Hundreds of students at the School of Oriental and African Studies, central London, took control of the college's finance and admin department for most of last week. They were fighting for students who have not paid their tuition fees. In doing so they highlighted a battle that is taking place inside every college in Britain. Students who cannot afford to pay their tuition fees, or who are refusing to pay on principle, face expulsion from college. 'If we put up with this, we can say goodbye to working class students coming to this college,' said Tam, one of the SOAS occupiers. 'I'm a third year. I don't even pay fees. But I will leave college with £8,000 to £9,000 of debt. I get a measly grant, but I would not be here without it. We would like to start an epidemic of occupations. Together students everywhere can take on the government and beat fees.' Emma, a first year music student at SOAS, said, 'It is easy to feel you are powerless in this society. These kinds of events make you feel you can achieve something. We were doing this because we care.'
And a mature student said, 'The only way forward is for all colleges to pull together and fight together. I've got a child. It's crap the way you have to live. I get £6,000 a year. It really affects you having so little money.' Most of the huge first floor of SOAS was under the control of the students from Tuesday of last week until the early hours of Saturday morning. Then police and bailiffs broke in, and evicted the students as they were half asleep. The college management provoked further fury on Monday of this week by suspending Sandy Nicholl, UNISON union branch chair at SOAS, for actively supporting the occupation.
A storm of protest quickly got the suspension lifted. And an electric 400 - strong meeting of college staff and lecturers voted on Monday to walk out if any disciplinary action was taken against Sandy. The occupation received delegations from other colleges where non-payers are under threat, such as Goldsmiths', Sussex and Oxford University. Oxford students have called a demonstration against fees on Sunday 13 February. Cambridge students are to demonstrate against rent rises on 12 February. At University College London non-payers are also under threat.
Emily Wayman from UCL says, 'People who have passed their exams, but who cannot afford to pay their tuition fees, are being threatened with expulsion. That to me is disgusting.' A student from the University of North London says, 'Our college has the second highest dropout rate in the country because so many students at our college are from poor backgrounds. We should occupy, not drop out!' The government is vulnerable over the issue.
New Labour has watered down the recommendations of the Cubie report into fees in Scotland. But up front fees have been abolished for students from Scotland who study in Scotland. The continuing turmoil in Scotland last week forced education secretary David Blunkett to bring forward a £68 million package of measures to help poorer students in England and Wales. He was effectively admitting that the abolition of grants has been a disaster. Now is the time to keep up the pressure. A student at Strathclyde University says, 'I'm sick of working all day long and only attending four lectures a week so I can pay for a poxy flat that costs £250 a month. And I'm still going to leave college with £7,000 of debt. Fees are wrong in principle. We want grants instead of loans.'
Facts of debt
- STUDENTS HAVE, on average, over £5,000 of debt when they leave college. That figure is rising.
- DROPOUT RATES for 1998-9 are estimated to have rocketed to nearly 25 percent.
- APPLICATIONS TO university from mature students in October 1999 were down by nearly 11 percent compared with the year before.
- OVER TWO thirds of students work an average of 20 hours a week to meet their basic living costs.
- SOME 60 percent of students say that work makes them miss lectures or fail to submit course work.
THE FIGHT against tuition fees is already beginning to link together a network of activists across Britain. This weekend's Socialist Worker Student Society Conference in Manchester is a brilliant opportunity to extend and deepen that network. It will pull together students who are angry about a number of issues. Many want to fight New Labour's tuition fees but also want to tackle the injustice, oppression and exploitation caused by capitalism. Forums will feature debates such as 'What next after Seattle?' and 'Racism, Injustice and the State'. Workshops will look at philosophy, economics and the environment. There will also be discussion about how to organise and build the resistance in the colleges. The SWSS Conference 2000 begins at Salford University on Friday night and is open to all members of the Socialist Worker Student Society. There is still time to pre-book or you can register at the event. Accommodation will be arranged.