A briefing on the BBC website gives stark figures on the new university fees policy which, if introduced, is set to take effect from September 2012.
They calculate that “a middle-earning graduate would need to earn, for example, an average of £48,850 a year for 26 years to pay off their debt.”
Read that figure again. Ask yourself how many university graduates you know who earn anything like that amount. In a climate in which jobs and wages are also under attack, how many graduates are likely to earn an average of nearly £50,000 a year for nearly 30 years? The government’s plans will literally consign students to a lifetime of debt.
Alongside that, the government plans to abolish the paltry student support that currently exists at Further Education level, scrapping entirely the Education Maintenance Allowance (which, even at its highest rate after means-testing, is only £30 a week).
That cut is a miserly, swingeing attack on a sum that, while meagre, still represents an important source of income and a modicum of financial independence for working-class further education students.
Currently, a degree “costs” up to £3,290 per year — that is the government-imposed cap on yearly fees. Leeds Metropolitan was the last university to set its own, lower, rate of fees, charging £2,000 a year until 2009 when it increased its fees to bring itself in line with the rest of the higher education sector.
Student finance is administered by the Student Loans Company, set up by the Thatcher government in 1990. It’s last Chief Executive, who resigned in May 2010, was paid nearly £400,000 per year.
As well as loans, some grants are currently available for students that pass a rigorous series of means tests.
The abolition (or, at the very least, the significant increase) of that £3,290 cap has been a long-held ambition of top bosses in the education sector.
As early as 2006 (just two years after tuition fees were initially trebled from £1,000), figures like Alison Richard (the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge) was calling for the abolition of the cap. The New Labour government hired the former head of BP, Lord Browne, to conduct a review into higher education funding that was widely expected to recommend abolition. By the time the Review reported, Labour were out of office but Browne lived up to the Vice-Chancellors’ expectations and down to ours.
Following Browne’s report, the new government produced its proposals. They tweak some elements of his recommendations but are certainly faithful to his spirit. The key elements of the government’s policy, in brief, are:
• An increase in the fees cap to £9,000. There will be certain requirements around, for example, bursary provision for any university wishing to charge over £6,000. But those requirements do not cover the gap between £6,000 and £9,000. They do not change the basic fact that even if most universities abide by the lower limit (£6,000) the “price” of education is set to double (at least) everywhere.
• The threshold for repayments (currently £15,000) will increase to £21,000. Graduates will pay 9% of any monthly income over this threshold in repayments. The structure exposes the nonsense of posing the graduate tax as an “alternative” to the current system or to the Coalition’s plans; both the current system and the proposed future system are effectively forms of graduate tax.
• The government is changing the existing means-testing structure for grants. These changes will give those from the very poorest backgrounds (with a total household income of less than £25,000) a slightly higher full grant, but the cut-off point for partial grants (to which more students currently apply) is being lowered from £50,000 to £42,000, which will mean fewer students have access to them.
Linked to the proposals of funding are ongoing cuts to teaching budgets of around 80%.
The vote on 9 December was on one aspect of the plan (the lifting of the cap).
Movement needs democratic structures
Hundreds of thousands of students and young people are now coming into political activity. The official student union movement does not know how to respond to the anger and drives towards taking militant action.
Traditionally, local and student union structures have been staffed by people building a career in the Labour Party or simply getting something to write on their CVs. The official movement is weak, but the new political activists need ways to organise if they are to win their demands.
There is great potential to build a broad-based student movement on democratic principles, one which can link up with the anti-cuts and trade union movement. We need to organise. But how?
The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) has been at the forefront of the recent mobilisations, and is one organising centre.
During the recent wave of occupations and demonstrations in London, regular London-wide “assemblies” of student activists were held. Those were another organising centre.
Many of the occupations saw themselves as “centres” for action and mobilisation in their local areas.
There are also other student and activist networks — the Education Activist Network (dominated by the SWP), the Youth Fight for Education (Socialist Party front), and the Coalition of Resistance. Unfortunately these activist networks are very competitive, and do a lot of manoeuvring for position.
Whatever positive role they play in individual initiatives, more often than not they are primarily looking for ways to gain prestige and build their own organisation at the expense of others.
