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Force New Labour to Scrap the Fees
SINCE NEW Labour came to power the position of students has continued to deteriorate. Fees and the abolition of the grant mean that debts have spiralled, applications have fallen and student poverty has worsened.
Many thousands of students face returning to courses that they know they won't be able to afford. Now, there is the prospect of even greater fees in the next couple of years.
However, with the strategy of organised mass non-payment of tuition fees, students can force the government to scrap the fees and restore the grant.
Two years after tuition fees came in and the grant went out, the media have finally realised that New Labour's policies are deterring people from going to university. This is what the Socialist Party predicted would happen in 1997.
Over the last two years, total applications have fallen by 2%. However, it is the poorest sections of society who have been most affected by the tuition fees and the abolition of the grant - working-class students, black students, disabled students etc.
Mature students have been particularly hard hit too. Applications from men over 25 have fallen by 6.5% on last year and 1.1% amongst women of that age. This follows falls over the last two years.
The figures provide indisputable proof that tuition fees and the abolition of the grant are responsible for preventing thousands of young people from entering higher education because of their background.
They make a mockery of the assertions three years ago by David Blunkett, New Labour's Secretary of State for Education, that tuition fees would increase access to higher education (HE).
New Labour was forced to recognise this fact in Scotland, where the anger over tuition fees forced them and the Liberal Democrats to scrap up-front fees. The result of their U-turn in Scotland has been an increase in applications by 2.1% to Scottish universities over the last year.
While the Scottish concessions don't go far enough, replacing up-front fees with a graduation tax, it nevertheless shows that paying fees is a deterrent to students.
HOWEVER FEES are not just an obstacle for those who want to start university. They are forcing thousands of students off courses that they have already started.
Over the last two years many thousands of students have been unable to afford the fees. Many have been faced with threats from their universities to exclude them, and have faced various other sanctions while on their courses. Non-payers are often denied library facilities, computer facilities and other services.
Some universities like Middlesex have employed firms of bailiffs to intimidate and threaten students into paying.
These tactics are an outrageous attack on the right to a free education, which the Socialist Party is committed to defending. It is always the poorest students who suffer most from sanctions, because they are the ones who cannot afford to pay the fees.
The fact that universities resort to such underhand measures shows how worried they are about non-payment of the fees.
Over the last two years the numbers not paying, predominantly because they cannot afford to, have escalated. In the first year of fees, 1998-99, £15 million went unpaid in fees nationally, 10% of the total. Preliminary figures indicate that the numbers of non-payers almost certainly increased nationally last year.
They show the numbers of non-payers at many universities spiralling. For instance at Manchester Metropolitan University more than £1.1 million is outstanding from last year. Students at the University of Hertfordshire owe £1.6 million, an increase of £400,000 on last year's figures. At Staffordshire University non-payment has increased by 50%.
The levels of students unable to afford their fees will certainly rise this year. While all three years of students are asked to pay, second and third years will already be struggling with debts they have already incurred.
Strategy to beat fees
NON-PAYMENT can bring down tuition fees. So far, universities have coped with a certain amount of students not paying. However they will be less able to withstand organised mass non-payment.
The higher non-payment, the less universities will be able to cope as the fees become more difficult to implement. In order to defeat the fees as many students as possible must refuse to pay them, both those who cannot afford them and those who support the right of all students to a free education on principle.
But what will be decisive will be building organised mass non-payment. If students take organised action, they can force universities to let students stay on their courses. Universities will not be able to enforce sanctions against those that can't pay, or won't pay, if hundreds of non-payers are making a collective stand at universities across Britain.
Mass action such as occupations, demonstrations and walkouts would help non-payment make the fees unworkable. The government would be forced to acknowledge that tuition fees do not work and must be abolished. It could also be forced to restore the grant.
Students at many universities have already taken action to defend non-payers from expulsion. In 1998-99 a student occupation at Goldsmiths College succeeded in forcing university management to allow students threatened with expulsion to remain on their courses. There have also been occupations at UCL, SOAS, Guildhall and Sussex amongst others.
The task this term is to spread this action and make sure it is linked to the strategy of mass non-payment.
UNLESS THE government is forced into retreat over fees and the grant, students will bear the cost in the form of an increasingly expensive and elitist higher education system.
When tuition fees were introduced, the Socialist Party warned that this would open the door to further increases in fees. This warning has been borne out. It is becoming clear that New Labour plan to allow universities to charge their own top-up fees, on top of the current tuition fees.
The Russell Group, the vice-chancellors of the 19 most 'prestigious' universities, are campaigning to be allowed to charge their own fees. They argue that the top British universities need to charge top-up fees in order to acquire the funding they need to become internationally competitive.
It is true that money is not coming from government. In fact Treasury officials are considering new cuts of 3% in HE funding. This means that none of the revenue raised by tuition fees will be used to improve university facilities. It proves that fees have always been about cutting government spending.
However, rather than demand the abolition of fees and a massive injection of funding from the government, the Russell Group universities want students to make up the shortfall by paying fees.
Why are the universities so eager to charge fees? It's all to do with making more money. Universities like Oxford and Cambridge look eagerly towards the creation of a US-style HE system. They too would like to charge as much as £16,000 a year as their US equivalents Harvard and Yale do.
Of course the majority of US students cannot afford to pay the high fees charged by the elite universities. They are relegated to universities in the lower divisions of the HE system. These are less well-funded, with poorer amenities and facilities. And of course for millions of young Americans, university is out of their reach full stop.
WHILE THE Tores' new draft manifesto talks of "freeing" universities from state control, New Labour's policies represent moves towards further privatisation of the higher education system.
More and more universities are being run as businesses, where the financial interests of universities are put before the education or needs of students. Top-up fees are a first step in the direction of completely private universities.
However, putting the profit of business before the interests of society in general is having and will have terrible consequences in HE. Already applications have fallen with the introduction of fees. Also, many courses and departments have been axed as business dictates what should and should not be taught in universities.
Even the very survival of some less well-off universities is under threat. The leader of the lecturers' trade union, NATFHE, has warned that as many as a fifth of universities could close if top-up fees are introduced.
He is quoted as saying: "There is not the kind of demand to sustain the size of the current system. People would not pay. Even if it was the poorest 20% of students who decided not to go to university, some would close".
This graphically illustrates the insanity of an education system run in the interests of big business. The Socialist Party campaigns for a free and fully funded education system, run in the interests of society as a whole, not just big business. Only then could everyone in society be assured of a decent education. Ultimately though, only a socialist society can guarantee this.
In The Socialist 15 September 2000: