After South Africa, our turn: scrap student fees!

Submitted by Matthew on 15 November, 2017 - 12:59 Author: Chris Reynolds

After Germany in 2014, South Africa looks like becoming the next country to scrap university tuition fees. And more and more people are determined to add England and Wales to the list.

In a video released to support a student demonstration in London for free education on 15 November, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has said: “Everybody should have access to high quality from the cradle to the grave, without being forced into debt and anxiety. No one should be shut out. That’s why I support the demonstration for free education organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts [NCAFC]. And Labour in government will deliver it”.

Through a shift in opinion in recent years, even more conservative sections of the National Union Students have come to support free education on paper, but the 15 November demonstration has not been backed by the NUS central leadership.

It has been down to NCAFC, a grass-roots network dating back to the 2010 protests against the Tories’ big increases in student fees, to organise the 15 November march. More than 60 student unions across the country have mobilised for it, from as far away as Bangor and Falmouth. Even Scottish students, from Aberdeen for example, have mobilised for it, though Scottish universities do not charge fees to Scottish students.

The 15 November protest has also called for living grants for all, a halt to campus cuts, and heavier taxation of the rich to fund those changes. Hansika Jethnani, an NCAFC organiser, says: “We refuse to lie down in the face of the government’s relentless attacks on education. Tuition fees are fundamentally illegitimate – education is a public good, not a product, and it should be funded by progressive taxation on the rich. The orthodoxy that students can be charged more and more has been shattered.”

The Tory government is under heavy pressure on the issue, but — beset by budget worries because of its Brexit plans, and obviously unwilling to tax the rich — has shifted only a few millimetres. It has promised to increase the income threshold above which ex-students start repaying from £21,000 a year from £25,000 from April 2018. It will leave the maximum fee from September 2018 at £9,250, rather than raising it to £9,500 as previously planned.

That measure’s immediate effect is likely to be fierce cuts across campuses as university bosses try to compensate for their £250 per student loss without cutting their own salaries, which range up to £451,000 for Bath University’s Glynis Breakwell.

The rumoured move to scrap fees in South Africa is a bid to prop up his crumbling support by president Jacob Zuma. It is tied with Zuma sacking his higher education minister, Blade Nzimande, leader of the South African Communist Party, who says that the fee-scrapping is “unworkable”. The SACP, a major force within the ruling African National Congress, has been at odds with Zuma on other issues. Zuma had previously been increasing fees, but backed down from that in 2015 after weeks of student protests culminated in a mass demonstration outside the seat of government in Pretoria.

• NCAFC has a day of action on campuses on 29 November, and a winter conference on 9-10 December. Details: here

The rent is too damn high!

Students at the University of Surrey have now joined the nation-wide campaign to lower rents on campuses.

Surrey, Cut the Rent demands cutting and capping rent to £100 per week as well as the creation of a new accommodation bursary by the University. Despite Surrey claiming to be one of the cheapest universities in the UK, students here pay as much as 80% of their loans on accommodation, presumably helping pay for the VC’s £300k salary, chauffeur driven cars and first class flights.

Rents continue to increase above inflation and the cheaper (but already expensive) accommodation is being demolished to make way for new luxury rooms. Campaign founder Jake Roberts said: “we think that’s fundamentally unjust”. The campaign is preparing for a possible rent strike early next year. But this isn’t just a problem facing Surrey.

Other “Cut the Rent” campaigns that have been organised across the country, including “UCL Cut the Rent”, who, following multiple rent strikes and demonstrations, forced their university to freeze rents, reduce rents for the cheapest 30% of UCL’s accommodation, and increase UCL’s accommodation bursary for students from low income backgrounds by £350,000.

Students at Sussex brought down the rent in some buildings. Bristol’s accommodation failed fire tests after Grenfell. In Bath, despite a £3.5m surplus, students are complaining of faulty and dangerous appliances. We need democratically run campuses, controlled by students and staff, and rents at a level that works for all of us, without any of our money going to line the pockets of the people at the top.

This struggle should also link up with the wider fight for lower rents nationwide and for a massive house building project.

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