Political potatoes too hot to handle

November 10, 1995

Student finances and support systems are at the centre of an intense debate again. It has echoes of the 1960s - the preoccupations then were expansion of higher education versus a threat to quality, means-testing of parental contributions, overseas student fees, the domination of higher education by social classes I and II. Plus ca change.

Other similar strains are in the air. One has only to contemplat e the current economic stagnation, a Government losing the will to govern, the return of Mary Quant clothes and Beatles music, and one is tempted to prepare for the inevitable student sit-ins by buying a sleeping bag and stocking up on black eye-liner. Back then sit-ins became so common that when I was chair of the non-teaching staff unions in the 1970s, I helped to negotiate an agreement with the National Union of Students about how to deal with allegations of intimidation by students on the one hand or by over-zealous security staff on the other.

Students were so short of cash that they would offer to take on jobs normally done by non-teaching staffs. The trade unions were so concerned that we forged another deal with the NUS, which is still in operation, that students would not undermine the job security of the lowest paid in higher education. In return trade unions recognised that students could continue to undertake casual work in areas where they traditionally worked. There was then a recognition that the genuine financial difficulties of mainly middle-class students should not be solved at the expense of the non-teaching staff whose taxes helped pay for higher education but who usually only entered the university lecture hall to move the chairs.

Our "new solutions" were that a progressive taxation system was recognition that university education gave you an advantage which you would pay back later. Since then the tax system has been reversed - the less you earn, the more proportionately you pay. We urged the governments of the day, both Labour and Conservative, not to discriminate against overseas students by charging them higher fees. We argued that we would lose Caribbean, African and Asian students to the United States and the Soviet Union, and we did. We said that undermining state support for grants and fees would deter more women than men and would discriminate against working-class and ethnic minority students.

The issues remain the same today and they are too hot for politicians to handle. Taxation is a taboo word. Vague mutterings of "employer support", "learning accounts" or "vouchers" fill the air. The good old chestnut - the two-year degree - has been dusted down. The economic solution in the long term would be a genuinely progressive taxation system. Short-term measures could be to attract more of the 2.8 million overseas students due to appear in the next 15 years - more than half from Asia. However, this presents problems of accommodation and language skills training.

The likelihood is that higher education will stagger along under a combined system of taxpayers' money, parental subsidy and student debt until some controversy sparks off a political response. Many European campuses are in turmoil. Perhaps, like the 1960s, it will start in France. President Chirac cannot keep his electoral promise to reform student support. So get out your Bob Dylan records and Leonard Cohen poetry and watch this space.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education students' union, and a member of the national executive of Unison and the TUC General Council.

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