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NUS week of action 26 February - 1 March
Step up the fight to save free education
EDUCATION IS in crisis. The elitist Blair government is attacking education 'from the cradle to the grave', spitefully snatching away the gains of a century. A chronic lack of funding condemns schools, colleges and universities to cut courses and raise charges.
New Labour has - so far - hit out most at higher education. But even here, drop-out rates are soaring fastest at working-class institutions.
At Cambridge, with an 8% intake of working-class students, only 1% drop out. By comparison, students at University of East London, of which 40% are working-class, have a drop-out rate of 36%. The class divide could scarcely be clearer.
The blame lies fair and square at Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street. The pro-capitalist fanatics - Blair, Brown etc. - bent on appeasing capitalism at any cost are driving higher education still further out of reach for working-class people.
Blair's pre-May 1997 mantra of "education, education, education" proved to be merely a swan-song for the hopes of millions who voted out the Tories. Already inadequate maintenance grants, slashed to the bone by Thatcher and Major, were abolished altogether.
Tuition fees and loans have sent student debts spiralling up to an average of £15,000 plus, while every year applications fall - especially among working-class, black and mature students. Tuition fees are unaffordable.
In 1999-2000, £1.1 million went unpaid at Manchester Metropolitan University. Coventry students, unable to pay, were threatened with sanctions and exclusion. Middlesex University hired bailiffs to intimidate poverty-stricken non-payers. Meanwhile, University of Manchester vice-chancellor Harris got a knighthood from Blair and a hefty pay rise.
Extortionate rents cripple students still further. According to the NUS, students spend nearly 84% of their loans on rent, which in 1999-2000 increased at twice the rate of inflation.
Fees and debts
EDUCATION MINISTER Blunkett claimed recently, in best pre-election mode, that "in the next parliament there will be no levying of top-up fees if we win the next election," but the university bosses have different ideas.
The elite Russell Group - including Oxbridge, LSE, Durham and Manchester - want to "opt-out of the state education system" and charge up to £60,000 fees for a three-year degree course.
Claims that scholarships will mean poorer students can still study are a scanty fig-leaf indeed. In the American system, on which this idea is based, even students awarded maximum scholarships graduated with debts of about $54,000 (£33,750).
Former NUS President Andrew Pakes said: "You cannot live on the state maintenance of £3,500 a year on its own. Students from privileged backgrounds are helped by their parents, while students from poorer backgrounds work long hours for low pay in unsafe jobs. No wonder so many drop out."
This won't be news to thousands of struggling students. But the question is: what will Pakes' successor, Owain James, do about it? Unfortunately the answer is: as little as possible. James was fielded as a willing stooge by the Labour Student (NOLS) faction at the NUS Conference in 2000, as a so-called "independent".
This was the first time in 18 years that NOLS did not openly (James is a NOLS supporter) run for President. Why?
Ex-President Pakes admits: "Labour students still have a vision for modernisation and reform [read cuts and bureaucracy - HC] but none can be achieved while there is distrust over the president's motives."
Guardian journalist John Carvel put it more bluntly: "They know they would lose the vote and do not want to embarrass Tony Blair by demonstrating student dissatisfaction with New Labour ... a Labour student candidate would probably be trounced by the hard left. Far better then to swing the dwindling vote on campus behind an alternative anti-Trot [i.e., an alternative bureaucrat - HC] candidate."
A combination of bureaucratic fixes, demagoguery and lies got James elected. Since then - what's happened? The power is there. 25,000 turned out to march in London last November. NUS-sponsored actions are repeatedly well-supported by students. Yet at the national demonstration in November, James boasted that "we have only just begun our campaign".
Two and a half years after fees come in, the bureaucrats have "only just begun"! Ironically, James dubs his strategy "Winning for Students". In reality, the careerists who infest NUS at all levels are winning for themselves - winning safe Labour seats and well-paid positions in the City.
Despite this, Blair, Blunkett and Brown are feeling the heat. Fees were abolished in Scotland and replaced with the graduate tax - totally inadequate but nonetheless causing a surge of new students. In both Wales and Northern Ireland, a big question-mark hangs over the future of fees.
AT THE same time, lecturers and staff are up in arms over pay and conditions. As Paul Mackney, the general secretary of lecturers' union NATFHE, pointed out in January: "... five months after the pay award was agreed, over 30% of lecturers still haven't had their cost-of-living increase for 2000/01... some colleges have financial difficulties and are awaiting the outcome of student enrolments.
"But what other service tells its employees they must wait for their increase until their fortunes improve?"
One month earlier, cooks, cleaners, technicians and lecturers began a programme of industrial action which, though short of strikes, will continue through February. As the Manchester Evening News reports: "the government has ensured cash is available and they are protesting at the universities' refusal to pass it on."
Under-funding, cuts and privatisation affect workers and students alike. A graphic example is selling student halls of residence in Manchester, Sheffield, and Leeds. Profit-driven private companies will inevitably push rents up and wages down.
As UNISON point out: "Although our members' jobs will be protected for a year under EU legislation, there is no saying what will happen when that year is up."
Ageing, decrepit halls badly need investment and renovation. But whatever comes from the private sector will have a hefty price tag attached. Students and workers must join forces in an active campaign to defend pay and conditions, oppose cuts and sell-offs, and fight for free fully-funded education.
A survey in last March's Student Direct suggests that 64% of lecturers opposed tuition fees; 56% said students are "now less well-prepared to do a degree than they were five years ago"; 54% said "their job quality has declined over the past two years... A massive 95% complained that bureaucracy had grown. ...43% described [David Blunkett] as either fairly poor or very poor."
We must build a fighting opposition among students and staff against neo-liberal assaults. The crisis in education will not get better.
Labour, Tories, Liberals and NOLS are all wedded to capitalism, which is the root of the problem. While James has "only just begun" his campaign, activists of Save Free Education, Socialist Students, and the Socialist Party have fought against all fees and cuts since they were introduced.
THE MASSIVE non-payment levels even now don't fully reflect all those who have taken bank loans to cover fees, or who have dropped out because of poverty. The government and management couldn't care less.
Scandals will continue. At the University of Manchester, for example, students have been forced to wait three months for "emergency" hardship loans, grants are arbitrarily refused, and money the management refuses to give to students is handed back to the government!
As one student commented: "It seems like a stupid set-up that people in hardship cannot get help when they need it. Instead, it seems that they are expected to plan two months ahead when they are going to be in hardship!"
Fees and cuts can be beaten. Grants can be won back, and top-up fees stopped dead in the water. For this we need a mass campaign armed with a worked-out strategy. Mass organised non-payment backed by mass action can sink these attacks and win decent funding.
Mass non-payment will clog up the system with refusals and bureaucracy; the government-provided "safety-net" to cushion University management against non-payment will be overstretched and snap. This will hit Blair and the bureaucrats where it hurts - in the pocket.
Not least, a mass movement will terrify the government into offering concessions, including potentially the abolition of fees and restoration of the grant. We must force them into this position through organised mass non-payment, backed by mass action.
However, to secure free education for good we need to replace the greed-driven capitalist system with democratic socialism, under which the world's resources and human potential can be fully realised in education. We must fight off New Labour and the neo-liberals.
The NUS "week of action" (26 February - 2 March), and above all the shut-down on 1 March, is a good opportunity to build the free education and socialism movement on campus.
In The Socialist 23 February 2001: