Education under attack

Students on the march at Glasgow Uni, 20/10/2010

Higher education in the UK is facing a swathing, ideological attack from the coalition government – that will fundamentally change the face of university and college education as we know it.

Last week’s publication of the Browne Review, on the future of higher education funding, recommended raising the limit on tuition fees for UK students at English universities from the current level of £3290 to a staggering £12,000. It’s anticipated, however, that only the top universities will charge this amount, with most students in England facing annual fees of £7,000.

In Scotland, university and college education has been free since 2007, when the graduate endowment, a £2,300 fee paid after graduating, was finally scrapped. This followed the abolition of annual tuition fees in 1999, one of the first acts of the new Scottish Parliament.

Making further and higher education free has been one of the most progressive and useful things the devolved government has achieved over its eleven years. And although the current situation is far from perfect – the funding body SAAS is a bureaucratic mess and the SNP have failed to deliver on their promise to ‘dump student debt’ and reintroduce grants – it’s still a hell of a lot better than in England, where students can expect to incur massive debts just to pay their tuition.

But now pressure is mounting on the Scottish Government to reintroduce fees, ahead of a review on the future of higher education funding, due this December. A similar review for England last week recommend that the cap on tuition fees should be raised to a staggering £12,000 a year. For a standard three year degree, this could entail nearly £40,000 worth of debts, before living expenses and rent even enter the equation. For those study longer courses like medicine or postgraduate degrees, the cost would be even higher. With the report also recommending a rise in the interest rate on loans to some 5.3 percent, the debt would burden the vast majority of students for much of their working life, only being written off after thirty years.

Today, in the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, Chancellor Gideon ‘George’ Osborne announced £3 billion in cuts for university teaching – a cut of 80 percent, double what any other department or local authority is facing. And they want students to fill in the funding gap.

What it represents is an almost total departure by the state in the funding of higher education tuition, with the burden being passed to the individual, cue the sudden need for such massive fees. It’s also a clear attempt to introduce a market into the university sector; currently, every institution charges the full £3,290, but with the ability to raise fees to nearly quadruple this sum, it’s likely that only the top universities will charge the full £12k. For students from working class families, this will simply price them out.

Due to the moves to dramatically raise fees down south, the management of every Scottish university have now united to say that so they aren’t ‘left behind’ English unis, they want more money – and facing hefty government spending cuts – they want it from students. Some heads, including Glasgow Uni’s Anton Muscatelli, are also pushing for ‘variable rates’ for different courses, which would involve charging different fees depending on their degree, again a blatant attempt to marketise education along the lines of US universities.

Muscatelli has said that Glasgow University will go bust by 2013 ‘unless corrective action is taken’. This means one thing: cuts, and lots of them – which the GMB union on campus have condemned as ‘savage, needless and ideologically driven’. Indeed, while the Tories agenda of rampant neo-liberalism and cutting back on the state has been laid bare, many of our country’s university principals share a similar ideology, as they attempt to drive education in the direction of big business.

Tuition fees remain highly controversial in Scotland, and chances are the SNP and Labour will shy away from any hints that they might bring them back, until after next May’s election anyway. What we do have on ours hands though is a huge struggle against university managements and a Tory government who do not share the same interests as the vast majority of students. France shows the way.

The National Union of Students, along with the University and Colleges Union which represents academic staff, has called a national demonstration against tuition fee rises & cuts in Higher Education funding on Wednesday 10 November, in central London. Coaches are running from every uni, and some colleges, in Scotland – ask at your student union. More info at: www.demo2010.org

1 Comment

  1. Mhairi Mcalpine says:

    I still remember, as a young graduate, facing a £1K overdraft when I finished university in 1992 – with jobs scarce and interest rates peaking, this amount of debt was terrifying for someone who had never earned more than a couple of hundred per month. Graduating with a debt of £40k is super scary – 5 times the cost of my first home and nearly twice the average wage. No one but the richest will now go to university in England – and England will be the poorer for it.

    The only salvation that we may have in Scotland is full independence, only then can we properly hold politicians to account for their spending decisions. Only then can we demonstrate to our English and Welsh cousins that there is a better way and it doesnt involve shafting the poorest, the youngest and the weakest, only then can we build a better society.

    Until we have control over our own society, our own finances and our own future we are just pissing in the wind.

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