Higher Education: Pay As You Learn

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On 25 February the National Higher Education Shutdown, called jointly by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Association of University Teachers (AUT), turned campuses all over Britain into scenes of protest.

Student and lecturer demonstrations hundreds strong marched through the cities of Sheffield, Leeds and Bristol; Warwick University, whose vice-chancellor is one of the prime top-up fees lobbyists, was hit by a huge protest; students in Essex spontaneously went into occupation; and pickets and walkouts shut campuses across the country.

The day was important for two reasons. Firstly, it is the first time that higher education students and lecturers have ever been on strike at the same time. Secondly, it demonstrates the high level of political significance that education funding has taken on for so many people.

The joining of forces between the two unions is crucial. The NUS is continuing its fight against top-up fees; the AUT is engaged in a struggle against regional pay. Figures in the AUT have argued that the issues are unrelated (or even contradictory), but this has not been swallowed by the activists.

What is at stake in higher education is not just a simple economic question about the debt incurred by a student or the exact wage of a lecturer. Combining variable top-up fees (and few people seriously believe the government‘s claim that the initial cap will be maintained) with regional pay, New Labour is completely dismantling higher education. Under the enforced elitism of the proposed new system, the wealthiest students will pay to get the most prestigious degrees taught by the most prestigious academics. The rest of us, at best, can only hope to struggle through newer, underfunded institutions to be taught by underpaid and demoralised staff. That is why the shutdown needs to be the springboard for an extensive programme of action.