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Issue 31, October 1998

Student fees showdown

THE BEGINNING of the new university year will see a new stage in the campaign against tuition fees and the abolition of the grant.

Since the Labour Party announced the end of free education last summer the Socialist Party has been actively involved in the fight against the government's plans, particularly within the Save Free Education (SFE) campaign. But with the government's bill now law many students will be asking how New Labour was able to ignore the widespread anger the abolition of free education caused. And with fees seemingly a fact, how can they now be defeated?

To answer the first question it is necessary to draw a balance sheet of the campaign since its beginning last September. During that time there has been a national demonstration of 10,000 in London, simultaneous regional National Union of Students (NUS) demos totalling 40,000, an SFE organised national walk-out involving 4,000, and, in March, a one-day education shut-down called by the NUS. This represents a significant display of anger by Britain's young people. Nevertheless, the movement so far has not attained the mass proportions that the Socialist Party has always said would be necessary to defeat the government. There are various reasons for this.

In part, many students who have joined in the protests have not fully understood the necessity for an organised mass movement. They see it is important to attend a few demonstrations, but do not see beyond that. It is necessary to explain clearly that only a mass movement can force Labour to retreat. This is because, as a party of big business, New Labour are acting in accordance with the demands of British capitalism. It is not the case that Tony Blair is merely misguided and 'open to reasonable persuasion' on this issue.

  Above all else, however, it is the role of the NUS leadership which has hampered the fight-back and discouraged students from taking action. The predominantly New Labour leadership have desperately attempted to avoid confrontation with Blair and Blunkett. They have continually held back from taking action, only doing so when they have felt the organised pressure of students from below. Significantly, the NUS one-day national shut-down on 4 March was the first ever national shut-down called - and it was the SFE, alone, that had been raising the demand for NUS to take such a stand, since the campaign began in September last year.

This shows that the NUS leadership is not an absolute obstacle to the development of a mass movement. That is why, from the beginning, the SFE has sought to build a powerful movement on the ground, which can consequently put pressure on the NUS. Unfortunately the Campaign for Free Education (CFE), who started from a much stronger position than SFE in September, with positions on the NUS executive, have failed to lead an effective campaign. Despite claiming to stand for unity, sectarian tactics by both the CFE and the SWP have split the movement on several occasions, most notably in the failure to build a joint national demonstration to follow-up the NUS 4 March shut-down.

Significantly, unlike the Socialist Party, neither the SWP or the Workers Liberty group who run the CFE, played any significant organising role in the last 'unofficial' mass campaign in Britain which took on and actually defeated a government - the anti-poll tax campaign, which mobilised thousands in activity to back-up those who refused to pay the tax. But with the campaign now entering a new stage, with new tactics coming into play, it is precisely an anti-poll tax style movement that is needed today.

  SFE are now campaigning to build for mass non-payment of the new tuition fees. It is the responsibility of the universities to collect the fees payable by the student. A survey commissioned by the NUS found that almost all universities are asking for the fees to be paid in instalments. This would allow an effective campaign in the run up to each payment. And with local education authorities reporting big delays in administering means-testing for the fees, it is unlikely that universities will be in a position to ask many students for fees at the beginning of the first term.

Undoubtedly the university authorities will attempt to make an example of some students by threatening them with expulsion for fees non-payment, in which case students must mobilise in their support. A non-payment pledge card has been produced by the SFE. By signing it students will promise not to pay their fees and to take local and national action to defend other students who are threatened with being kicked off their course. This could mean that if a particular university is the first to attempt to discipline a student then it will become a focus for national action. The staff and lecturers trade unions could also be approached to join students in taking action.

Many vice-chancellors say they are opposed to fees. This is especially so since they are not guaranteed revenue from them. In practice an organised mass campaign could force university authorities away from taking action against students at all, and even to refuse to co-operate with the government.

Of course the tactic of non-payment must be linked to mass action as it was during the poll tax. Demonstrations, lobbies and occupations can give confidence to students in the ability of the non-payment campaign to be successful.

Last year's mass student protest in Germany, when at one point 116 universities and colleges were on strike, began at just one university. Similarly in Britain now, a properly organised fees non-payment campaign, even if it only began with a few universities involved, could quickly be taken up by thousands of students, making the implementation of tuition fees unworkable.

Keiran Roberts

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