The election of the Lib-Con government has given bosses in the education sector a renewed enthusiasm for further marketisation and profiteering of universities.
Universities UK, the university bosses’ organisation has published a statement in which it said that, while it favours tuition fees remaining “regulated”, it “envisages a... future in which [the] upper limit is appreciably higher than its current level”. The current cap on fees is set at just over £3,000, and students can expect to graduate with over £15,000 of debt when accommodation and living costs are taken into account.
UUK's statement represents a rare moment of unity between university bosses. Usually the competing agendas of their separate institutions prevents them from mounting united action. But forming a single front was necessary for them to lobby an upcoming review into higher education funding (Browne Review).
The new government has delayed decisions on tuition fees pending that review. If the bosses manage to push the raising of the cap on fees, this is more likely to shape government policy (the Lib-Dems election policy was to scrap tuition fees, not that this necessarily means anything now).
The “revolutionary vanguard” of UUK is the Russell Group, a coalition of the country’s top-20 universities. The Russell Group published its own statement on fees, which goes even further than the UUK.
Russell Group universities favour the complete removal of the cap and a system within which universities can charge students whatever they like.
This would inevitably lead to a two-tier (or three, or four, or five-tier) education system in Britain where elite institutions like Oxford and Cambridge become completely inaccessible to students from working-class backgrounds. They can look forward to being herded into lower-quality institutions which charge lower fees and where they can look forward to being taught how to be effective and obedient workers. The ideological spirit behind the Russell Group’s demand is positively Victorian.
Part of the context is the ongoing funding crisis in higher education which is being used to justify job cuts and departmental closures. These cuts have been met with significant resistance from both students and workers. Student activists at universities like Sussex, Middlesex and Westminster have used radical direct action tactics such as occupations in their fight.
At both Sussex and Middlesex, management has respond harshly — mobilising campus security and/or the police against students and in both cases taking disciplinary sanctions against those involved.
At Middlesex, students involved in an occupation to save the philosophy department now face suspension, as do two members of staff who supported them (see below).
At Sussex, six “ringleaders”, including one member of the AWL, were handed fines and were only saved from suspension or expulsion following a massive solidarity campaign.
AWL students and others in the Education Not for Sale network have been central to establishing and building the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, a national network intended to provide organisational and political coordination to ongoing anti-cuts struggles and to help student activists launch such struggles on their campuses.
But with the Browne Review around the corner and with university bosses increasing the volume of their clamour for higher, or indeed unlimited, fees, fighting defensive battles against cuts will not be enough. We need to find ways of turning our struggle into an offensive one, which can take the fight to the bosses and government and not just resist the latest attack but give an alternative vision for how the education sector might be funded and organised.
Such a campaign will take commitment, determination and a willingness to use radical tactics. But more fundamentally, it will take an anti-capitalist political perspective which puts working-class interests first. Fighting to win support for that perspective is a key task for revolutionary socialists in the student movement now.