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Issue 41, September 1999

Fees non-payment set to grow

"AS NEWS GETS around that students owe universities millions of pounds" in unpaid tuition fees, The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) warned the government, "payment of fees could become as voluntary as payment of the poll tax by students in the 1980s" (30 July). Its official. Non-payment of tuition fees is happening, with thousands of students unable to or refusing to pay.

A survey published in July by the Committee of University Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) has revealed that there is 15 million in unpaid fees from the 1998-99 academic year. This is 10% of the total fees which should have been collected last academic year from first year British students. In the light of this the THES advised the government that "before non-payment becomes an epidemic, the Department for Education and Employment review group on fees and the Cubie committee in Scotland should revisit the recommendation of the Dearing committee" on higher education financing. If upfront fees are not scrapped, they warn, mass non-payment will be the result.

The CVCP survey also reveals that it is the new universities, with a higher proportion of students from a working class background, which have been most susceptible to tuition fee debt. At the University of Central England (UCE), student debt has increased by 40% to 500,000, with about 600 students owing money. Plymouth University is owed between 100,000 and 150,000 in first year fees and at the University of Brighton there are 181 first year students who owe 116,000. The University of Mid-Glamorgan reported over 500 first year non-payers. Non-payment by individual students, moreover, has been compounded by huge delays in universities receiving tuition fee payments from local authorities.

  To recover the unpaid fees some university authorities are threatening to take punitive action. The UCE vice-chancellor says he will pursue students through the small claims courts and has taken on three extra staff to chase student debtors. The University of Mid-Glamorgan has said that students who owe money will not be able to re-register for subsquent years on their course. But threatening such action will provoke a big opposition and add fuel to the campaign against the fees. Earlier this year students at Goldsmiths University, London, organised a week-long occupation to get the withdrawal of exclusion notices that had been issued to ten non-payers. They were victorious and the exclusion notices were rescinded, sparking a wave of similar action at other universities.

The latest figures on the levels of tuition fee non-payment confirm two things. Firstly, that students can't afford to pay tuition fees and that others are prepared to stand alongside them and refuse to pay. Secondly, that non-payment is making the system of charging for education unworkable and is the most effective way to get fees scrapped. We now have to turn the campaign into organised mass non-payment and convince new students in the autumn to join the growing army of non-payers.

According to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, at the end of the first year of the poll tax in England and Wales, 12.8% of the total amount billed had not been paid - not significantly more than the 10% unpaid fees figure after the first year of tuition fees. But in its second year poll tax non-payment grew, so that 21% of the total amount billed remained uncollected. Reluctance to pay continued to grow and in the final year before this hated tax was abolished, in 1992-93, councils had to send reminders to 88% of those billed. (The Guardian, 14 April, 1999)

  Similiarly, tuition fee non-payment will almost certainly increase as second year students are unable to find new money for this year's fees. There will be first years who will enrol with no idea as to where the money to pay fees will come from. With the active intervention of the Save Free Education (SFE) campaign, others can be convinced to join the non-payment movement. One argument that will need to be addressed is the claim that to call for non-payment is irresponsible and will starve colleges of much needed cash. In fact higher education has been continually starved of funds by the Tories and now New Labour, who are demanding that colleges continue to make 'efficiency' gains. The solution to this is not a tax on students and their families in the form of tuition fees but adequate funding from central government.

This same allegation was made against the poll tax non-payment campaign, which was accused of starving local authorities of money. This was answered by explaining that the poll tax was designed to put the burden of paying for services onto the working class and poor and, ultimately, to dismantle local services. Non-payment was the only effective way possible at that stage to fight back.

Similarly the stakes are as high for this campaign. Tuition fees are the thin end of the wedge. Already fees and loss of the grant has driven thousands of working class and middle class students out of education. Black, disabled, female and mature students have been the hardest hit. But the ultimate aim of these new funding arrangements is to create a two-tier part-private higher education system which would be completely elitist.

Non-payment backed up by direct and mass action is the best way to stop this from happening and in the process win more money from central government for education. It is also the best way to galvanise student anger into a mass campaign to win back the grant. In addition, a mass campaign of non-payment, if it succeeds, will go a long way to re-establishing a radical student movement across Britain, capable of linking with education workers to begin the process of reversing all the attacks on education.

What needs to be done now is to turn non-payment into a mass, organised campaign, to set up action committees in colleges across Britain to spread non-payment and defend non-payers from exclusion, fines and penalties. It is clear now that tuition fees can be defeated, with the enormous implications that would have in raising the confidence not just of students but of millions of workers also, disillusioned with New Labour.

Lois Austin

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