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Issue 47, May 2000

Save free education battle goes on

THIS YEAR'S National Union of Students' (NUS) conference, held at the beginning of April, saw supporters of Tony Blair's New Labour retain their grip on the leading bodies of the student movement. Owain James was elected as the new NUS president, the right held on to their positions on the national executive committee, and most of the controversial votes on policy went the Blairites' way.

Nevertheless, Owain James' candidature was itself evidence of the increasing unpopularity of New Labour amongst students. For the first time since 1982 the official Labour Students organisation did not put forward a candidate under their own name, worried that he or she would be too closely associated with the policies of Blair. Instead they backed James, nominally an 'independent' although in fact a Labour Party member and, crucially, a staunch ally of New Labour during his time on the NUS national executive.

However, while the right had a majority on conference floor, the conference was highly polarised. Alison Angus, the left's candidate for president, lost by 90 votes, but the number of votes she won, 504, was up compared to two years ago when the left candidate lost by just 15 votes.

This polarisation undoubtedly reflects the hardening opposition to New Labour amongst students in general - while the vote for the right-wing reflects the fact that they are able to rely on an unrepresentative layer of sabbaticals (full-time officials) in NUS to support them at conference.


The continued domination of the NUS by New Labour and its allies will mean the continued abdication of the NUS's role as an organisation that fights in defence of students' interests - in particular, its failure to put its weight behind a serious campaign against tuition fees and the abolition of the grant.

This comes at a time when the position of tuition fees on an all-British scale has been weakened. Most significantly the abolition of up-front tuition fees was conceded in Scotland at the beginning of the year, creating an anomaly that could prove difficult for the government to sustain indefinitely. Undoubtedly, the concession made in Scotland has further discredited tuition fees and strengthened the idea of mass non-payment. It has raised the question in many students' minds, 'if Scottish students don't pay fees because they are unjust, why should I'? If NUS had seized the opportunity this provides to build mass non-payment of the fees, using its authority amongst students and the massive resources it commands, the government could have been forced to retreat.

The decisive factor in undermining the viability of fees will precisely be the levels of non-payment - and, despite the setback at NUS conference, non-payment will continue to spread. Last year's figures showed that a high percentage of students could not afford to pay and did not pay their fees; £15 million went unpaid. The indications this year are that this has been repeated, only probably on a much bigger scale, since both first and second year students are now being asked to pay.


These levels of non-payment are partly a reflection of inability to pay. But it is also clear that many students have held back from paying their fees to 'wait and see' what happens, having come in contact with the non-payment campaign.

Tuition fees could also come under much more strain in the near future. For instance a serious economic downturn will have a dramatic effect on students' (and their parents) ability to pay their fees. At the same time, the government has indicated that it is prepared to support proposals from the university authorities to introduce more fees, by allowing them to impose their own extra top-up fees after the next general election. If this happens then students could expect to pay as much as £10,000 a year for a degree at one of Britain's elite universities, pricing working class and many middle-class students even further out of higher education.

So far organised campaigns against fees, involving mass action like occupations, have been restricted to a small number of universities. This year has seen students taking action at a number of universities to defend non-payers from exclusion, notably at SOAS and University College London, where 300 students occupied at both colleges.

However, over the last year campaigns have taken off at increasing numbers of universities. Often this has been as a direct result of the fact that a Save Free Education (SFE) campaign group has been active at that university, taking action against threats of expulsion etc.


The potential undoubtedly exists in most universities for a successful campaign, especially when sanctions are threatened against non-payers, providing a focus for students anger. The crucial factor in turning this broad opposition into a campaign however, is organisation. The intervention of forces like the Socialist Party and SFE in the last term of the 1999/2000 academic year, and again in the new autumn term, will be critical in this respect.

Kieran Roberts

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