Grasp the nettle

April 7, 1995

Student leaders split last week over whether their members should contribute to tuition fees.

I have just returned from my third and final National Union of Students conference. I feel exhausted, as anyone who attends the gruelling affair would, by four days of mental exhaustion from 9am to 11pm. But I feel I have made my mark.

It is not every day that at the age of 23 you are quoted on the front page of a national newspaper (unless you are a murderer or football star) but I achieved that distinction last week. Why? Because, along with a number of other universities and colleges, the NUS call for research into alternative forms of funding for students was passed.

I have been accused of "selling myself out" but I believe that a review of education funding is essential. I am an independent student unionist. In NUS terms it is very important to state your territory - everyone is pigeon-holed into political categories. It helps delegates to know where your agenda lies. But I believe my politics do not come into it. I believe that what has been done is to set the NUS back on to the proactive, and not reactive to Government policy.

Deciding to push for this change was not easy. Even now I wonder whether it was all a foolish mistake but the vote at conference tells me that I am not alone in my beliefs.

The reality is that students have been losing the battle for 16 years. A commitment to full grants and benefits is an ideal which may no longer be tenable. Not even the Labour Party is certain that it can extend the economic net to sustain growth of student numbers.

We advocate greater expansion in higher education, a policy which I believe is as important to Britain's economy as it is to the individuals who benefit.

But as a result there has been a cut in student grants. In effect students have become truly socialist in sharing the cost of expansion. This current policy, however, has not worked. Yes, we have seen a rapid expansion, so much so that student numbers have had to be capped. But we have also seen a massive increase in hardship.

The current system is failing us, the students. I have been extremely fortunate not to have to rely on my local education authority to provide me with a grant and yet I owe more than Pounds 1,000 to the ill-fated Student Loans Company.

I know what it feels like to have gas and electricity bills and water rates pour through the letter box together with a note from my bank manager informing me that yet again I have exceeded the limit agreed only a week before. I know what it is like to see the book list from the department, realise that the library stock is insufficient, and panic.

Yet I attend one of the best-funded universities in this country. What, I ask myself, is it like for others? What is it like for part-time students whose ability to claim benefits has just been cut? Or for mature students who are unable to balance their studies with part-time evening work because of family commitments, or further education students who look to the financial burdens suffered by their friends as a reason not to continue to study?

Britain's current education funding system is failing us. No student should have to suffer poverty and debt simply to gain an education. There are two major options for this country - do we re-affirm our commitment to providing a free but fair education system or does the need and desire for increased access suggest that it is time to look for some form of contribution to funding?

Greater numbers entering into higher education do not necessarily mean better quality, and with concerns about debt and poverty always present, many courses are suffering.

It is time that we, the students, accepted the statistics that have been around for a number of years. We need to realise that just maybe we are no longer in a position whereby every student can be entitled to a full grant and full benefits.

Students have been left out of the debate because our policy nationally has been too extreme. We need are the facts and the costs and then we need to set the agenda.

My belief is that no one should be excluded from entering further and higher education because of their inability to pay and that no student's ability to study should be affected because of a need to take up work in order to remain free of poverty or debt.

Higher education should be free on the point of entry, and provide students with a living grant but if increased access is to occur can we really have our cake and eat it?

Madeleine Durie is president of the University of Nottingham Union.

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