ALMOST 25,000 students marched through London on Sunday demanding free education, despite the lack-lustre campaign by the leadership of the National Union of Students (NUS) for this national demonstration and their acceptance of £3,000-a-year tuition fees.
The most popular slogans on the march expressed the mood of students. These included: ‘What do we want? Free education! When do we want it? Now!’ ‘Education must be free! We won’t pay tuition fees!’ and ‘Top-up fees have got to go!’
NUS President Gemma Tumelty told a rally in Trafalgar Square: ‘This year, there were 15,000 fewer students. That’s a huge concern to us, particularly when the government is trying to widen participation.’
She added: ‘You’ve come to say “no” to soaring levels of debt, “no” to any attempt to lift the cap on top-up fees, and “yes” to free education and access for all.’
Students have the intelligence to see through this double talk. They can see that the NUS leadership has accepted the Labour government’s propaganda and policies.
The government is not trying to ‘widen participation’ in university education. By charging £3,000-a-year tuition fees this year, ministers know they are erecting barriers to working-class students going to university, because of fears over incurring unsustainable debts.
Calling for a ‘cap’ on top-up fees is an acceptance of the existing £3,000 tuition fees. It makes nonsense of the call for ‘free education and access to all’.
This duplicitous policy was rejected by most students on the march. As one from the University of York commented: ‘The NUS should reverse the decision to endorse the cap on tuition fees. There should be free education for all. The students have to take up the fight for free education.’
As far as most of the NUS leadership is concerned, the march was meant to be a token protest aimed at getting the Blair government to listen to their pleas for tuition fees to be frozen at £3,000, while allowing students to ‘let off steam’.
That was not the view of the vast majority of students on the demonstration!
It is clear that Blair is deaf to demands concerning top-up fees. Students also know that they, and school students who want to go to university, will only be able to do so, and have a future free from debt, if all fees are abolished and student grants restored.
Students on the London march saw it only as the beginning of the fight for free education.
It is clear that the next step must be to ensure that all student unions reject the two-faced policy of the NUS leadership. They should adopt a policy demanding the abolition of fees and the restoration of maintenance grants for all university students.
Students should elect student union representatives and delegates to next year’s NUS conference who will fight for this policy. That will create the conditions to remove those NUS leaders who advocate a cap on fees, which means accepting fees.
The Young Socialists Students Society (YSSS), the student section of the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), is leading this fight to build a new leadership in the student movement to unite students and the working class.
Tuition fees and student debt hit trade unionists, working-class and middle-class families, and the future of their children.
Paul Mackney, the Joint General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) told Sunday’s rally that his union was ‘against fees altogether’. He added: ‘Access to university education must be based on a student’s aptitude and willingness to learn, not what they are prepared to pay.’
The UCU and the major teachers’ unions, like the NUT and NASUWT, are opposed to privatisation and charges for education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. In turn, these unions have a large representation on the Trades Union Congress’s (TUC’s) General Council.
The lecturers’ and teachers’ trade unions must act on their opposition to the Labour government’s attacks on education, by uniting with students and organising mass strike action, organised with the TUC, to defeat the Blair regime.
It must be replaced with a workers’ government that will restore universal, free, state education, up to university level.