The u-turn on South African tuition fees gives us reason to be in good spirits as the UK student movement mobilises and sets outs its demands for a free, fully-funded, accessible education system.
With the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) national demonstration for free education and living grants on 4 November and the NUS-called student walk-out on 17 November, it’s worth asking: how will we win?
When George Osborne’s July budget scrapped maintenance grants for the poorest students, it was rightly said to be one of the most regressive policies in the budget. Maintenance grants are to be replaced with loans, hitting the poorest students hardest. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies “... students from the poorest backgrounds are now likely to leave university owing substantially more to the government than their better-off peers”.
If Osborne is successful, then those who previously received full maintenance grants will leave university owing approximately £53,000, while richer students will owe £40,500. For most of the students organising on their campuses for free education, this policy demonstrates what they already knew: free education is about more than just fees — although fees will certainly be one of the battlegrounds during this government. For a long time both Tory politicians and Russell group universities have been making noises in favour of £16,000 plus per year uncapped tuition fees. As the students on 4 November will make clear, rising rents, bills and child-care costs, among other financial burdens, are as much a barrier to education as astronomical fees. If we want our education system to be fair, free and equally accessible by all then Osborne’s attack on maintenance grants is a central issue to be fighting over. Recently University College London (UCL) paid £100,000 in compensation to UCL student residents after a seven-month long rent strike. Housing become a major political issue for people in the UK. Rents have soared across a lot of the country, living conditions have gone down, the private rental sector has boomed, and many people have to live in cramped and overcrowded conditions. Likewise, universities are pushing up rents, outsourcing their accommodation, and adding to the financial plight for already struggling students. The victory won by students at UCL has vindicated a strategy of strikes and collective organisation, and should serve as a source of inspiration for students everywhere. International students are racking up debts of upwards of £100,000 for studying in the UK, whilst many are subjected to surveillance and harassment, via racist “counter-extremism” programmes.
With students being deported part-way through their studies, often to dangerous situations in their home countries, the fight around open borders and equal rights for migrants has become key.
Students and others recently travelled to Dover, in tandem with students from France and elsewhere making their way to Calais to demonstrate for open borders. We cannot be truly calling for free education, unless it is free for all and free from discrimination and abuse.
Jeremy Corbyn had free education as a flagship policy for his election campaign, proposing free education at university level through the implementation of a 2.5% increase in corporation tax; he garnered a huge amount of support from young people both inside and outside of Labour. Many young people are politicised and enthused by Corbyn’s victory, and the Tories’ determination to further decimate our education system. It is now our job to transform this situation into a bigger and stronger campaign for free education for all.