Labour's proposals for £6,000 university fees utterly fail to challenge the assault on higher education in Britain. This year the student movement must link its struggle to the wider movement against austerity.
Last week at the Labour Party conference, Ed Milliband pledged to lower the cap on university tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000. This proposal reduces the differences between the opposition and the government policies on higher education into an argument over pricing, without addressing the wider ideological struggle over how our education system is run.
In fact the proposed cap on university tuition fees puts Labour’s position very close to that of the Con-Dem government. As many will remember, when the Con-Dem government launched plans to raise fees to £9,000 they claimed that universities would only charge above £6,000 in 'exceptional circumstances'. Both parties support charging students more for education and fail to look at it as a public good, which should be government funded.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has found that the proposed changes make no difference to graduates earning below £35,000. The average graduate salary is only £25,000 a year so Labour’s proposals will not benefit most working class people.
When one also considers that fees are not planned to rise until next September, and that this policy is being publicised as a ‘stop gap’ - one that Labour would campaign on if an election were called tomorrow - it becomes clear that this is not really a pledge to lower fees, but merely a proposal to increase them by less. This means that whoever wins the next election, students will be paying more for their education than they were under the previous Labour administration.
Liam Burns, president of the NUS, reacted by saying that this ‘isn’t going to win the support of students’. He is right that this policy will fail to win much support, however, the NUS itself has often failed to oppose the Con-Dem governments policies in an effective way.
For example the NUS did not call a second national demonstration last winter, and recently voted not to call a national demonstration this term. Although they voted to support the 9th November demonstration, it is becoming clear that the NUS are not actively promoting it, as they did with the 10th November protest in 2010.
The Labour party’s proposal, although weak and regressive in itself, at least helps put the issue of how our education system is funded and run in the media before the 9th November protest.
It also exposes the nature of the attack by the Con-Dem government, which plans to cut corporation tax by 5 percent in the year 2014-15. To propose a tax cut for Britain’s businesses while nailing students with higher fees and cutting the welfare state shows who will pay for the Con-Dem’s deficit reduction plan.
Miliband's insipid proposals confirm Labour's inability to defend the interests of ordinary people. They reveal the potential for a national demonstration that puts the case forward for free education, utilising all the NUS’s organisational resources.
But they also demonstrate the need for the student movement to link its struggle to the wider national campaigns against cuts and austerity. Up to 3 million workers could go on strike on 30th November. In order to mount the biggest and broadest possible counterattack on austerity, students must be central to this national day of action, and build for it on every campus across the country. Students said last year this was just the beginning, now it's time to co-ordinate and intensify our struggle.
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