By Sofie Buckland, NUS National Executive Committee and Education Not for Sale
Most academic staff believe that university top-up fees will be £5,000 within three years, according to recent research by the University of Southampton. This is not an unreasonable prediction — unless students fight back.
Many if not most university vice-chancellors are now pushing for the Government to life the current “cap” on top-up fees of £3,000, and the Southampton research reveals widespread “certainty” that ministers will do so after the next general election.
Recent history would tend to support that view. When tuition fees were first introduced in 1998, New Labour claimed that this was a strictly limited step necessary to prevent the more radical marketisation of higher education demanded by the right, and the 2001 Labour manifesto explicitly ruled out top-up fees. The Government’s approach is to deny it wants any further expansion of fees just long enough to neutralise student and public opposition, and then proceed with the next stage once it is sure it safe. The idea of a “natural market ceiling” at which top-up fees will comfortably settle shortly provides the Government with a highly flexible cover for whatever it wants to do next.
It is difficult to overstate the importance and urgency of this fight. According to Barclays Bank, average student debt on graduation, last year at over £20,000, is set to climb to more than £30,000 by 2010. Meanwhile, the proportion of HE students from poor backgrounds is actually decreasing, and students from managerial or professional families are six times more likely to go to university than those from disadvantaged families. The proportion of university places for students from state schools has also fallen for the second year running.
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, one in seven students, 14% are like to drop out of their courses this year. Predictably, there are wide variations according to what university you go to, or in other words what social background you come from. Only 2.5% of students at Nottingham, 2.3% at Durham, 2.1% at Oxford and 1% at Cambridge will drop out, compared to 28.1% at London Met, 35.8% at Bolton Institute and 37% at Napier University in Edinburgh.
Those who remain at university face the prospect of high living costs and a huge debt and are increasingly likely to work in a low-paid, ununionised job which gives them less and less time and energy to study.
The student movement narrowly failed to defeat the introduction of top-up fees through the supine inaction of NUS, who moved their national demonstration to Cardiff in 2004-5 and then cancelled it for 2005-6! The introduction of top-up fees should be a wake-up call for activists to organise the kind of mass action necessary to defeat fees, but we cannot rely on NUS to make it happen. There is every sign that, beyond a token national demonstration on 29 October, NUS has once again giving up on fighting the Government.
That’s why Education Not for Sale will be seeking to organise the kind of direct action that can put our opposition to put top-up fees back in the news and galvanise the mass support for free education that exists in the labour movement and the wider public. In the week running up to the NUS demonstration (23-27 October), we will be coordinating direct action on a number of campuses, including occupations, to demand that university administrations lower fees to the minimum and join students in demanding that the Government funds higher education properly. And unlike NUS we will have clear political demands: scrap all fees, a living, non-means-tested grant for every student, education not profit — tax the rich to fund education! We will be taking these slogans on the demo, where we plan to have a “Tax the rich” contingent.
Why not come on that contingent? Organise a protest, direct action or, if you can do it, occupation at your university or college? Get an ENS speaker to come to your activist group and talk about the kind of demands and action necessary to defeat top-up fees and start to shape the kind of university system students need.
As well as building anti-fees action, ENS will continue to promote the formation of a politically principled, campaigning and to the maximum possible united left in NUS and the broader student movement, one that relates to workers’ in struggle and takes the politics of liberation seriously, through university living wage campaigns, our Feminist Fightback event and so on. If you want to be part of that, get in touch.