Derby day for student funding

May 26, 1995

Students give up fight for free education", is the headline some would have us believe of the National Union of Students education funding review. But a much more considered process is going on within the student movement.

As delegates from all over the United Kingdom descend on Derby for this Tuesday's extraordinary conference it is for student unionists to design a new policy free from the empty slogans of the past.

No political party or national organisation has, as yet, effected a thorough policy review. Perhaps a series of low-key announcements in the summer is what we can expect as each decides a new approach for the first draft of election manifestos.

The challenge for the NUS is to change that process and to ensure a public debate on our country's future. Most importantly it is the NUS's task to guarantee that a student perspective is built into the process so that we set the agenda for once instead of reading the autocues of others.

As part of that process we are determined that we have a funding system to match our long-term ideals.

Existing NUS policy costs Pounds 8.68 billion per year - a large price tag for policy dating from 1979. Undoubtedly that invoice will increase considerably if the student movement is to remain true to our educational objectives of expansion, quality and fairness in education.

Primarily, education must become more representative of society. To do this we must expand further the numbers in study. Until we do we shall find it difficult to compete internationally or have our lecture theatres more representative of the make-up of society as a whole.

Second, we must be intolerant of student hardship. Record levels of financial difficulty are forcing even more students into part-time work, full-time overdrafts.

This is most marked in those students who do not have a family network to rely upon. It is clear that hardship of the levels now experienced must have no place in our future. Students should have access to more money while in study.

Finally, if education does create equality of opportunity in society then such an ideal should be dominant within education itself. I would welcome an end to the charging of fees so that education becomes free at the point of entry. It is also necessary to provide a level educational field for part-time, further education, postgraduate/mature students, students with disabilities and others who may currently face specific difficulties.

As the NUS considers the future policy these are the ideals to which I believe we must commit our energies. I say that in the knowledge that each one will certainly cost and if our commitment is more than simply well-constructed rhetoric then we must be equally determined to consider the potential solutions to the problems of funding our ideals.

Demanding massive increases in taxation is the simple answer. However, it is even easier for all politicians to ignore, particularly when we consider existing NUS policy would cost 6.5 pence on the basic rate of tax or pence on the top rate.

My own view is that there are many options which would clearly jeopardise our ideals. The charging of fees, a privatised loans system, the suggested vouchers scheme and a pure graduate tax are difficult to reconcile with our vision.

It seems certain that the conference will be faced with a clear choice between maintaining our policy founded upon the misconceptions of the 1979 educational world or combining a new package of policies which ensures that all who benefit contribute to some extent.

The case for the tax-payer doing so on behalf of society is, I believe, accepted. The argument for business to reinvest in education must be won.

The debate for students repaying an element within a sensitive framework will be decided on Tuesday.

Jim Murphy is president of the National Union of Students.

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