Socialism Today - Tuition fees victory in sight
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Issue 45, September 1999

Tuition fees victory in sight

AFTER A six-month investigation, the Scottish parliament's inquiry into student tuition fees and the funding of higher and further education has reported. The Cubie committee's recommendations have finally sunk tuition fees in Scotland, and will probably result in the return of the student grant for a limited number of students.

As we go to press, the Scottish parliament has still to vote on the report, but with a clear majority of members of the Scottish parliament (MSP's) committed to abolishing fees, and most calling for the full implementation of the Cubie report, it is most likely that up-front tuition fees will be abolished in Scotland.

The inquiry's findings reflected the mass opposition to the abolition of free education by the Blair government. The report itself notes the 'widespread discontentment with the existing system regarding means testing, hardship, fees and loans'. In all the public meetings and the hundreds of submissions, one clear message was repeated time and again - fees have to go and a decent grant introduced to tackle student poverty.

The report's recommendations include the abolition of up-front tuition fees from October 2001 with the introduction of a graduate endowment scheme, which means students would have to pay back 3,075 (exactly three year's fees) after graduating and getting a job that pays over 25,000 a year. Also, students in Scotland would be entitled to an income of 4,100 if living away from home, (3,240 if living at home) of which half - 2,050 (1,620) - would be available in the form of a grant or bursary for students whose parent(s) or spouses have an income of less than 23,000 a year. For other students the full 4,100 would be available in the form of a pay-back loan. If the parent(s) earn over 47,000 a year no loan would be available at all.

 

In addition, low-income students would have the right to sign-on (claim unemployment benefit) during the summer holidays and some changes to council tax benefit would be proposed. Further education students over the age of 18 would be entitled to the same income as higher education students and no student should have to work more than ten hours a week during term time.

In all there are over 50 recommendations which shatter New Labour's flagship policy on higher education, the purpose of which, they claimed, was to make places in higher education more widely available. Of course, it is likely that the Cubie report will not be implemented in full, especially the right of students to sign-on during the holidays which would need Westminster legislation. Nevertheless, the dam has been breached and the fight for free education has been given a big boost.

The likely end of tuition fees in Scotland and the introduction of a limited grant are a body blow to the government who, within weeks of taking power in 1997, had levied fees on students and abolished the remaining grant entitlement. This should be seen as a victory for all those who have fought for the principle of free education and who have been prepared to campaign, demonstrate and protest to defeat the government on this issue. It will give a massive boost to the campaign in England, Wales and Northern Ireland where, against the background of the demand that New Labour follow the example of Scotland, non-payment of tuition fees is set to increase.

 

Clearly, even if fully accepted by the Scottish parliament, these proposals do not, however, add up to the re-introduction of free education. Fees would be paid after graduation rather than before - in effect, a form of graduate tax. The grant would amount to only 2,050 for low-income students, leaving all students with big loans to pay back after finishing university. In fact, Cubie only recommends that students receive 4,100 for an academic year - an increase of around 12 a week on the current income for a student living away from home. Recent studies have shown that it costs a student around 5,900 a year to live in Scotland. In other words, students will still be forced to work long hours in part-time work to bridge the gap.

Cubie is proposing, moreover, that his report should not be implemented until 2001, leaving students facing the prospect of paying fees for another 18 months. Nor can socialists support the proposal that students whose parent(s) earn over 47,000 should receive no loan or grant. We are, in general, opposed to means testing and tying young adults, many of whom will be living away from home, to the income of their parent(s).

Forty-seven percent of all 18-24 year olds in Scotland attend higher education and tens of thousands more will go into further education. The Cubie proposals, while marking a step forward, will not tackle the endemic levels of student poverty or the lack of investment in education. While poised on the eve of a significant victory, the fight continues to win free education in Scotland and throughout Britain. Non-payment of tuition fees and the defence of non-payers must continue. This should run alongside a major campaign to win a student grant for all that covers the cost of living (6,000 a year in Scotland), a decent minimum wage, and the right of students to claim housing and council tax benefits, as well as income support, if they do not work during the holidays.

 

Philip Stott
CWI Scotland


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