The Gown, November 1995

The Gown student newspaper, November 1995. NUS call for a bank boycott over student loan privatisation plans.

 

Not content with attacking current and future students, the Coalition government now seek to privatise the student loans book, and thus extend their attack to graduates.

This would allow the rates of interest at which graduates repay their loans to be altered from the current 1.5%. For example, the interest rate could more than double to 3.5%, the Retail Price Index in March 2012. The Guardian have calculated that based on that increase, a graduate who earns £25,000 a year – with a £25,000 student debt – could work until retirement without paying off their loan completely.

As well as not making sense fiscally,  it’s a breach of the trust and the terms that those people, from 1998-2013, entered into those student loans under. The injustice of this is well understood, and oft-discussed. As the New Statesman put it, ‘It’s only OK to retroactively change a deal when it affects young people.’

I was Vice President of my students’ union during the 2010 student protests. Thinking of this latest attack on education sends a hundred images of fast-paced, chaotic campaigning rushing through my head. As has been pointed out to me since, the student’s moment in 2010/11 was perhaps the only point where this government genuinely looked fragile, barracked by the anger of a broken promise. They fanned our fury by insisting to us that we simply did not understand their proposals, and that they were ‘progressive.’ It was a bare-faced lie at the time, but it’s hard to see how they can even pretend their latest ploy is ‘progressive’. Although back then I didn’t really have much time to think about it, it was a hugely exciting time.

The government’s proposals to privatise the student loan book could re-awaken that spirit.

For me, tuition fees will forever be something that never fails to get me angry. In 2010 the Tories and the Lib Dems got a bloody noise (albeit they won) fighting students that wouldn’t even be affected by the trebling of tuition fees. We turned out in tens of thousands to kick, scream and fight for the people who would come after us – those students who are only now finishing off their first year of university.

But this is different. This affects almost everyone I know who has ever had a university education – as well as most people who will in the future. In 2010, there were people who didn’t engage with the campaign against £9,000-a-year fees because it didn’t affect them, or because they were ideologically content with the idea of paying for university. But those people of all allegiances and none could turn on the coalition once they realise what’s happening.

When the Tories and Lib Dems take on a fairly substantial proportion of the entire student graduate cohort from 1998 – 2013, what will happen? Do they realise how big a fight they’re potentially picking? They’re not taking on just students – they could be helping to assemble an impromptu “national union of graduates” to stop this. Scores of graduates who have never cared for politics – let alone activism – could be awakened to the injustice of this. Every month, I am essentially taxed for my education – something which I believe is a human right, free to all. I hope to one day pay off my loan. Imagine all those graduates out there suddenly finding out due to this government that they may never pay it off.

So, to the point: How do we stop it? How do we harness the power of all those graduates, many of whom are unemployed or underemployed and simply can’t afford to pay off an even bigger debt?

Obviously, working together can stop this from happening. In fact, something similar has happened before. In 1995, then-NUS President (now former Blairite cabinet minister) Jim Murphy responded to plans to privatise the Student Loans Company by urging students to boycott any banks that provided money for the process. The proposal was eventually defeated. It’s unclear to what extent this course of action halted the sell-off, but for those of us looking for tactics to fight this latest attempt, it’s a start.

Murphy was not a radical. His term also saw NUS drop its opposition to the abolition of student grants. But despite that, it’s probably fair to say we can’t expect such a call for action from the NUS this time – maybe some press releases, and some ticked-off words on the radio, but that’s about it. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, the student organisation responsible for most of the activism the NUS should be taking on, are calling for direct action against the proposal.

It’s great that people are starting to mobilise, but Bright Green readers are a thoughtful bunch – what I’d like to hear is – how do you think we can stop it?

Adam McGibbon

About Adam McGibbon

Adam managed Caroline Lucas' successful campaign for Westminster in 2015. He writes on green politics in Northern Ireland, England and Wales.