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Fees Headache For New Labour
AS THOUSANDS of students marched through central London against fees, Tony Blair announced that he had ruled out the introduction of up-front top-up fees.
This is a significant concession by Blair, who is one of the foremost proponents of top-up fees within the government.
This concession is a result of the huge anger that exists against the government's fees policy. The introduction of top-up fees would be a hugely unpopular step and would clearly be seen as putting an insurmountable barrier in the way of working-class and many middle-class students who wanted to go to university.
Many members of the government, as well as New Labour's rank and file, are opposed to top-up fees because they fear an implosion in support if they are introduced - especially among layers of middle-class people who voted Labour in the previous two elections.
This resulted in cabinet ministers publicly opposing top-up fees and MPs attacking 'elitism' in education.
However, although Blair may have ruled out up-front top-up fees, he had hinted that universities would still be free to charge different levels of fees. He has also made it clear that the shortfall in funding of higher education would not be met by increase public spending.
Instead, students will be expected to bear the cost. This is consistent with New Labour's agenda of the welfare state and public services being run in the interests of big business.
In all likelihood, Blair will now favour a system whereby students pay back higher tuition fees through a graduate tax. Reports suggest that Blair would like to introduce a system modelled on the Australian one. In Australia students take out loans to pay their fees, which are then paid back through the tax system after they graduate.
Some in the government and academia argue that graduate tax is a fairer means of making students pay for their education, because they pay after they have graduated and are in work. However, graduate tax is still a deterrent to many students who fear a lifetime of debt after they graduate.
A survey published last week found that 63% of young people who opted not to go to university did not want to build up debt. Women, working class and FE students were the least likely to go.
This is borne out by the experience in Australia, where students from affluent backgrounds are far more likely to secure places on courses where full fees are charged.
In reality the only fair funding system is one which is free to all. Only a free education system can guarantee everybody their right to an education.
The NUS leadership may claim that the ruling out of top-up fees vindicates their strategy (or lack of strategy) against them. In fact, if NUS had helped lead a movement of mass action and non-payment from when tuition fees were introduced in 1997, students may have been able to defeat all fees. Students would certainly be in a stronger position to stop any new attacks.
We must now guard against any move by the NUS NEC towards acceptance of a graduate tax if it is proposed. Many on the NEC are allied to New Labour including Mandy Telford, the President of NUS. Telford supports an extension to England and Wales of the Scottish system introduced in 1999. But this system is in reality little different to a graduate tax, with students still having to pay for their education after they finish university, leaving them thousands of pounds in debt.
Students must build a mass movement against all fees and graduate tax. We must also build a fighting alternative to the current leadership of NUS, that is not tied to a political party that attacks students.
In The Socialist 13 December 2002:
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