The greatest deterrent

November 11, 1994

Students took to the streets of London on Wednesday. In doing so they ignored the example set them by the Union of Communications Workers. The UCW, making use of its nationwide network, has just run a sophisticated lobbying campaign to defeat Post Office privatisation with never a demonstration, banner or squashed tomato.

Students could use similar tactics -- institutions are liberally scattered through marginal constituencies and students have families yet more widely spread. With expansion the constituency on which students can call is greatly increased.

The trouble is that students, unlike the UCW, cannot afford to be clear about their aims since their aims vary and conflict depending on whether they are full-timers bewailing shrinking grants and rising loans or part-timers struggling to meet fees and living costs without access to either. Furthermore, whatever their aims, students are fighting for themselves where the Post Office workers were able to base their campaign on the interests of the public.

The letters from students on page 14 show how divided even Labour students now are over what should be done. Conflating debt with hardship in a society where more than two thirds of families are buying their homes on a mortgage is hypocritical: much of the hardship arises from reluctance to take out loans.

The principle of borrow-now-pay-later is one with which our society is familiar and reasonably comfortable. The trouble is not the principle but the absurd unfairness and waste of the present scheme. Students should be campaigning for loans to be made available to all students, including part-timers and postgraduates, on a sound and efficient basis.

Second, to argue that loans put people off going into higher education is to fly in the face of the evidence in a way which ill becomes students. Quoting students as saying they have at some time considered dropping out is not evidence of deterrence -- it is far too weak an indicator. Nor is sixth formers' anxiety about the debts they expect to incur in higher education.

The biggest deterrent to wider participation is rationing of places. Arguments that, given insufficient money, it would be better to restrict access and fund those who get in more generously are so breathtakingly selfish that it is surprising intelligent young people have the gall to put them forward.

Students are right to campaign and to expect to be included in debate. They would, however, present a more edifying spectacle if they were to lobby for a system which provided wider access; which gave more help to those whose families cannot support them; and accepted less subsidy for those who can. It would even be nice if they considered whether paying lecturers better might have a higher priority than their own wish to escape temporary debt.

The use of street tactics to defend self- interest may be self-defeating. If it means that politicans continue to back off from reform, what will be preserved is an increasingly unfair and shoddy system.

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