When the recently elected Conservative and Liberal British government announced that it wanted to transfer the burden of funding education from the state to students, the UCU and its allies from student, parent and teaching all came together to build the first wave of opposition to cuts in vital public services.
Students and academics led a solid resistance through demonstrations and lobbying, grappling with over-zealous policing and adverse weather, to oppose the raise in fees.
In December, however, the government successfully passed legislation to triple university tuition fees and raise interest levels on student debt. In one fell swoop, it made England the most expensive country in the world in which to study at a public university, at a time when we are already lagging behind our main economic rivals in terms of producing graduates.
Access to education should be based on academic ability, not an individual’s ability to pay. UCU’s analysis of the impact of the cuts to universities’ teaching budgets revealed that all universities in England will have to charge an average fee of almost £7,000 a year just to recoup the money the government has cut from the higher education sector.
Unfair pressure on students
Increasing the rate of interest on fees for tuition and living costs means that people forced to borrow the most have no option when it comes to being saddled with debt. There is no doubt that some students will consider cheaper courses to try and keep their debts down. That cannot be good for the individual student, universities or the country. We don’t want brilliant young doctors shying away from medicine, for example, because they consider it to be too expensive
The government had the opportunity to introduce a progressive and fair system of funding higher education, but opted instead to hammer students and their families. Big business benefits from a plentiful supply of graduates and it’s time that it started footing its share of the higher education bill.
Lord Dearing led the calls for business, as a key beneficiary of higher education, to contribute in his landmark review of university funding. By simply increasing the top rate of corporation tax – the tax paid by those companies making the largest profits – to just the G7 average we could raise significant money for higher education. This would have helped to raise aspiration among young people and allow us to move the debate away from just looking at new ways to fleece money out of students and their families.
Attack on education
On March 26, UCU members joined the March for an Alternative to cuts organised by the British Trades Union Congress. It was one the biggest show of opposition to the government’s ideological attack on education and public services. The demand of trade unionist was for an alternative in which rich individuals and big companies pay their full share of tax – instead of avoiding it – and the banks pay a transactions tax from which we strain every sinew to create jobs and boost sustainable economic growth to generate the prosperity which is the only long term way to close the deficit and reduce the nation's debt. The campaign of resistance goes on.
By Sally Hunt, General Secretary of University and College Union (UCU), UK