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Making university education free for all

The Coalition’s drive to turn university education into a market-driven business in place of a state-supported system has resulted in an unprecedented alliance of students and lecturers. If the aim, however, is restricted to pressure on the government, the alliance will flounder on the rocks of reality.

That, unfortunately, is certainly the aim of the University and College Union (UCU), which is organising a joint march with the National Union of Students (NUS) in London next week. “The demo is part of our strategy to influence the Coalition Government,” says the UCU website.

In a similar spirit, the NUS led by president Aaron Porter, a Labour Party member, was caution itself when it responded to the announcement this week that tuition fees will rise from the present £3,290 to anywhere between £6,000 and £9,000 a year. Add in living costs, and students can expect to leave university owing up to £40,000 in loans.

Porter berated the government for providing “no reassurance that requirements on access, employability, quality or the student experience would be any more effective than they are now." The NUS president is reported to favour a graduate tax instead of higher tuition fees – more like an alternative market solution than a clarion call for free higher education.

And it is politically difficult for Porter to oppose the Browne report that recommended the rise in fees. The former head of oil giant BP was actually commissioned by New Labour to report on the future funding of universities. Students will also remember that the Blair government was the first to introduce tuition fees, beginning the undermining of higher education that the Coalition has deepened.

Both the NUS and the UCU are banking on Liberal Democrat MPs to block the dramatic rise in tuition fees. Lib Dem MPs signed a pledge during the general election campaign opposing higher fees. But opposition from ministers like Vince Cable has melted away under pressure from the Tories who are the senior partners in the Coalition.

The harsh reality facing members of both the UCU and NUS is that the attack on higher education is totally bound up with the financial crisis and economic recession. That is what is driving the drastic cuts in university funding which tuition fees are supposed to replace. It’s the same crisis that will cost 100,000 local council workers their jobs as central government support is slashed.

Graduate students are already suffering because of the recession. More than 21,000 – nearly 9% of the total – who graduated last year were still without work six months later, and 55,000 ended up in stop-gap jobs such as bar work. The figures are certain to worsen as the spending cuts reduce the number of opportunities for graduates.

Capitalism as a system isn’t working and as a result, the state is transferring the burden of the crisis on to students, workers, the unemployed, pensioners and those dependent on benefits. Under these conditions, no amount of pressure will make the Coalition change course. We need to go beyond resistance.

Free higher education in place of fees and loans remains the aspiration. In a country as rich and developed as Britain, it ought to be achievable. Standing in the way of this is a bankrupt economic and political system based on exploitation and profit, backed by a ruthless state. As a first step to breaking this impasse, students and lecturers need to link with firefighters, transport workers and others in the cuts firing line to plan a co-ordinated mobilisation against the Coalition with the aim of bringing the government down.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
5 November 2010

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