This leads to lots of different organisations calling meetings and demonstrations at different times and places. Serious socialists and activists would have responded to the calls for unity NCAFC made many months ago, long before the recent wave of action.
There is also another variety of “sectarianism” in the anarchist movement. This was seen in the Leeds University occupation, where a group of anarchists were so outraged that the occupiers wanted to vote on some proposals that they left the occupation. They put their own dogmatic principles before what a majority perceived to be the needs of a collective body.
In the last few years, it has become fashionable for anarchists to reject normal democratic process, like voting, believing it creates bureaucratic elites. Some anarchists and other activists prefer to use consensus-decision making and tend to scupper attempts to organise steering committees in favour of looser federal arrangements.
Trying to reach a consensus is not a bad idea. But it is not always possible when discussing contentious political issues. To insist on consensus can be stifling and paralysing.
Looser structures often just mean that the people who shout the loudest get their way.
A lack of democratic accountability leads to once-democratic structures become bureaucratised (for instance in the trade unions). But voting and delegating responsibility are not in themselves to blame. More democracy, not less democracy is the way to beat the bureaucrats.
The “tyranny of structurelessness” (as it was called in a famous pamphlet of the 1970s) can be utilised by those with malign intentions — as seems to have happened in connection to 20 December, the date on which a mysterious “UK People’s Initiative” has called a student demo in central London. The organisers, who refuse to answer questions about who they are, initially used the NCAFC logo for their protest. There is some evidence they may be linked to the far right.
The NCAFC has repudiated the event and urged people not to go.
The AWL believes that we must avoid all varieties of sectarianism and help the growing student movement find its collective voice.
There needs to be better co-ordination between all different groups and organising centres.
Working in the NCAFC, the AWL will argue that the campaign be opened out so that organisations and individuals can affiliate and join, and have a proper stake in shaping the campaign. Affiliation and membership comes with democratic rights and responsibilities. We do not want union bodies, if they affiliate, to be simply a cash cow for the campaign. We want those bodies to mobilise their members to be a part of the NCAFC.
This kind of organisation, linking up activists, giving them a recognised and definite say in how the movement develops, is better able to grow and thus better able to sideline right-wing student union officials as well as better able to fight the government.
We should also fight for the open, democratic structures which have grown up around occupations and campus anti-cuts campaigns to fight to replace or open up the closed-off, bureaucratic one which characterise most student unions — structures which exclude the majority of students from any real involvement or say.
Replacing essentially self-selected union councils with regular general meetings is one essential component of this. The anti-cuts movement has shown that such meetings can mobilise large numbers of students if they are dynamic and organise around the crucial issues of the struggle.
• The tyranny of structurelessness: www.workersliberty.org/jof
SWP pushes sham "Assembly"
A recent series of meetings in London, coming from the “London Student Assembly” initiative that emerged some months ago as an attempt to coordinate action in the capital, have highlighted the fundamental importance of democracy in the movement.
While general assemblies are undoubtedly a democratic way of coordinating a movement and something to aspire to, there are increasing question marks over whether the process in London can legitimately claim to be the movement’s sovereign body or even democratic.
One recent meeting, at the London School of Economics on 10 December, was made up overwhelmingly of London-based members of the SWP (including a large proportion of non-student SWPers) and chaired by an SWPer. It was clear that the purpose of the meeting was to give a veneer of democratic legitimacy to the SWP’s plans for the future of the movement — which, as it turned out, was to organise a “national assembly” in January which they could control. Quite how a meeting of almost exclusively London-based activists, the majority of whom were SWPers, can claim to have the right to call “national assemblies” (not even national student assemblies, but a “national assembly” for the whole anti-cuts movement!) is beyond many.
Those who attended the Education Activist Network conference in January 2010 know very well what kind of character any “assembly” controlled by the SWP will have; it will be top-down, packed by speakers hand-picked by the SWP. If it allows motions or contributions from the floor, it will be manipulated to ensure nothing disagreeable to the SWP is passed.
The debate for democrats in the movement now is around whether to accept the SWP-controlled “assembly” as an inevitability which we must intervene in and attempt to improve, or to argue that it has no legitimacy whatsoever and cannot claim to be the sovereign body of the movement. AWL members within the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts are inclined towards the latter approach.