Union discontent may surface in rebellion over loans and fees

July 6, 2001

Growing union frustration with the government's public sector policies may manifest itself in a Labour Party conference mutiny over university tuition fees and student loans.

Some of the country's largest trade unions, as well as ordinary Labour Party members, are unhappy with key parts of government education policy, including upfront tuition fees of £1,075 a year and the decision to scrap means-tested maintenance grants and replace them with loans.

The unions, including the GMB, Unison and the Transport and General Workers (T&G), are concerned primarily with the government's emerging public sector policies, which would increase the use of private firms in the National Health Service and schools.

The three unions will share a joint platform at a fringe meeting at this year's Labour Party conference. A T&G motion, backed by GMB and Unison, to the Trades Union Congress conference, two weeks before the Labour conference, says that increased private sector involvement would diminish the ethos of service that underpins the public sector.

But while the unions are concerned primarily with the threat to the public sector - which tends to exclude universities as they are viewed as autonomous - other areas of concern, such as tuition fees and loans, could resurface as contentious issues if government takes a hard line on privatisation.

Dan Hodges, spokesman for the GMB, said: "If the government continues its aggressive push towards the unions and prevents debate about the public services, it may well be that unions that were... willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt, may well present alternative views. We may have a number of other options then to express our discontent in other contentious areas such as university tuition fees."

Unison spokeswoman Anne Mitchell said: "We would like to see the abolition of tuition fees. But at this stage we are concentrating on issues of creeping privatisation."

T&G spokesman Richard Darlington said the union would not be broadening the debate on privatisation in the public sector.

Higher education unions such as the Association of University Teachers are keeping their powder dry at this stage, banking instead on a decent settlement for higher education in next year's review of departmental spending targets.

AUT spokesman Andrew Pakes said: "The government has signalled... that it is keen to make amends for the years of underinvestment under the Conservatives and the AUT will be supportive as long as this is the case."

Tom Wilson, head of universities for lecturers' union Natfhe, said:

"Perhaps, if the big unions begin to feel less restrained by their links with the Labour Party, they may still come out and say fees and the abolition of grants are a disaster for poorer students."

Owain James, president of the National Union of Students, said: "There is a very real chance that the debate over fees and grants will reignite. Under the present system, the poorest students pay the most and by and large they will be the sons and daughters of the members of the T&G, Unison and GMB."

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