Socialist Worker

Blair's fees plan a tax on majority

Tony Blair's plan to force through university top-up fees is causing a huge storm of opposition. Joseph Choonara explains the arguments

Issue No. 1880

COMMENTATORS ARE already comparing the opposition Blair faces over fees to that hit by Margaret Thatcher when she imposed the poll tax.

The government faces the biggest ever revolt by its own MPs, and is manoeuvring to offer enough concessions to buy off opposition before publishing the detailed plans.

Blair claims his scheme will make the middle classes pay more for the benefit they get from having a university degree.

In reality the plan clobbers ordinary working class people on average wages and offers meagre amounts of compensation to the very poorest, while letting the wealthy off the hook.

The concessions being floated by education secretary Charles Clarke will not alter the fundamentals.

Blair and Clarke want top-up fees which allow universities to charge students up to £3,000 a year to study-almost three times the flat rate students are forced to pay now.

Students will not only have to accumulate debts to cover these higher fees.

They will also have debts from money borrowed under the existing student loans scheme to cover living costs while studying.

And already students face an additional £3,000 a year minimum shortfall between the most they can borrow under that student loans scheme and what they need to cover basic living costs.

That gap can only be plugged by forcing students to spend more time working in paid jobs instead of studying, or accumulating even higher debts by borrowing from banks at higher commercial interest rates.

Under Blair's scheme both the new top-up fees and money from the student loans scheme will be paid back as a 'graduate tax'.

The government's initial plan is to force graduates to start paying money back when they earn just £15,000 a year.

Blair and Clarke claim that the poorest students will get extra help under their proposals.

They say grants of up to £1,000 will be available for students whose parents have a combined income of less than £10,000 a year.

That insulting amount, less than £20 a week, will do little to dent the debt burden students will face.

The government also claims that bursaries will fund some students, although they have not explained how this system will work.

These measures will in any case help only a tiny minority of people.

Top-up fees will hit ordinary working class people hardest.

Those on really high incomes have been let off the hook by New Labour's refusal to raise taxes on the rich.

Under Blair's plans students whose parents earn a combined income of just £20,000 a year will receive no grant and no help towards fees.

A student whose father is a hospital ward assistant and whose mother is a postal worker would have a combined parental income of around £25,000.

They would not qualify for any help under the new scheme.

Clarke and Blair argue that graduates benefit from a university education and earn far higher wages than non-graduates.

The government published a figure of £400,000 for the extra amount that graduates earn in their lifetime over non-graduates.

This figure is based on what previous generations of graduates have earned.

But that comes from a time when only a small minority of young people, mainly from a middle class background, went to university and were virtually guaranteed highly paid jobs afterwards.

In 1960 just one in 20 young people went to university. Now the figure is well over a third, and the government plans to expand this to a half.

Today's graduates can no longer expect substantially higher earnings when they leave.

There is only one way to fairly fund a higher education system which is for the benefit of the whole of society.

This is to charge people through progressive income tax, under which people with a higher income pay more whether or not they personally went to college.

Lessons from across the Channel

FRENCH STUDENTS have forced their Tory government into a major retreat over higher education plans which parallel those being pushed by New Labour in Britain.

The French government had planned to give more autonomy to universities, giving them freedom to increase tuition fees as well as opening the doors to big business.

But a wave of student action including strikes, occupations and demonstrations has forced them to back down-for now.

Students in France remain suspicious that the government plans to come back with attacks, and are keeping up the campaign which over recent weeks forced the government onto the back foot.

Anger among students had been building up over the summer, following huge strikes and demonstrations by workers against the government's attacks on pension rights.

The spark for protest was lit on 5 November when 1,500 students from the university in Rennes in Brittany organised a general meeting to discuss the government's higher education proposals.

The students voted overwhelmingly for a boycott of lessons and proceeded to occupy one of the main buildings.

They turned the building into a workshop of activity, including meetings, music and other forms of political and artistic expression.

The action forced the total closure of the university.

The action at Rennes started a chain reaction in other universities, and last week students at more than one in four of the country's universities were on strike.

Students have organised weekly demonstrations drawing in university students and also students from colleges and schools.

The latest national day of mobilisation took place on Thursday of last week in 25 different towns and cities across France.

Students are concerned over the proposed increase in tuition fees from around £200 to £1,000 a year.

Delphine, a college student in Rennes, said, 'It will be difficult for working class students to afford to go to university if the proposals go ahead.'

Pierre Alexandre, a second year history student, agreed: 'It is disgusting that they could propose an increase in tuition fees which will obviously affect students from a working class background. We are for a system of European harmonisation but not like the neo-liberal system they have in Britain.'
Peter Harrison, Rennes

Tory plan is no better

NEW LABOUR'S top-up fees are hugely unpopular.

The Tories are trying to capitalise on some of the opposition.

But the Tories are as keen as Blair to not tax the rich to fund higher education.

So instead of increasing fees they want to cut the numbers going to university.

What is needed is neither this elitist Tory plan nor New Labour's fees plan, but proper taxation of the wealthy to allow all young people who desire it the chance to go to college.

Top-up fees will also take Britain closer to a US-style education system.

In the US a tiny elite study at 'Ivy League' private universities like Harvard and Yale, paying up to £17,000 a year in fees.

The majority of US students, meanwhile, attend underfunded state universities.

New Labour's top-up fees will be 'variable rate fees'.

Under the government's plan different amounts will be charged by different universities and for different courses.

The gap between the price charged by elite universities and the rest will grow over the years.

That is part of New Labour's plan to move towards a free market in university education, where every course is priced at a 'market value'.

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Sat 6 Dec 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1880
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