Over the past few years, a quiet but substantial change in attitudes towards tuition fees has taken place. In 2013, the then National Union of Students president Liam Burns warned against the Union campaigning on radical demands, claiming that “if you stand on this stage and claim that we should demand free education and living grants for all, we will win nothing”. Fast forward to today and we have both the NUS and the Labour party advocating for free education. Even some Tory ministers are toying with the idea of substantially lowering, if not abolishing tuition fees. There are two main reasons for this shift.
1) Tuition fees are shit
The introduction and subsequent increase of tuition fees in England and Wales has spelt disaster for students. Instead of adhering to the principle that education is a right to be enjoyed by all, the fees regime installed by successive New Labour and Tory governments has transformed education into a commodity to be bought and sold, making students pay for their time at university with decades of debt. Compounding this attack on students is the scrapping of living grants, meaning student pile on even more debt during their studies. It is working class students who suffer the most, as they are the ones who have to borrow the most from student finance, meaning they get left with the largest share of debt. While Scotland has retained free education for Scottish students, students from England and Wales (as well as international students) still have to pay a high amount to study.
On top of this, services to support student during their studies have been slashed. £30 million has been slashed from support for disabled students, pouring petrol on the flames of the growing mental health crisis in British universities. With all of this, it is no wonder over half of 18-24 year olds support the scrapping of tuition fees.
2) Grassroots Activism
The general discontent felt by many students around tuition fees has been coupled with agitation and organising from militant activists on the student left. Since to upsurge in student militancy in 2010, where tens of thousands protested against the Tory’s tripling of tuition fees, activists have been organising on the ground to demand for free education. A particularly important role has been played by the National Campaign Against fees and Cuts (NCAFC), a democratic grassroots organisation of students and staff that was founded after the student upsurge in 2010. For the past 7 years, NCAFC has participated in organising demonstrations and occupations for free education, as well as doing solidarity work around education worker’s struggles. Without the patient work done by NCAFC and other education activists popularising the idea of free education, it is unlikely that the demand would have found its way into the 2017 Labour Manifesto.
Now is the time
With a Tory government in crisis, and a Labour party embracing the demands of grassroots activists, we have never been so close to achieving the abolition of tuition fees. Join the NCAFC and organise on your campus to make our vision a reality!