By Alan Clarke, NUS Executive, personal capacity
With more than a third of Labour MPs now supporting an anti-top up fees motion in the House of Commons, the Government's plans for student funding are looking increasingly shaky. With public, labour movement and even Labour Party opinion overwhelmingly hostile to introducing a free market in higher education, there is every chance that the Blairites will finally be defeated on a major issue of government policy.
However the rebels are not quite what they seem. To start with, the motion they are backing (proposed by Charles Clarke's fellow Norwich MP, the soft left Socialist Campaign Group member Ian Gibson) is not even, strictly speaking, against top up fees. Rather it "recognises widespread concern about the effects" of top-up fees; "notes that there are alternative models of funding higher education"; and "calls on the Government to publish full details of these alternatives. . . before legislating".
Hardly an inspiring rallying cry for free education! Moreover, some of the signatories have expressed an inclination to jump ship at the first sign of any concession - however tiny - from the Government. Charles Clarke is quite happy to fiddle with means-testing, repayment thresholds and so on; what he is not willing to compromise on is the principle of making students and their families pay. There are some Labour MPs (for instance Socialist Campaign Group Chair John McDonnell) who support genuinely free education, funded by progressive taxation, but they seem to be in a fairly small minority.
The softness of the Parliamentary Labour Party's opposition is only a slightly more pronounced variant of the political confusion which characterises the student and trade union movement campaigns against top-up fees. Since the leadership's defeat at this year's National Conference, NUS has formally demanded free education for all; rather than seizing the opportunity to make propaganda for this demand, however, they have buried it beneath a campaign which focuses solely on top-up fees. Trade union opposition has been similarly weak, with TUC leaders making statements in favour of a graduate tax and other such rubbish.
A fighting campaign which sought to popularise the idea of state-funded education for everybody who wants it, with free tuition and a living grant funded by taxing business and the rich, could provide a rallying point for the currently diffuse opposition to the Government. Unfortunately, neither most Labour MPs, nor the trade union top dogs, nor NUS are interested in such a campaign.
Fortunately persistent propaganda and campaigning by the Campaign for Free Education has created a layer of student union officers and activists who understand what free education really means and are willing to fight for it. On 3 December, the day of NUS's lobby of Parliament, Oxford University Student Union - long affiliated to the CFE - began distributing draft copies of its "Alternative White Paper". This thoughtful, carefully-costed document advocates increased taxation on the rich to fund free education; when the final version is published in January, with CFE support, it will provide a campaigning tool to change the terms of the debate.
If we are to defeat the Government, we need a campaign of direct action to make life as difficult as possible for ministers, loyalist Labour MPs and the business interests that support them; but we also need the student movement to link up with the left of the labour movement in a fight to defeat the Government ideologically, as well as in the Commons vote.