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From The Socialist newspaper, 13 February 2008

The great university swindle

Introducing university tuition fees was one of New Labour's first acts in government. Proving their pro-big business and pro-market agenda, they followed up by introducing top-up fees of up to 3,000 a year. But students who are struggling and facing a lifetime of debt must not accept this.

Socialist Students national organiser MATT DOBSON looks at the situation and outlines a programme for fighting for free education.

How should education be funded?

Bursaries are enabling poorer students to access higher education and negating the impact of fees and debt, according to New Labour ministers. Despite the rhetoric, the facts and statistics show that bursaries are hugely inadequate. With or without bursaries, New Labour is failing young people from working-class backgrounds.

On average bursaries are about 1,000 a year depending on the university and a student's family income, which is means tested. This is a pitiful amount when compared with the actual costs of university education. Investment advisors F&C warn families to start saving immediately because the average cost of a three year degree is now over 34,000.

Bursaries are set and funded by universities individually. This makes the process unclear and unaccountable. The government is encouraging universities to go cap in hand to philanthropists in the private sector who can then dictate what the money is spent on. This will add to the inequality as companies seek to link themselves to the most 'prestigious' institutions.

The poorer universities (mostly ex-polytechnics) tend to have the poorest students and therefore have to spend the most on bursaries meaning the money available is squeezed. Richer elite universities such as Cambridge have been criticised for their lack of funding and take-up of their bursaries. There is no accountability about how much universities should spend on bursaries; some are spending millions others hardly a penny!

A recent Office for Fair Access report showed that 12,000 eligible students on full state support did not receive a bursary because of problems with the complicated application procedure, and there was a 12 million shortfall in the money that should have been given out. This should come as no surprise.

Bursaries are means tested, mainly by local education authorities, so families have to disclose sensitive information about their financial circumstances and can have to fill out endless forms. The onus is on students and their families to claim bursaries rather than there being an obligation on the university to allocate them.

The NUS leadership call for a National Bursary Scheme with means tested bursaries at a set rate that all universities would have to fund. This is a poor substitute for free education and represents a backing down from fighting for universal living grants.

NUS leaders say they will force the government on this in 2009, but even if the government were to concede this they are also likely to lift the cap on fees up to 10,000 a year.

Bursaries were the sweetener that was used to win support for the bitter pill of top-up fees that almost caused a Labour MPs' rebellion (pushed by the opposition in society) in 2004.

We need mass demonstrations rather than just polite lobbying to have a real chance of defeating fees outright. Socialists support all improvements in funding for students; however bursaries are a poor substitute for our right to free education.

We fight for the scrapping of all fees, for an education system that is publicly owned and fully funded and for a living grant for all students.

Become a fee fighter!

Join the protests!

The Campaign to Defeat Fees (CDF) is organising a national day of action against top-up fees on 21 February. Previous days of action, in February and April last year, involved hundreds of students in over 50 universities, colleges and schools across the country. We want to work alongside all those who oppose fees to build a movement for free education for all.
If you are reading this the next step is to get involved!
We aim to build this campaign through democratic organisation and discussion with wide participation of existing activists on campus, getting more students involved and building the campaign in the local FE colleges and school sixth forms and among education and campus workers.
Contact us for the guide to being a fee fighter! We can send you campaigning materials such as leaflets, petitions, 'stunt' material, posters, letters of support, model motions, a speaker for a meeting or just help or advice. Email us at or call Matt on 020 8558 7974.

"With every aspect of education being stamped with big red signs, the price of learning doesn't come cheap. Our phantom finances haunt us through every day, sometimes to the point of sheer desperation. It is a feeling I know well, struggling to meet rent payments and still afford the mammoth reading list for my course, not to mention the luxuries such as food and travel. It is all too easy to find yourself in trouble economically.

So, I went to the support office and joined the queue, half expecting the office to be shut by the time I got to the front, only to find out I was disqualified from the bursary fund (because of the way my loan application form was filled out -a common problem that didn't seem worth mentioning in the application form!). I have since been embroiled in a Kafkaesque battle with bureaucracy but to no avail. It seems the bursary coffers are closed for the time being. As per usual the only plausible escape is to wander into the debt trap on my knees."

Sebastian Rayner
Goldsmiths Socialist Students

Join Socialist Students

Socialist change is needed

Socialist Students initiated the Campaign to Defeat Fees in November 2006 following the NUS demonstration in London. We called for a broad campaign in response to the enormous attacks on students that the NUS leadership leaves unchallenged. We recognised that students wanted a programme of action for fighting back.

A mass movement of students linking up with workers in action could force the government to get rid of fees. The next step would be guaranteeing free education for future generations.

Gordon Brown's generation had the right to free education, won by mass struggles of workers and youth, but we have seen it taken away. For a permanent change, a socialist transformation of society is needed.

