Keele Socialist Students this week visited the question of tuition fees and what we can do about them. Our visiting speaker was A of the Socialist Party's national committee. Though not currently a student, like me, he was involved in the campaign against their introduction back in 1997/8.
He began outlining government plans on the future of tuition fees. At the moment students are liable for a yearly fee capped at £3,000 and, if they fall beneath a £25,000 parental earnings threshold, a grant with a maximum ceiling of £2,825/year (I've never understood the logic of giving with one hand but taking away with another, but I digress). If the government gets its way it will see the cap removed and university's given the power to charge what they like. Inevitably a two-tier system will result - the top universities will charge thousands, ensuring they're even more a bastion of the rich and privileged. At the other end many universities, particularly the post-1992 institutions, will offer "budget" degrees to compete for students. The effect this will have on the employment prospects of graduates do not need spelling out.
But there's more than future careers at stake. At present the average student debt upon graduation stands at £12,000 - but the £20,000 figure is not uncommon. Already hundreds of thousands have to work to pay their way through university, often in low waged, insecure and exploitative jobs. The time these students have dedicated to their studies can and often are truncated by the demands of the workplace. Small wonder some 22 per cent of students drop out, a quarter of whom citing debt as the main reason.
Can this situation be reversed? The government says not. "We can't afford it" they say, an argument that's already threadbare after the mammoth funds it has splashed out to save the banks. If we rule out borrowing as a solution to the problem, there's still plenty of resources to be found. There are approximately two million students in Britain. If tuition fees were abolished and a grant of £5,000 were awarded all students this would cost approximately £15 billion. Right now, New Labour have earmarked a massive £76 billion for Trident. Is this really necessary? Furthermore the corporation tax rate in Britain stands at 28 per cent compared to 30 per cent in Germany and 35 per cent in France. If it was raised up to the French level an extra £10 billion would flow into government coffers. Additional funds could also be realised by actually forcing more British-registered companies to pay their tax. Of the top 700, only one third pay their way. Another third fiddle the system so they pay less then £10 million between them. And the final third paid nothing at all.
The 'can't afford' argument doesn't wash. So how to achieve our campaigning aims? Not by pursuing the NUS strategy. Its current position on fees is to limit it to keeping the cap, something it shares with Labour Students. Apparently, the argument goes, we have more chance of changing the government's mind if we stick only to this objective. As far as Socialist Students are concerned, at Keele and elsewhere, we will work with anyone to achieve this but think we need to campaign more widely. The NUS and Labour Students have no strategy addressing fees per se, grants and debt. It devolves to socialists to take the lead on these issues, and we can, as the experience at Bangor demonstrates.