Higher Education: A Mean Test for Students

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'We will not introduce "top-up" fees and have legislated to prevent them.' So promised Labour's 2001 election manifesto.

Less than two years later the government's higher education white paper threatens to introduce top-up fees. And they wonder why young people distrust politicians.

Education secretary Charles Clarke's plans are a neoliberal assault on socially provided education and, if they are implemented, the victims will be students from working class backgrounds. They raise the level of fees that universities can levy to £3,000 a year, which students will have to pay as soon as they are earning £15,000 per year. The 'Independent' reported that the repayment rate is likely to be 9 percent of earnings--which would leave many low paid graduates effectively paying a higher rate of tax than millionaires.

New Labour claim that on average graduates earn £400,000 more than non-graduates in their lifetime, and so a toll on education is presented as an alternative means of taxing the rich (the direct version being anathema to them). But these calculations are based on students from the 1960s, when only a tiny minority of the population went into higher education, compared to 43 percent of school-leavers now. A contemporary comparison exposes a very different picture. Arts graduates now earn less than non-graduates with equivalent A-levels. Students who don't have rich parents to pay off their debts are likely to be railroaded into 'work-focused' courses.

The proposed maintenance grant will be only £1,000 per year, barely half the level of the grant abolished by New Labour in 1997, and will only be available in full to students from households with a total income of less than £10,000 a year. Charles Clarke has said that he doesn't believe student debts of up to £21,000 are a problem.

Clarke wants more 'autonomy' for universities to control finances and create a market of different fees for different institutions and courses. This will widen a two-tier structure where prestigious 'Russell Group' universities can attract corporate research subsidies in courses dominated by richer students, while the underresourced 'new universities' will struggle further to educate overwhelmingly poorer students. Once implemented, these 'reforms' will surely be used as a cover for reducing direct state funding. Universities will be told that if they need more money they will have to charge their students more.

On the failed model of the railway system, this free market dismantling of public provision will be accompanied by the introduction of a toothless regulator. The 'access regulator' is meant to ensure that systematic disadvantages throughout pre-school, primary and secondary education, combined with the prospect of mountains of debt, does not put working class children off from attending university. The rumoured frontrunner for the job is 'millionaire philanthropist' Peter Lampl. A class warrior, perhaps--but which class?

Students have responded angrily to the moves. A group chanting 'War on fees, not Iraq' chased Charles Clarke off stage at a recent debate. The National Union of Students (NUS) is planning a national shutdown of higher education to coincide with a lecturers' strike over London weighting allowances. Anti-war activists will be campaigning for occupations on that day. Student union officers are also being balloted about calling a national demonstration. It should need no debate. NUS policy is against top-up fees and students should be given every opportunity to put those words into action.