Levy the loaded

April 7, 1995

Last week the Labour leaders of the National Union of Students began to ditch the union's commitment to free education.

At the annual conference they announced that there would be a "review" of NUS's traditional support for full grants and the restoration of the benefits the Tory government has taken away. They voted down a motion which I had helped to draft reiterating NUS support for free education. Even last year this would have been unimaginable.

So what is happening? Why now?

In the past year Labour's Commission on Social Justice has reported. Its plan for education includes graduate tax and tuition fees. Tony Blair's Labour Party has decided that "we" cannot afford high quality, well-funded education. It seems that students' living standards will have to be cut still further.

NUS is led by the Blairite faction of Labour Students who have a mission: to make NUS safe for a Labour government. When Blair comes to power (and I will be canvassing for him as hard as anyone) he will be elected because people want a better society and a better education system.

When reality falls short of aspiration people will fight back. And students will probably be among the first to do so. The aim of Jim Murphy, the NUS president, and his cohorts is to ensure that the resources and potential of NUS are not harnessed by students to back that fight. Hence their conscious running down of NUS's campaigning activity over recent years; their attempts to clamp down on internal democracy and dissent; their actions at Young Labour and Labour Students' events in voting against grants; and hence this attempted policy shift.

I am not afraid of debate - in fact I welcome it. But there is a difference between entering into debate and throwing away your principles, which is what NUS's leaders are preparing to do, and entering the debate in order to win for students.

My starting point is what students need. In the last few months hundreds of thousands of students have taken part in local campaigning action against student poverty. In November 1994, 30,000 marched on an NUS demonstration demanding grants for all. Students do not chant: "What do we want? Graduate Tax! When do we want it? When resources allow!" At NUS conference it was claimed that "reviewing" student finance is the key issue. In reality the key issues for students are: "Shall I buy this book? Or pay my bus fare to college?" "Can I pay the rent? Or will I be evicted?" What students want from NUS is campaigning and action against the real hardship they suffer. If NUS will not stand up for their rights, who will?

Education - including further and higher education - should be one of those things that society defines as a right, that must be provided free. Like health care, education must be accessible to all.

Why? Because any form of student contribution works as a deterrent. The people it deters are those without a financial safety net; those without confidence in their career prospects; those brought up to avoid debt like the plague; those already discriminated against in the job market; those depending on what they know not who they know; those who always thought of higher education as someone else's privilege. Working-class people.

The argument for a student contribution makes one huge assumption - that higher education will only ever be enjoyed by a minority. If we could all benefit from higher education, then we could all contribute through general taxation, surely? The planned abandonment of grants gives in to the notion of a tiered education system. NUS should be fighting for the opposite - a universally acceptable, quality, mass participatory education system.

NUS should be forming policy on the basis of the needs of its members; sticking by its commitments to free education; going out to fight for it; and not selling its soul to the party of present or future government. This is not a debate about what is best for students or for education. It is about how to make life easier not for students, but for future Government ministers. It is not radical or new - selling out is as old as the hills.

If education is a right and not a privilege, how can "we" afford to pay for it. Well, "we" cannot. However there are some people in society who are very able to pay for the high quality education British students want and need - the people who have had tax handouts during the past 16 years; those who have got rich from the privatisation of public utilities.

The answer to "Who should foot the education bill?" is quite easy; increase taxes on the rich. However, some political backbone is required to stand up for the less well-off against the loaded! Many students are prepared to stand up for free education.

Kevin Sexton is NUS London area convenor.

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