Earlier this year, the Government's White Paper on higher education funding proposed to allow universities to set their own fees, with the upper limit raised from the current £1,100 to £3,000. What about the Labour Party manifesto commitment against top-up fees? No problem! Simply delay payment until after graduation, rename the proposal an 'individualised graduate tax' and watch opposition melt away. Alan Clarke looks at the prospects for a serious student and labour movement campaign against the plans.
It is hard to overstate how disastrous the consequences will be if the White Paper is implemented. According to Barclays, the plans will see average student debt rise from just under £18,000 for students graduating in 2006 to £34,000 by 2010. The reintroduction of a £1,000 maintenance grant - available in full only to students whose family income is less than the princely sum of £15,200, with those from families on more than £21,185 getting nothing - will do almost nothing to offset the disastrous consequences for student poverty, drop-out rates and access to university.
According to a survey commissioned by the Liberal Democrats, more than two thirds of sixth formers (including 69% from a 'poorer' background) feel that their decision whether to go to university will be influenced by the introduction of top-up fees.
In New Zealand and Australia, where fees were deregulated during the 1990s, there has been a severely negative impact on access.
At the same time, Blairite ideologues and higher education bureaucrats will have succeeded in their long-held ambition of introducing the beginnings of a free market into higher education, as elite universities revel in their new freedom by pushing the Government for higher and higher fees.
There is little doubt that one of the student movement's greatest enemies in the battle to stop top-up fees will be the universities themselves. At July's NUS Convention, the incoming president of Universities UK (the 'representative' body of UK vice-chancellors and principals) made it clear to student union officers which side he was on: "We think they [top-up fees] are the best compromise proposals from a whole set of difficult alternatives. Universities really do need more money if the sector is to expand as the Government and most people want. And shouldn't those who have most to gain from getting a degree make a contribution?" When universities are run as businesses, it comes as little surprise that those who run them have a capitalist's enthusiasm for the market and privatisation.
Labour MPs aren't providing many surprises either. Although 174 (twice the number needed to destroy the Government's majority) have signed a variety of Commons motions against top-up fees, not many of them are willing to stand up to Blair and Clarke in a vote on the issue. (When you've voted to cut single parent benefits, lock up asylum-seekers, invade Iraq, higher tuition fees are such a small thing!) In June, a motion to stop top-up fees was defeated by 267 to 193, with most Labour MPs including four ex-NUS Presidents voting against. The Blairites are able to get away with this because, although most Labour Party members and trade unions oppose top-up fees, there has so far been little labour movement action on the issue.
Who pays for education?
The attempt to introduce top-up fees comes at a turning point for the student movement. Since 1996, when the Labour Students leadership of NUS finally succeeded in ditching the national union's support for free education, the dominant ideological tone of the student movement has been one of capitulation - accepting, however critically, the Blairite argument that the money to pay for free education does not exist. After six years of pressure by the Campaign for Free Education, this year's NUS Conference voted to overturn the platform and restore free education policy - but there is no indication that the leadership has any intention of fighting for it. Already, the National Secretary of NUS has labelled the White Paper as a "welcome step forward" (towards what? the compete privatisation of higher education?), while others have privately described the Government's use of the term graduate tax as a great victory!
Some in the student movement argue that these distinctions do not matter; that the demand for free education is divisive; and that everyone should unite to fight top-up fees regardless of wider funding policy. But the whole point is that top-up fees and spiralling levels of debt are the logical continuation of the Government's decision to introduce tuition fees and abolish grants in 1998-which in turn was a continuation of the Tories' grant cuts and steady reduction of funding per student after 1979. 'Free education' only makes sense if it means a radically different policy counterposed to the Government's, a policy which makes student choice and access to education its central priorities and demands the measures necessary to realise them. Instead of simply opposing the latest Government attack, the student movement needs to be absolutely clear on what its demands are and how to win them.
To fund genuinely free education - no fees, no graduate tax and a living grant for every student, plus a steady expansion of the post-16 education system as a whole - would certainly cost in excess of £20 billion. There is no way of justifying this policy except by demanding that the Government undertake a major reallocation of resources by taxing business and the rich, and cutting socially useless or harmful spending such as Britain 'nuclear deterrent', to find the money necessary for public services like education. Twenty billion pounds is a lot of money, but not when set against the enormous profits and waste of British capitalism. Rather than pretending that free education is not really a very big demand, we need to expose the priorities of a government that refuses to fund it. Such political clarity is particularly important since the student movement has so many false friends - eg the Tories, who want to abolish fees but limit access to university, or the Liberal Democrats, who attack the Government's record but support means-tested grants and a graduate tax.
The student movement must fight
The NUS national demonstration on 26 October should be acting as a focus point for a concerted student fight back against the White Paper and for free education. Predictably, however, the Labour Students and right-wing independent officers who still dominate NUS are doing everything they can to blunt the impact of the event. Not only has the demonstration been set for a Sunday, but the official publicity concentrates solely on top-up fees, completely failing to mention universal grants, taxing the rich or anything agreed at NUS Conference. That's why the CFE will be organising a free education contingent on the demonstration, and asking unions to join it, make free education banners and distribute CFE placards to their members. Against NUS's strategy of cosy tea-time chats with ministers, we will be advocating a campaign of direct action to force the Government to back down.
- or more information, including CFE materials for the national demo, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
- To join the Campaign for Free Education's e-mail list, e-mail email@example.com
- The CFE is calling on all student and labour movement bodies to sign its call for free education (see below). To sign the statement, email firstname.lastname@example.org or ring 07811 370627.
Come to the European Education Forum!
From 18 to 20 September, school students, students and education workers from across Europe will meet in Berlin for the first European Education Forum, to discuss European education policy and develop alternatives. There will be a CFE speaker at the opening plenary and a CFE contingent going to the event.
For more information, contact Alan Clarke at email@example.com
End student debt: tax wealth, not education!
Sign this statement. Get your student union/trade union to sign this statement!
We the undersigned note that average student debt is set to double, rising to £34,000 by 2010. This rise, which will have disastrous consequences for student poverty, drop-out rates and access to higher education, is a direct result of the Government's drive to 'reform' student funding: tuition fees, the abolition of maintenance grants and now the proposal for top-up fees, probably in the form of an 'individualised graduate tax'.
We believe that education should be organised as a public service, to promote the individual development of all - not just the rich - and fulfil social needs - not the demands of business. The only funding system which can end student debt, expand choice and guarantee access for all is free education: no fees, no graduate tax and a living grant for every student, funded through increased taxation of big business and high incomes. In short, the Government should tax wealth to fund free education. The alternative we face is a continuing spiral of debt, course and department closures and commercialisation in both FE and HE, with high quality education increasingly the preserve of elite universities and the rich.
The new Labour leaders cannot be allowed to pretend that their proposal represents anything other than a fresh attack on students and education. At the same time, we reject the idea that the Conservatives' opportunistic plan for the abolition of fees has anything in common with our ideal of free access for all. The Conservatives were responsible for the introduction of student loans, the first cuts in grants, the removalof benefit rights during the holidays and the review which resulted in the introduction of fees. Their proposal to fund 'free' higher education by limiting student numbers is both cynical and utterly elitist.
We call on all student unions, public sector campaigning groups, trade unions, labour movement representatives and Labour MPs to oppose the Government's proposals in the name of free education for all, support the demands of the Campaign for Free Education and add their names to this statement.