By Alan Clarke, NUS National Executive, personal capacity
One thousand students demonstrated at Bournemouth International Centre on 1 October, during Labour Party Conference. Organised by South West Area of the National Union of Students, the theme was "Death of Free Education" and students dressed in black and processed silently through the town as if in a funeral march.
Cindy Burton, President of Bournemouth and Poole Further Education College, was a keynote speaker at the demo. Currently studying Environmental Science and Biology she hopes to go to Bath or Plymouth University, but the massive debt burden most students now accrue puts her off:
"I find the prospect of trying to meet all that expense quite daunting. I want to get into Marine Biology, so I need a degree. I have lived away from my parents' home for a year, and have always been encouraged to be financially independent since I started doing jobs when I was thirteen. If I wanted to get some new clothes, CDs or whatever, I worked so that I could pay for them.
"My parents are not going to pay for me to go through University, but under the governments' funding policies any financial help I would get would be calculated on my parents' income. Legally, I'm an adult, but as far as University is concerned, the government treats me like a child and just expects my parents to pay up.
"I don't understand the attitude of politicians. It's not going to make any difference to their children because they can afford to pay for them to get through college, so it doesn't matter to them.
"Lots of people in Bournemouth don't have the money. People should be able to choose what career they want, but at the moment lots of people get put off applying to University because they don't know how they will pay for it, or how they are going to cope with the massive amount of debt when they leave.
"I took time out to go to local workplaces, cafes and bars to tell people about the demo. At first many of those who worked there said that students should pay for their own education. They had a very stereotypical view of students, going out getting drunk every night of the week and just lazing about. They changed their mind when I told them how many students have to work long hours all through their course just to get by."
NUS now has a policy of campaigning against fees and for a universal, non-means-tested grant paid for by progressive taxation. This policy change was a victory for the left, particularly the Campaign for Free Education at NUS Conference this year. However, all NUS publicity for the national demo on 26 October has focussed on the threat of top-up fees only. On Question Time last week, Mandy Telford, NUS National President, failed to mention our funding policy, even when the question of how to fund education was raised specifically.
For Cindy, though, the choice is clear:
"We need a grant-that's crucial. It's always been accepted in my family that if you wanted to go to University you would pay for it yourself. It's my choice to go."
Will Page, Vice-President Representation and Campaigns helped to organise the demo. "It is vital that Labour MPs act to prevent the accident of tuition fees becoming a disaster through top up fees. It is vital that they vote against the government proposals. If they do not they will risk losing their seats at the next general election. The next year will be a hard battle but if we fight we will win and we will make history."
The student action in Bournemouth was the largest regional action against the government's education funding agenda for some time. Politicised by the anti-war movement, a newly roused student movement willing to stand up to 'New Labour' could be taking shape, just as the beginning of an organised resistance to the Blairite agenda is being formed through the Labour left and the unions.
As Will said, "We need to bring the free education message to the top of the agenda. Let's get radical again!"
NUS leader: socialist or Blairite hack?
Anyone who tuned in to the 1 October edition of the BBC's Question Time programme was treated to a feast of fake radicalism, with speakers including the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Dholakia, Labour minister Peter Hain-and NUS President Mandy Telford. Student funding and the war in Iraq were two of the major topics of debate. A perfect opportunity, you might think, for a self-styled socialist student leader to attack the Government.
Even by the roll-over-and-beg standards of Labour Students, however, Telford's performance was astonishing.
Hain, Dholakia and the Tories' Oliver Letwin spoke at length on education funding; Telford, by contrast, spent most of the debate looking constipated and wriggling around in her seat. When she did finally speak, her contribution was heavily weighted towards defending the Government's "widening participation agenda", with its plans for top-up fees mentioned almost as an afterthought.
Towards the end of the debate, when Letwin claimed that the choice was between tuition fees and fewer places at university, Telford-despite NUS policy that the Government should expand higher education by taxing the rich-stayed silent, allowing the Liberal Democrat to appear the most left-wing person on the platform.
For those still conscious, however, there was better yet to come. At some point during the Iraq debate, Telford perked up, rambling incoherently at some length about her opposition to the war.
But when challenged about how else to remove Saddam Hussein's regime, she looked puzzled and eventually said she didn't know. It was difficult to imagine what even a Government plant could do to discredit the anti-war movement more effectively.
Which is the point. Telford represents a student population enormously hostile to top-up fees and the war on terror, and claims to be a socialist. What she actually is, is another Blairite hack doing the Government's bidding on her way to Parliament.