Photo: Liverpool SP
Photo: Liverpool SP

Adam Powell-Davies, Socialist Party Youth Organiser

At the last two general elections there was a buzz of enthusiasm on and around university campuses. The Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, had a manifesto promising free university education.

A few years later and Labour, now led by Keir Starmer, is set to win. But this time with a party ‘permanently changed’ and with the ‘slate wiped clean’ of Corbyn’s popular policies. The 2024 manifesto has business ‘fingerprints all over it’.

On campuses now, students’ maintenance loans fall further and further behind the cost of living. The often trivialised cliché of cash-strapped students surviving off toast and tins of beans has in recent years given way to a more serious picture of student poverty, which has hit working-class students the hardest.

One survey has found 20% of students using food banks. Most are forced to work long hours in part-time jobs on top of their studies, just to cover the cost of being a student. There has been a spike in the numbers of students suffering mental health problems.

At the same time, thousands of students’ courses are threatened with closure, as university bosses make cuts at over 50 universities. The crisis in university funding, caused by the failed tuition fees model, meant that the risk of universities going under made it to Starmer’s ‘shitlist’ of immediate problems that will be met by an incoming Labour government.

The Labour Party general election manifesto pays lip service to maintaining university provision for young people. It talks of creating “a secure future for higher education and the opportunities it creates across the UK”. But there is nothing spelling out how a Labour government would plug the gaping hole in universities’ finances, let alone announce any measures to stop the student cost-of-living crisis.

One thing is for sure: Labour won’t want to increase public spending for universities! Where the manifesto is instructive is on its plans for a “youth guarantee of access to training, an apprenticeship, or support to find work for all 18-to-21-year-olds”, which would only draw on “existing funding”. In other words, a Labour government won’t mean any new money for young people’s futures – not unless we fight for it.

Rather than making the bosses pay for the needs of universities, the capitalist press and university vice-chancellors have stepped up their calls for a ‘modest’ tuition fee increase soon after the election to give cash-strapped institutions an emergency injection of funds. They argue that, even if a Labour government provoked the fury of young people by announcing a rise in fees, they would still have five years until the next election to recover.

At the same time, Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson has refused to rule out a rise in tuition fees to fund universities.

Students should be prepared to respond to any future attacks with mass protests, and to demand free, fully funded education for all who want to access it. Free education would stop young people from accruing tens of thousands of pounds in debt before the age of 21. Full funding would include the need for students to get maintenance grants, not loans, which cover all living costs. The scrapping of tuition fees would stop universities acting like businesses, competing with each other for students to boost revenue while cutting back courses.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the first major resistance to a Tony Blair Labour government came from students protesting against the introduction of tuition fees. And part of the reason that more young people haven’t looked to the Liberal Democrats as an alternative to the Tories and Starmer’s Labour is down to their betrayal in 2010, when – shortly after a general election, having pledged not to increase fees – they trebled tuition fees as coalition partners with the Tories.

What future?

In 1999, New Labour prime minister Tony Blair announced his aim to send half of young people to university. Twenty years later, that target was met for the first time.

It was Blair who brought in tuition fees and created the need for a loan to cover them. Maintenance grants were finally phased out completely and replaced with loans by the Tories in 2016.

But increased participation in higher education has not meant equal access for working-class students. University application rates tend to be lower in poorer areas. Students who were on free school meals are twice as likely to drop out of university than those who weren’t.

On average, students with part-time jobs are working 48-hour weeks when you add together university study and paid work. How is a working-class student working the equivalent of a six-day week expected to do as well as their peers who don’t have to take on a part-time job?

Despite the obstacles to completing a degree, university drop-out rates remain low – around 1%. The proportion of students who have considered quitting university has fallen steadily since the pandemic. And even among the one-quarter of students reported to have considered dropping out in the past year, clearly the overwhelming majority think it’s worth soldiering on to graduation. Many will be put off from dropping out, knowing that they’ve taken on the ‘sunk cost’ of student loans which they will have to repay anyway.

The fact that university drop-out rates aren’t higher says more about the paucity of alternatives for young people than it does the quality of university education. The jobs typically on offer to working-class school- and college-leavers are the lowest paid. Almost half of young people on apprenticeship schemes last year dropped out before completing their course, with the majority citing concerns about lack of quality or training.

In contrast, a university education is still seen by many as a route to something better, a guarantee of an independent life away from home, at least for a few years, followed by the chance of better job prospects and pay – even when you factor in losing a bit of your future pay packet each month to student loan repayments.

However, hundreds of thousands of students are now graduating from university, only to find that the jobs aren’t there for them. Since the pandemic, there has been a drastic fall in job vacancies aimed at university graduates. More than a third of graduates now end up in jobs that don’t actually require a degree, becoming so-called ‘overqualified’ workers.

For students who do find the jobs they’ve studied for, there is still the issue of pay. Average pay for graduate jobs is at its lowest point in real terms for a decade. Last year the average graduate salary increased by just 3% – the lowest rate in years, and far behind the soaring cost of living. For comparison, average rents increased by a record 9% over the same period.

In the run-up to the general election, the Tories have cynically used the number of graduates not finding jobs to attack so-called ‘low-value degrees’, as part of a wider attempt to curb student numbers.

In reality, it is the blind and planless character of capitalism – a system defended by the Tories and all the main parties, not least Starmer’s Labour Party – that pushes working-class young people to rack up huge debts and work themselves into the ground for a qualification that doesn’t even guarantee a decent job at the end.

And why should the failure of capitalism to plan for our futures mean that only a certain number of young people go to university?

Everyone deserves the right to a university education – the freedom of time to think about the world, and to specialise in whatever interests them, secure in the knowledge that there will be a well-paid and worthwhile job available to them after they finish. That means fighting to take control of society out of the hands of the capitalist class, and taking the wealth and resources off them to provide fully funded, free university places for everyone who wants it.

The Socialist Party says

  • Scrap fees – free fully funded university education for all who want it, make the super-rich pay
  • No course cuts and closures – defend uni jobs, pay, terms and conditions
  • Introduce student living maintenance grants that rise with the real cost of living
  • Build fighting, democratic, student unions
  • Build a new mass workers’ party to fight in our interests against the bosses
  • Fight for socialist change in Britain and worldwide

A few friends and I took part in leafleting for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition outside of Leeds College’s Quarry Hill campus. Quite a few people took leaflets and some people came up to the stall to learn more. A highlight was definitely when a car went past and a teenager in the car was shouting words of encouragement through the window. All in all it was very successful!
Cameron McCann, Leeds Arts Uni student