Time to Take a Stand: Oppose Uncapped Student Fees
How many Liberal Democrats does it take to screw in a light-bulb? They don’t – they’re too busy screwing their voters. In universities across the country, the Liberal Democrat’s opposition to fees was symbolic of their claim to stand up for younger voters.
And now, after a painfully predictable U-turn, Vince Cable looks like he’s about to be the minister who pushes through hikes in the fees he so recently promised to oppose.
The Browne review, out today, proposes to get rid of any cap on fees at all, and this appears to be an attempt to soften us up for fees being raised to £7,000 or so.
So, the question is – how to stop these hikes? With a Labour leader committed to graduate tax, we can be pretty sure they will vote against higher fees – as will the SNP, Plaid, and Green MPs. I am told the Parliamentary arithmetic at the moment stacks up at a perfect tie, with a few undecideds. A Liberal Democrat rebellion could, if big enough, tip the balance.
However, such a rebellion – which would likely be the first on this scale in this Parliament – will be hard to deliver. The government have been clever with their sequencing: they have already announced massive cuts to university funding. As a result, many academics are likely to see it as a choice between higher fees for their students, or cuts to jobs. Many Liberal Democrat MPs may think they can get away with the line “we didn’t want to increase fees, but the Tories had cut funding for universities so much that, without fees, we’d have seen universities being shut down”.
And so to defeat this argument, we need to be clear that we do not just oppose higher fees – that we want decent funding for universities. And we need to make the case for this.
The UK currently has a lower portion of it’s national wealth going as state funding for universities than 3/4 of the OECD. We compare, roughly, with Slovakia. Until we win the case that universities aren’t a 3 year holiday for middle class kids, but one of the main drivers of our economy, our culture, and our civilisation, we won’t win the argument against fees. Voting for cuts to HE should be as guaranteed a ticket to the dole queue for every Liberal Democrat representing a university constituency as voting for fee hikes must be.
We also need to look at tactics. I’ve listed a few things below, but obviously this isn’t exhaustive.
We need to make higher education funding so dangerous, that politicians don’t dare go near it. That means, if Willetts and Cable put up fees, we need to make sure they lose their jobs. We need MPs across the country to know that, if they vote for fee hikes, their local student union will make a mission of unseating them – of embarrassing them in the local paper, of leafleting every house telling moving personal stories, calling our MPs liars. For too long the UK’s student movement have thought that you get your way by asking nicely. The truth is that politicians should live in fear of their people. And when it comes to defending the education system on which our civilisation is built, we must be fearsome. You beat an MP the same way they get elected – mass face to face engagement. We need to be willing to do that.
Students have been cowed of late. In order to put education at the top of the agenda, young people will probably need to be willing once more to take direct action. But this cannot mean a few people who, already radicalised, can be easily dismissed. This must come as an expression of anger in the student community as a whole – and that community support must be built, and fast. Starting now. That means knocking on doors in halls, announcements in lecture – the sort of face to face hard graft of movement building that today’s NGOs work so hard to avoid.
We need to make it clear that, if the government does raise fees they won’t be paid. When top-up fees were first suggested, this was discussed at NUS, but, or so the story goes, was rejected on the grounds that it could be too damaging for the Labour government. If tens of thousands refuse to pay – and instead pay a small amount to a central support fund for the people the police choose to make an example of – it will ultimately cost more to implement than it’s worth. Refusal to pay was key to beating the poll tax, and will be key to beating fee hikes.
Students need to build alliances. It’s good to see the UCU and Mumsnet quoted alongside the NUS in articles this morning. But students’ unions could, for example, be getting their members to ask their parents to lobby their MPs against fees – after all, many of them will have younger offspring who will be hit by these hikes.
Finally, young party activists also need to get tough. Young people are often the back bones of election campaigns. Without the shipped in leafletters, and canvassers, many MPs wouldn’t have won their seats. So, why don’t Labour Students and Liberal Democrat Youth & Student agree that both will arrange with their members a leafleting strike for any of their MPs who back higher fees? I’m sure Young Greens would be happy to sign up too. This would ensure that no party was disproportionately losing out, whilst showing a little generational solidarity.
The almost universal view among commentators is that Lord Browne has conclusively argued the case against a graduate tax.
You may be interested in my blogpost:
where I argue that the Browne Report’s case against a graduate tax is based on a fallacious straw-man argument.
Unfortunately it seems Vince Cable has fallen for this argument.
The rumour going round university depts. is that Oxford and Cambridge are going to set their fees to match Eton. Eton fees are c. £30,000 per year, so I actually find this hard to believe. But that’s the rumour. Universities are now deciding whether to market themselves at public school families who are generally used to paying fees and are a stable source of income, or comprehensive school families who will be less likely to go to university. For Oxbridge this is a no-brainer.
James, quite the reverse – the very fact that you don’t pay up front makes it much easier. You still presumably need to sign up to accept the student loans company paying it and passing you the debt (I’m guessing – as a Scottish student, I dealt with SAAS, so I don’t know the exact process in England, and it’s likely to change).
This means that non-payment would simply mean refusing to sign your life away on the SLC form…
Generally good article but the non-payment idea is fantasy. Students do not and will not pay fees up front – we’ll simply get higher debt when we leave (except for the handful of people who have the means to pay fees on top of living expenses up front).
I doubt many people will want to continue campaigns of non-repayment of debt over their entire working lives.
What about non -traditional students’ unions? The kind with student bodies that will be hit the hardest by fees hikes? These are often the universities with students who, though local, are the most time-poor and disengaged politically. They also tend to be in areas with some of the safest MPs in the country. What can large universities with very small active student bases do when they haven’t got the volume of the student body behind them?
I think it’s an excellent article, I’m just aware that the student movement is also very diverse, and that one approach won’t work everywhere.
V good post Adam.
There’s not much that could happen that would get my lazy backside outside and picking up a placard but the more I think about this issue, the more I think that closing off university to the poorest (as this would inevitably do) would be more than enough to do it.
Hopefully the UK as a whole will step up and find its voice, whether in favour or against, and we can have the debate, or protests, that we deserve.
Well, how you arranged non-payment would depend on how they arrange payment – it’s more complex than the poll tax because they can just throw you out of uni. You could, perhaps, get people to sign something saying “I won’t pay me fees next year if 2000 other students at my university don’t either”. Or something. If they do throw you out, then you occupy, and refuse to leave. it’s easy for a university to expel one person on their own. Expelling 2000 people is tricky. If this was happening across the country, the Government would have to do something. Sometimes you have to force a crisis point, and make people take sides. This is one way you could do that.
Really enjoyed reading this and think you make excellent points. I was wondering if you could expand a bit on this:
“If tens of thousands refuse to pay – and instead pay a small amount to a central support fund for the people the police choose to make an example of – it will ultimately cost more to implement than it’s worth.”