A statement from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts
1. We oppose the Lib Dem-Tory coalition government’s plans for a graduate tax. At the same time, this “exercise in rebranding” fees (as lecturers’ union UCU put it) is not the only or even the worst problem with Vince Cable’s plans, which amount to a massive extension of marketisation in our university system.
We demand an end to all fees, free education and living grants for all students; we want higher education to be run as a public service, funded by taxing the rich and business.
2. The graduate tax is rebranding because the existing system is already, as Cable has admitted, a form of graduate tax. Under his plans, students will still pay for university, and in fact pay more, with all the inevitable consequences in terms of access to higher education. A graduate tax is the Lib Dems’ way of squaring their promise to abolish fees with their enthusiastic participation in a right-wing Tory government committed to further marketising higher education.
The leaderships of the National Union of Students and the Labour Party are, unfortunately, in agreement with the government that students should pay for university. NUS in particular has been utterly pathetic, falling over itself to welcome Cable’s proposals. The real question is why students should have to pay at all. We do not expect those who use the NHS to pay any kind of charge or tax, nor those who have children and use schools. The same goes for all kinds of other public services funded out of general taxation. The Tories and Lib Dems might like a world where people are charged for using hospitals or schools, but they don’t dare admit it. So why should university or college be any different?
Education is a good in itself, a public service which benefits individuals and society. It should not be seen as a ticket to a higher paid job, particularly since the great majority of those who graduate from university will not be high paid, if they are lucky enough to get a job at all. "User pays" is an extremely dangerous principle, a wedge pushed into the heart of the welfare state.
3. Of course, we will be told that the money for free education isn’t there. Yet this year, just the individuals on the Sunday Times “rich list” — that’s the 1,000 wealthiest people in the country — increased their wealth by £77 billion. So much for “all in it together”! Compare that to the £7 billion the scrapped Building Schools for the Future scheme costs, or the £8 billion it would cost to abolish all fees, not only for British students but international ones as well (the figure for home students only is £2.7 billion).
The idea that cuts and higher fees are necessary or unavoidable is simply nonsense. The reality is that this government of millionaires is seeking to make the vast majority of people — workers, the unemployed, pensioners, students — pay for the crisis the bankers created while the rich, after a little wobble, continue to rake it in.
We shouldn’t let them pull the wool over our eyes. We should demand that instead of making cuts the government scraps Trident, taxes the rich, takes over the wealth of the banks which we are subsidising as taxpayers anyway. The public is a majority shareholder in RBS. Why not use its profits rather than the scraped-together savings of working-class graduates to pay for education?
The choice is not universities vs schools or universities vs hospitals. It’s between the jobs and services we all need and the greed of big business and the super-rich.
4. At the same time, Vince Cable says he wants to see some two-year degrees, more students living at home, university closures/mergers — according to the Guardian, at least twenty universities will close in the next few years under his plans — and a big expansion of private universities. He wants to expand the marketised system which New Labour put in place, meaning a liberal education for an elite and low-quality, underfunded training to turn the rest of us into pliant workers for exploitation. Though NUS has failed to recognise it, this is the central thrust of his plans, and must be vigorously opposed.
5. Just as there will be strikes by public sector and other workers against the government’s plans for cuts, there will be mass student resistance continuing the surge in occupations and direct action against cuts which began last year. NUS’s welcoming of a graduate tax suggests that it will be at best an unreliable leader for that resistance. The National Campaign Againt Fees and Cuts exists to coordinate the fight back, strengthen it and help it win.