THEY ARE only students-but could they bring down Blair?' asked the Independent on Sunday last week. It spoke of 'the growth of a rebellion that really does threaten to force the prime minister from power'.
Top-up fees are a symbol of all that's wrong with New Labour. Together with the damage done to Blair by the anti-war movement, tuition fees could be Blair's equivalent of Tory Margaret Thatcher's poll tax.
New Labour says the present college system is deterring working class students. Yet New Labour rammed through this system of loans, fees and no grants which is so damaging.
Almost 160 Labour MPs have signed a motion critical of top-up fees. But it would be a huge mistake to rely on them to defeat Blair. In the recent vote over foundation hospitals just 62 Labour MPs had the backbone to rebel, despite Labour's conference voting against the proposals. Six members of the left wing Campaign Group voted with the government.
A few cosmetic concessions and a lot of threats could turn many 'rebels' into cheering loyalists-especially as Gordon Brown has once again given Blair a helping hand. Instead of hoping for deliverance from an army that has repeatedly run away from battle, we should push for a mass campaign by workers and students against the fees.
The last Trades Union Congress voted unanimously against top-up fees. During the debate Sally Hunt, leader of the Association of University Teachers, said, 'Forcing students to leave university with so much debt must be the best possible way to stop working class people from ever contemplating university.'
Paul Mackney, leader of the Natfhe lecturers' union, warned, 'The only new group that will go to university will be dimmer and dimmer members of the upper classes.'
But the TUC as a whole has not built on those words. For some union leaders it's OK to sound off against Blair unless it actually might unseat him. Also the leadership of the National Union of Students, dominated by Labour Students and the right wing 'independents' who work with them, is dragging its feet.
At the NUS executive on Thursday of last week just three left wingers voted for a motion calling for a national demonstration to coincide with the education bill's first reading in January. The nine other executive members, including president Mandy Telford, voted against.
Yet there have been glimpses of the action we need.
On Thursday of last week Cambridge University students, joined by delegations from sixth form colleges, demonstrated against the university's vice-chancellor. Similar actions are planned elsewhere. There are plans for a march on parliament backed by individual student unions and campaigning organisations. Trade unionists and students should demand that their leaders organise action. If that seems hard work, try waiting for salvation from MPs left to their own consciences.
Flat rate is not a fair compromise
VARIABLE TUITION fees are a key part of Blair's plan. He wants some colleges to charge £3,000 a year, others a 'modest' £1,500.
This is to ensure a market where degrees are hawked to those who can pay the top whack. These courses will lead to the best paid careers while others will get degrees that employers regard as second rate.
Universities can then 'compete'-perhaps based on the model of the railways. Many MPs object to variable fees but seek to replace them with the 'fair' system of a flat rate of, say, £2,000 for all. This would damage Blair's market but it would also mean that even fewer students from working class backgrounds go to college than now.
The solution is to get rid of the fees, not to spread the misery differently among students.