March for Free Education on Nov 15

The Prime Minister recently announced plans to reduce university tuition fees to £7,500 per year, and to raise the repayment threshold on student loans to £25,000.  This compromise follows seven years of pressure from the student movement and a general election in which the young played a leading role.  It’s a compromise which should be rejected, however: nothing short of abolishing tuition fees and implementing universal living grants is acceptable, argues Josh Berlyne.

Over ten thousand students are expected to march through London on 15th November under the banner “Free Education Now – Tax the Rich.”  We have three demands: abolish tuition fees; bring back maintenance grants and extend them to all students, enough to live comfortably on; and end the cuts which are sweeping across university campuses.

Support that students and the young once received from the state has been rolled back by successive government reforms.  2010 was the watershed moment, when the coalition government announced it would triple the cost of a university education, raising fees from £3,000 per year to £9,000.  A second announcement came almost immediately: college students would stop receiving their weekly allowance, EMA, which kept many in education.

We have arrived at a situation where working-class university students will find themselves in the highest level of debt now maintenance grants have been scrapped and replaced with loans.  £50,000 is the price tag for those who take out the full loan.

Yet paying the bills is still a problem: eight out of ten university students–more than ever before–are working  while taking their degree.  Students typically work on precarious contracts, in workplaces without trade unions, and earning a wage much lower than their over-25 colleagues thanks to the National Living Wage, which sets a lower rate for those under that age.

Meanwhile, £30 million has been cut from support for disabled students.  It is no surprise there is a mental health crisis.

Public universities are also under siege.  Recent government reforms and new proposals will bring higher education into the service of business as the Universities minister pursues his vision of a “knowledge economy.”  The most recent announcement is indicative: the Knowledge Exchange Framework, proposed just a few days ago, will rank universities on the basis of their partnerships with business.  And these rankings will determine research funding, in an attempt to generate more spin-off companies and intellectual property income from university research.

The funding system is shot through with contradictions.  The new fee regime radically altered the way universities are financed, with money from students’ higher fees (via the Student Loan Company) replacing much of the money coming directly from the state.

This, and other reforms, have created funding uncertainty and an imperative for universities to massively expand student numbers while cutting costs.  Durham University has applied this logic rigorously: in April, it announced plans to cut £15m from its budget while also trying to attract 4,000 more students.  At least fifteen other universities have also announced cuts, with many hundreds of workers facing redundancy.

The Prime Minister’s recent announcement on tuition fees throws higher education into further jeopardy.  Any reduction in fees–including their abolition–must be introduced alongside an increase in funding from elsewhere.  Otherwise, a funding gap will be created which will lead to redundancies, higher class sizes, less resources for research, overfilled libraries; in other words, it will deepen the crisis in education.

Education can be liberating; it can drive social progress forwards.  Imagine a world without medical research, literature or engineering; a world in which no one was taught to speak other languages or programme computers.  Yet it can also be placed in the service of injustice: designing bombs, training future bosses, justifying exploitation.

Thus education is not inherently a social good: its value depends on who controls it, and for what purpose.  That is why we also demand that the higher education system be brought under the democratic control of workers, students, and communities.  The only way to fund such a project without undermining democratic control is through taxation, and justice demands that it is the very wealthiest who should pay.
2010 saw the coalition government rocked by explosive protests which culminated in Tory party headquarters being ransacked and at least twenty-five universities occupied.  This summer, the young turned to electoral politics.  But 2017’s “youthquake” need not be confined to the ballot box: students and the young can provoke further political crises in the streets, beginning on November 15th.

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1 Comment on March for Free Education on Nov 15

  1. It seems very uncertain where capping of undergraduate tuition fees in England has gone in the last few days. The Tories are in a crisis over this. The announcement at the Tory Party conference in Manchester was that they would be ‘frozen’ at £9,250, rather than reduced. However there are some voices on the right for a reduction to say £7,500 or £5,000. This is today’s proposal from the right wing think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies.

    The Tories had originally intended to raise the fee cap level by ‘inflation’ of currently 3%, but universities would only be allowed to raise their own fees if they got the highest (‘Gold’) level on the marketisation-oriented ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’. This has now fallen by the wayside on the back of the general election campaign failing to win a Tory majority in Parliament and the unexpected (for the Tories) success of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s manifesto pledge to abolish fees entirely.

    Central to the government’s marketisation effort and their policy of putting the burden onto student debt has been not only fees but also the abolition of the maintenance grant – and most recently the elimination of bursaries for new nursing, midwifery and other professional health degree students. This was met by a massive campaign from within the NHS unions and among existing nursing etc students who marched under the slogan ‘Bursaries or Bust’ winning strong support from the Labour party. Unfortunately the National Union of Students failed to mobilise a campaign that could defeat the government and the bursaries have now been abolished on the back of a massive (nearly 25%) drop in applications for the courses affected.

    While the Scottish government has maintained their policy of abolishing tuition fees, they have nonetheless increased the debt burden of students by nearly double by increasing reliance on loans for maintenance. The demand for ‘free education’ for university students is a UK wide one, under the devolved arrangements it does have a different impact and deals with different political situations in each of the other devolved parts of the state.

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