Why I ...believe we should take sit-ins over tuition fees to Westminster

February 18, 2000

Justine Stephens

General secretary

Goldsmiths College

student union

We sat in the Department for Education and Employment for four and a half hours last Friday and were then offered the chance to send a delegation of five to speak to education minister Baroness Blackstone. We had a vote, which was split, but discussed it further and decided a delegation should go and see her, if I took minutes.

We asked her opinion on expulsions of students because of inability to pay. She said that if students could not pay their tuition fees, they should be excluded. After all, their parents' ability to pay had been means tested - so they could afford the fees. If they had split from their family, she said, there were access funds, which the government had increased, to help with costs.

We asked her about paying fees in instalments because a lot of students cannot afford to pay in two big chunks. She said universities should look at how they can be more generous with the instalments.

Then we asked for her general thoughts on tuition fees. She said students who paid tuition fees were investing in their future because graduates would earn 20 per cent more than non-graduates over their lifetime.

We said women graduates often earned less than male non-graduates, but she said this was the wrong comparison.

We also wanted to hear her opinion on the Cubie report (which outlines a different package of finance for Scottish students) but she refused to answer. But she did say that the tuition fee system was socialist because it was redistribution of wealth.

The most positive thing that came out of the day was that we took the issue to the government. Occupations within colleges are empowering for students, but the publicity raised from them is quite small. This got quite a lot of publicity.

Also, a lot of us feel that colleges are placed in the position of being tax collectors. While we do not want the colleges to collect tuition fees it is really the government that is making them do it.

The last occupation we had at Goldsmiths created a division between students because it disturbed their studies. It is more positive to target government.

The fact that we got to speak to Baroness Blackstone says something. Obviously we did not get the answers we wanted, but at least we made our points. But nothing is set in stone and I imagine there will be increased action and increased pressure (on universities and government to abolish tuition fees).

Interview by Harriet Swain

Are sit-ins the right way for students to persuade government to give them a better financial deal?

Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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