Education in a socialist society would be fully funded and resourced, publicly owned and democratically run, giving the opportunity for people to develop ideas, skills and talents.

Socialist Students also campaign against low pay, racism, sexism, homophobia and environmental destruction. We opposed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan from the start and have been an active part of the anti-war movement.

Under capitalism; starvation, war, poverty and environmental degradation blight the lives of millions the world over.

At the same time the enormous wealth, resources and human talent that exist in the world are squandered. Socialist Students stands for a socialist society where all that wealth is used to meet the needs of humanity. Join us in the struggle for socialism.

"The cost of paper alone is huge, let alone the model making materials, drawing materials (pens that cost 20 each at the least), longer terms, printing costs and extortionate trip prices (350 for one week, travel and accommodation only).

At my university, Brighton, it costs 5 to print one A1 sheet. Put this in the context of a project with at least 30 sheets three times a year, along with other smaller projects, and you are looking at a huge sum of money. You then have to buy a portfolio for 50-100.

We work in studios that are too small and have a workshop that can only fit ten people in at any one time. Getting a job is virtually ruled out because of the levels of work and amount of time in the studio. When talk turns to money the question 'where do our fees go?' is common because little, if none, is reaching us."

Suzanne Beishon
Brighton Socialist Students

"The cost of legal textbooks is prohibitive. Some of my essential books are 40-50, on average I will spend 160 per semester on books, even when I only buy the ones I really need and use the library as much as possible. The library never has adequate copies. As the law is always changing, many of these books become redundant very quickly."

Leah Ganley
Dundee University

Here are some ideas for Gordon, John and Bill on where they could find some more money:

Where the money goes

The news that Martin Amis, who was recently appointed professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester, is being paid 80,000 a year despite only giving 28 hours a year of contact time to students, caused outrage among students paying 3,070 in tuition fees.

Abbey Taylor, Manchester Socialist Students

In my first year I had six contact hours a week, only three of which were with lecturers, the other half were given by postgraduates. Six hours is not enough in a degree programme that necessitates discussion. I know of one person who sits in on other tutorials just so he can feel that he is getting his money's, indeed his education's worth.

The Manchester Evening News reports 750 job cuts at the university and a debt of 30 million. And our university made student paper news for dropping several significant places in a UK university league table. And they wonder why.

Defend students' vital services

Over Christmas, I heard a famous statement of the Thatcher era on the topic of privatisation - 'she sold off the family silver'. I noted some irony in this statement when Exeter University vice chancellor Steven Smith recently decided to sell off the campus family centre, which, judging by its "outstanding" 2006 OFSTED report is worth its weight in silver.

Rob Edwards, Exeter Socialist Students

The proposal made was to outsource Exeter's family centre because the university lacked the funds to extend the current premises, as places for new applicants are limited.

1.8 million was put aside for a redevelopment by the current university centre management, but was reallocated without discussion. The centre is now facing privatisation which is being orchestrated behind locked doors, and with open disenfranchisement of parents and childcare specialists from the future service committee.

This would mean silencing those who value vital early education and highly trained professionalism for both the reputation of the university, and their own children. It is also a process we have seen time and again, of 'their' profits coming before our people.

Of 211 family centres rated 'outstanding' by OFSTED in the South West of England, only one was privately run. Of the top 20 British universities, Cambridge was the only one with a privatised family centre, and also the only one to fail its OFSTED inspection for childcare provision.

Exeter Socialist Students distributed thousands of flyers, organised stalls and petitioned, as well as organising public meetings with parents, staff and campus trade unionists.

With the help of a group of livid parents, anxious staff and cautiously growing support from the students union, a student-led resistance to privatisation seems possible.

Fifty five people attended a protest against the closure of the nursery indicating the anger that exists over this issue.

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In The Socialist 13 February 2008:

Stop NHS privatisation now!

Local Government workers

Birmingham council workers' biggest strike for decades

'Single status' in the West Midlands

Bosses prepare to force through more cuts

Newham workers angry at councillors

Socialist Students

Uni Fees must be fought!

Feature: The great university swindle

War and terrorism

War and occupation in Iraq

Socialist Party news and analysis

Defend abortion rights

Millionaire welcomes economic recession!

Northern Rock

Liverpool's tale of two cities

Cardiff marches to save schools

100 people pack London world economy meeting


Cuts and backlogs cause delays

Tangled web at Metronet

International socialist news and analysis

Polish miners gain strike victory due to iron determination

Chad conflict - part of a wider power struggle


Prison officers: Fighting for trade union rights

Building the Campaign for a New Workers' Party


Comment: Opportunist blunder further splits Church of England

Workplace news and analysis

Land Registry staff vote for action

London Underground: Strike ballot in safety row

Campaign Against Climate Change trade union conference

Organise and fight back!

Shelter staff ballot for action


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