Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Pricing out the poor in times of recession

BBC News reports that "many universities in England and Wales want a sharp increase in tuition fees" to "levels of between £4,000 and £20,000 per year." According to the report, a survey caried out by the BBC showed that "three out of four" university Vice-Chancellors "believed fees had not deterred applications from students from poorer families" and that "one in 10 wanted the cap scrapped altogether so universities could charge whatever they wanted."

The government, too, has weighed in on the debate. Former education secretary Charles Clarke insisted that the government "won the argument overwhelmingly" on fees, though he did concede that "in the recession there will be a lot of resistance to thinking the fee level should be significantly raised." Certainly, that resistance has already appeared with force. The National Union of Students has argued that we will see "debts of £32,000 for students if fees rise to £7,000 per year," and their president Wes Streeting was unequivocal in his opposition to this;
In the context of the current recession, it is extremely arrogant for university vice chancellors to be fantasising about charging their students even higher fees and plunging them into over £32,000 of debt.

This UUK report assumes that higher fees are inevitable, and that the shambolic current system of student support will remain in place.
The report he refers to is one published by Universities UK which "hat if fees reached £7,000 a market of differently priced courses would emerge" and which, according to The Telegraph, "did not represent the organisation's official stance" but was "likely to pile pressure on ministers to consider a fee rise."

Such a move should be eagerly resisted. Not only is it inappropriate in a time of recession to increase the debt of students, it also risks the UK's higher education resembling that of the US. There, the vast majority of students lack the financial means to get into higher education and can only attend by way of scholarships and studet loans, and the mean cost of higher education totals $42780 (£30448).

Already, the NUS has signed an Early Day Motion, to be tabled in parliament, which urges that the NUS "must be fully involved in this review" of university and student finance, and that " the review must recognise that unmanageable levels of debt are bad for both the borrower and the lender, act as a barrier to wider participation in higher education and should be avoided wherever possible." Further to which, Streeting has called on the NUS website for a "critical mass" to mobilise against the fees as "the arrogance of vice chancellors and the supine response of spineless politicians in the Labour and Tory parties must not go unchallenged."

I would suggest that students go even further than that. Students form a vital part of any radical movement, and they will be neither the first nor the last to suffer in this recession as politicians cling on to the ideals of big money and the "free market," and so they need not only to send a message but also to set a significant precedent for others ready to stand up against the government's disregard for ordinary people.

In February, according to Indymedia London, Goldsmith college students "occupied the Deptford town hall building in the centre of the campus" and "a banner embalzoned "OCCUPATION"" was "hung on the front of the building." This is the kind of example students concerned about rising fees need to follow. The government demonstrated, in the wake of the original protests over top-up fees, its disregard for the voice of conventional protest. In order to get them to pay attention, something a lot more radical is needed.