Socialism 2010: How can we save the environment?

International socialist news and analysis

All-India general strike: Eyewitness report from Chennai

Fighting oppression in Kazakhstan

Socialist Party review

The Third Man


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