Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/279/24461
Fight for free education
Build mass non-payment of fees
THE NATIONAL Union of Students (NUS) demonstration on 4 December will show the anger of students at New Labour policies to make them pay even more for education.
Colin Wray, Sheffield University
Opposition is mounting to further attacks on the already difficult situation students face. At present students have to look forward to tuition fees, loans and escalating debts that have to begin to be paid back once they leave university.
The government is reviewing how higher education should be funded. But all the options mentioned will mean students meeting the costs.
The Russell Group, vice-chancellors from some of Britain's elite universities, favour the introduction of top-up fees, which would mean universities being free to charge what they want.
Other options are a graduate tax or a repayment system along the lines of the arrangement that operates in Scotland.
Neither of these alternatives offers any hope for students, many of which are already in hardship. Ministers have now conceded that education is in a crisis, and it is no wonder when universities have to cope with continual cutbacks.
This crisis has become so acute that some universities have even sold off some of their accommodation to raise extra cash.
This all comes down to the unwillingness of the government to put in the money that is essential for education because they place the interests of big business first.
NUS should launch a campaign of mass non-payment to defeat fees and for a return to a decent living, maintenance grant. We must fight for a free education system and put a stop to these damaging and elitist plans that New Labour is proposing.
The 4 December demonstration should mark a new stage in the fight back against an elitist education system and for a universal and high quality education system for all.
- No to top up fees or a graduate tax
- Abolish tuition fees.
- No exclusion for non-payment
- A living grant for all from age 16
- Free education for all
Wednesday 4 December, 11am, Malet Street, London WC1
(near Euston Station.)
THE NATIONAL Union of Students demonstration on 4 December will show the bitter opposition of most students - and their parents - to further rises in tuition fees and in particular to top-up fees. KIERAN ROBERTS calls on the student movement to organise mass opposition to these government plans.
Students Under Attack
What the government want to introduce:
IF THE government gets its way big rises in university fees are definitely on the agenda. The only question is what sort of system they are going to introduce.
The cabinet is currently riven by internal wrangling between the advocates of top-up fees and those who prefer increased tuition fees paid back through a graduate tax.
Top-up fees are charged by the individual university, which may fix the amount itself. The more prestigious universities want to be able to charge as much as £15,000 a year.
Some reports suggest that if the government gives the go ahead to top-up fees, they may cap them at around £4,000 a year! Maybe the government thinks this will make the policy more palatable to parents and students.
However, it won't be lost on either students or their parents that, before the last election, the government ruled out top-up fees in this parliament yet now it's considering introducing them. If top-up fees are introduced, we can expect them to rise far higher in the future.
The other option the government is considering is an increase in the level of the existing fees.
What top-up fees will mean for students:
SOCIALISTS ARE opposed to both options. Both will mean students will graduate with tens of thousands of pounds more debt. Both options will be a major deterrent to working-class young people going to university.
Moreover, every attack on students and education is inevitably followed by another unless a mass movement is built to stop them. In 1997 the Socialist Party warned that the £1,000-a-year tuition fees would increase dramatically once they had become established and could even pave the way for top-up fees. This is exactly what has happened.
If introduced, top-up fees will lead inexorably towards further privatisation in the university system. It will lead towards a two-tier system in which the rich minority pay tens of thousands for a 'superior' quality education at an elite institution, while the rest are relegated to a lower tier of less well-funded universities.
Many of the more prestigious universities in the UK are looking across the Atlantic to the USA for a model to emulate. They would like to be the Harvard and Yale of the UK, competing in an international market for the 'top' (richest) students and academics.
No doubt the vice-chancellors also have their eyes on the vast salaries that they could award themselves, from all the extra money from top-up fees.
However, the US system is not so beneficial to students from a low-income background. According to William Bowen, the former President of the exclusive university Princeton, the lower socio-economic quartile has just a 3% representation at the 28 elite universities.
It is not difficult to see why. Many US universities charge fees for tuition and board in excess of $30,000 (£20,000). Graduate debts of $50,000 (£33,000) are fairly typical.
Even if the government introduce a 'graduate tax' system in which top-up fees or increased tuition fees are paid back when students start work after university, students would still finish their courses with colossal debts. These debts will be a massive deterrent to working-class students, even more so than the current level of tuition fees have been.
With a recession developing in Britain, graduates will not enjoy the same job prospects that they have had over the last few years. In which case, Margaret Hodge's assertion that graduates earn an extra £400,000 over their career as a result of gaining a degree won't wash.
Even during the 'boom' of the nineties, the jobs graduates have gone into have increasingly been insecure and low paid. Even assuming that a graduate finds employment, paying off their debts could take decades, particularly if top-up fees are introduced.
Opposing top-up fees
TOP-UP fees must be stopped. But we also need to go further and force the government to scrap all fees completely and to introduce a decent grant that students can survive on.
Ultimately, only a system of free education can guarantee everybody a chance to go to university regardless of his or her background. However, to force the government to reverse their attacks of the last few years will require a mass movement.
The Socialist Party has been raising the need to build a mass movement based on mass non-payment of the fees and mass action to defeat the government. The strategy of mass non-payment allied with mass action is based on the fact that many thousands of students cannot afford to pay their fees.
Many other students are prepared to take action to defend the right of those students to a free education. Many will refuse to pay their fees in solidarity with those too poor to pay.
Students took up the ideas of building non-payment of the fees in some universities in the three years following their introduction. Demonstrations and occupations were organised to defend non-payers from penalisation, often successfully.
However, if the government introduces top-up fees, a much larger movement could potentially develop in the universities. There is much more anger towards New Labour among students and in society in general in 2002 than 1997.
If a non-payment campaign is built across the country, thousands of organised fees non-payers could make tuition fees (and top-up fees) completely unworkable. Mass action such as demonstrations, walkouts and occupations if necessary could stop universities from taking action against students that can not or will not pay their fees.
We call on the NUS executive to organise such a movement. However, we will not wait for the New Labour-dominated NEC to organise action. If they will not build a serious campaign then students must organise one on the ground alongside those student unions that are prepared to stand up to Tony Blair's government.
Where should the funding come from?
THE GOVERNMENT and vice-chancellors that argue in favour of them claim that top-up fees must be introduced because public funding can not expand or improve the university system. Funding per student has fallen by 37% over the last decade. While the HE system has been expanded, funding has not.
In reality though there is plenty of money to properly fund a well-resourced higher education system that is free for all.
However, New Labour like the Tories and the Lib Dems, is a party of big business. It follows the capitalists' agenda of privatisation, cuts in public spending and tax cuts for big business. Top-up fees are part of this agenda.
But the government can find the cash to pump millions into funding other priorities when it wants to, for instance the millions being set aside for the war on Iraq.
At the same time, big business is making colossal profits. Rather than being invested in jobs or public services they end up in the pockets of the bosses. That's why the Socialist Party fights for a socialist system in which these profits could be channelled into education, health, public services and jobs.
In The Socialist 29 November 2002: