Why I ... am prepared to withhold my tuition fees again

July 2, 1999

Kate Atkinson is a second-year student at Balliol College, Oxford University. Last year she tried to withhold her tuition fees and this year is taking part in a mass protest against payment

I withheld my Pounds 1,000 tuition fees last year because I believe that, in an ideal world, a university education should be free. But as students benefit from the extra earning power a degree gives them, it is reasonable they should make some contribution. We drafted an alternative for the government, in the form of a graduate tax proposal. This would allow students to pay for their education once they had earned enough. Many of them will be deterred by the thought of leaving university, aged 22, with debts of about Pounds 12,000.

At the crux of last year's campaign, friends told me that although I had done well and had made my point, I should pay the fees and then carry on campaigning into the next academic year. So I gave the university 1,000 pound coins. By that stage, I had been denied access to the library and computer services, which made studying a bit of a joke. Balliol College also threatened to stop me entering my residence. They will not have that leverage next year when we all move into privately owned properties.

We want to get more colleges on board for next year. Many are already planning mass non-payment campaigns. We have been distributing pledge cards to students and freshers to draw their attention to the fees issue. Last year's campaign was very disorganised - there was no unified action across Oxford. If we get enough people to pledge their support next year then the university cannot take any effective sanctions against us. We expect hundreds more first-years to join us.

I am hoping, of course, that I have not jeopardised my degree. So far I have not, although campaigning does take up a lot of my time. My tutors have stayed very professional. I think some support what I am doing, but none has come out and said so.

Although the anti-fees demonstrations at other universities and colleges were unrelated to my own, I feel I did really achieve something. Just raising an awareness of the issue is enough. The situation in the Scottish Parliament is really exciting, as fees are back at the top of the agenda again. Hopefully the Lib Dems will not back down on their promises. Even if they do, at least the argument has been kept alive.

The debate is not just about students and hardship, it is about the principle. Imposing fees on students will have a detrimental effect on universal access to higher education, and this problem has not yet been properly addressed. We will keep campaigning until everyone is aware of our arguments against fees, and until we rally students out of their apathy.

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