Student Fees: No Working Class Children Need Apply

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When New Labour proclaims its concern for the low paid it is usually a sign that it's about to attack higher education.

In 1997, announcing the scrapping of the student maintenance grant and, contrary to a pre-election pledge, the introduction of tuition fees, we were asked why cleaners should subsidise students. Now, as it plans to renege on last election's manifesto pledge not to introduce top-up fees, higher education minister Margaret Hodge asks, 'should the dustman continue to subsidise the doctor?'

Behind the rhetoric is an ideological assault on the idea of education as a publicly provided right. Hodge's claim that there is 'no such thing as a free lunch' is a typical expression of this free-market zeal. The most worrying example is the Department of Trade and Industry's consultation on applying Gats--the World Trade Organisation's charter for privatisation--to higher education.

There are splits even within New Labour about the extent of such plans. Gordon Brown's allies, most vocally Clare Short, favour a graduate tax. She points out that if top-up fees were introduced 'we'd have real two-tier universities and the rich would pay extra fees and go to the classy, elitist universities, rather like the US.' This vision is embraced by the Russell Group, the 'Ivy League' of elite universities, who have most to gain from 'differential' fees. Imperial College has suggested fees of up to £15,000.

Fees are not just a middle class concern. Students become liable with a total parental income of £23,000. The education system is riven with inequality--now repackaged as 'diversity'--which cumulatively disadvantages children from working class backgrounds. Rather than tackle the disparity of resources, New Labour bemoans the 'low aspirations' of poorer students.

There is a crisis in university funding because successive governments have widened access without providing the necessary funding, which has dropped by 37 percent per student since 1980. The further encroachment of the market, either in upfront or deferred fees, will exacerbate inequality. A graduate tax may seem a less immediate threat, but it accepts the argument that the state should no longer 'subsidise' students--that redistributive taxation is not an option. A lifelong debt for working class students is not an alternative to the threat of an immediate university toll. Higher tax for the rich is.

The wave of anti-war occupations that hit the colleges on 31 October has fed into activism against fees. The vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Sir Alec Broers, was forced to make a statement against top-up fees by a lobby of 2,000 students and the threat of occupation. The attempt to merge Imperial College and University College London--to create a more viable commercial product--collapsed in the face of mass opposition. One thousand students protested at Imperial, and 500 howled down the vice-chancellor at an emergency general meeting in UCL. Such action is vital in developing the resistance to Blair's ongoing war on free education.