Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Scrap This Broken Fees System

A discussion document for Bangor University Socialist Students.

At the beginning of September NUS launched their latest report into higher education funding, entitled ‘Broke and Broken’. Inside it sets out a quite damning critique of the top-up fees system that was created by the 2004 Higher Education Act and of the governments plans to lift the cap they set on top-up fees.

The document starts out by noting that by lifting the cap would raise student debts to unprecedented levels – a student paying £7000 a year in fees and claiming maximum living expenses in London would owe about £37,000 by the time they graduated (and some universities are pushing for the new cap to be higher than that!). They also point out that students would need to be earning over £25,000 to begin paying off just the annual interest of a debt of £25,000 – they note that an Association of Graduate Recruiters survey found that £24,500 was the average starting salary for a graduate position, but the report points out “many graduates do not take jobs designated as ‘graduate’ jobs, so the true average of all post-graduation salaries is likely to lower than this figure.”(pg.6)

Top-up fees were also supposed to widen access to universities, but the report shows that students going to the prestigious Russell Group universities are more likely to be from higher socio-economic groups and have gone to private schools. Furthermore, there is also an inequality in the bursaries that universities can provide to poorer students (another key plank of the 2004 reforms). As the report points out, “institutions at the top end of the market of prestige are able to give large needs-based bursaries to their relatively sparse population of students from low income backgrounds…The low end of the market of prestige has far more students from low income backgrounds, and these institutions cannot afford to provide as much support to individuals.”(pg.4)

The report in conclusion comes out with no clear recommendations, with instead NUS President, Wes Streeting’s introduction to the report saying “our next duty is to produce a rigorous alternative policy, and we will do so in the coming months.”(pg.1) and also uses his introduction to take a swipe at campaigning for free education, arguing “…I know the debate has moved on and we won’t tin by dredging up the old arguments.”(pg1)

In truth, Streeting and the NUS leadership have already made up their minds as to what they want. As Streeting details in the debate between himself and Matt Dobson in the latest issue of the Student Socialist, NUS are arguing for a graduate tax to fund higher education. But such a tax will mean a similar drain on graduate students resources as paying off a student debt, with the added problem that it won’t be written off after 25 years. How will low paid graduates (for example those who go into some public or voluntary sector work) be able to buy a house and afford increased living costs as the coming recession hits? It doesn’t really solve the problem at all.

The Broke and Broken document also makes a big play of the fact that the businesses that benefit from the education students get hardly contribute anything to it, they simply reap the rewards. But a graduate tax proposal doesn’t change any of this, instead, as Socialist Students argue, the cuts in corporation tax should be reversed, tax loopholes should be closed to bring in more revenue and fundamentally the biggest companies in the economy should be taken into public ownership so their wealth can be used for public need rather than private profit.
NUS also has announced that they will be holding local days of action on student debt. About time too! Socialist Students organised the first Campaign to Defeat Fees (CDF) day of action over a year and a half ago and have been calling on NUS to organise action even before then. Whilst we will support NUS’s ‘Students in the Red’ day on November 5th, we will use that and the CDF day of action on the 16th October to call for the NUS to also organise National Action that goes further than the mere lobbying of parliament NUS proposes. Socialist Students will also continue calling for local Students Unions to back the CDF, including at the referendum being held in October at Bangor University.

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