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Issue 36, March 1999

Student non-payment campaign on the march

THE RECENTLY announced fall in applications to university, the second in the two years since the introduction of tuition fees and the ending of students grants, underlines the devastating nature of New Labour's attack on free education.

The 10% fall in applications for mature students over the age of 25, in particular, has confirmed the prediction of the Socialist Party that thousands of working class people would be denied access to higher education. Similarly the hike in fees to 1,025 in line with inflation, confirms our contention two years ago that David Blunkett's claim that the maximum tuition fee would not exceed 1,000 was a lie.

While these predictions have, unfortunately, been confirmed, so too has our belief that the strategy of mass non-payment of tuition fees would be adopted by students across the country. The Socialist Party argued that this strategy provides the best means of defeating tuition fees and the abolition of the grant. Thousands of students refusing to pay en masse would make the fees unworkable, just as mass non-payment of the poll-tax made that attack on the working class impossible to implement and led to its defeat.

Although an organised campaign of non-payment of fees has not yet taken off on a mass scale, important preparatory steps have taken place, which have laid the ground for a mass movement of non-payment in the near future.

Students at Oxford University were the first to organise a non-payment campaign. Initially forty students refused to pay on principle, until their numbers were whittled down to 14 and then six. Unfortunately, without a previously prepared campaign in place, ready to advise first-year students on how to deal with the university's 'no fee, no key' policy, most students at Oxford paid their fees at the beginning of the year. This left the remaining students isolated and they eventually all paid up.

This was not a defeat, however, but a tactical retreat. The view of those students, which is shared by the Socialist Party, is that a small group of non-payers can not hope to win a campaign of non-payment on their own. Because the Oxford students could afford to pay it was far better that they remain on their courses and build mass non-payment for the next academic year.

  The Oxford campaign, through the extensive publicity that their stand received, also had the effect of legitimising the tactic of non-payment. Previously, the Socialist Party and the Save Free Education campaign (SFE) had been lone voices in consistently calling for mass non-payment of fees. By prolonging non-payment for as long as possible the Oxford non-payers helped spread the idea to students around the country. Their campaign, which included a demonstration of 5,000 students in Oxford, proved how non-payment finds active support amongst students who have paid or do not have to pay their fees.

Some cynics belittled the Oxford campaign because the non-payers were at an elite university, mostly from very well-off backgrounds, and capable of paying the fees. However, the Oxford campaign was a courageous one and an important one. Students in other universities have been encouraged to follow suit and organise non-payment campaigns. Just as the Socialist Party said it would, 'can pay, won't pay!' at Oxford has turned into 'can't pay, won't pay!' elsewhere.

At Goldsmiths University in London three students who had not paid their fees and who were in contact with SFE members initiated a non-payment campaign. One hundred and fifty students turned up to a meeting that they organised and 200 attended a protest rally at the college, indicating the mood that is developing around the issue. At Goldsmiths, just as at Oxford University, the campaign around the non-payers has radicalised students at the college and made non-payment a concrete fact on the ground.

What has become clear is that in universities around the country there are currently large numbers of students who have still not paid their fees, though the deadlines for doing so passed long ago. These students can not afford to pay. They have mainly been quietly prolonging the pay-up period for as long as possible, trying to make their money last. However, many of these students are now receiving letters like the ones the Goldsmiths' students received, threatening them with expulsion.

At the University of the West of England 300 students had not paid their fees by February, while at Huddersfield 150 had not paid. The experience of Socialist Party members throughout Britain suggests that there are large numbers yet to pay at most other universities in the country.

  It is no longer a question of whether non-payment of tuition fees will happen. It is happening, just as we predicted it would, because students can not afford to pay. The question now, however, is can non-payment be organised into a mass force, capable of defeating New Labour's abolition of free education? The Socialist Party intend to make sure that it can.

Through our contact with the Oxford students and our involvement in organising the Goldsmiths campaign, many of the ideas and tactics that the Socialist Party has been putting forward have become the property of the movement, the idea of pledge-cards for instance. It is absolutely vital that in the weeks and months leading up to the start of the next academic year that non-payment pledge cards are used to commit as many students as possible to refusing to pay their fees. When the universities open for the Autumn term there must be groups of students in universities around the country who are ready to refuse to pay their fees and spread the campaign on their campuses.

In the meantime, meetings must be called and action such as demonstrations and occupations organised to defend any students threatened with expulsion this year. A successful defence of students unable to pay will increase the confidence in non-payment for next year. The student movement could yet force Blair's New Labour government into its most significant U-turn to date.

Kieran Roberts

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