ANOTHER VIEW; Student reality and realism

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The Independent Online
The student movement is often seen as socially and politically progressive. However, on some issues it has not been as forward-thinking as it might be. The special National Union of Students conference on Tuesday is a prime example of how rhetoric can overshadow reality.

Those arguing for progressive reform sought to commit the NUS to a combination of funding sources in which the beneficiaries of education - society, business and graduates - would contribute to its costs through general taxation, an employer levy and a loans scheme for living costs repayable through tax. This was narrowly rejected by a conference that feared the abandonment of full grants would have a detrimental effect on access for students from working-class backgrounds.

The failure to deliver real change for students means they will continue to suffer hardship. This hollow victory betrays the fact that students need achievable solutions to their problems - enough money to live on while at college and a good-quality education.

As a student from a working-class background, who had to beat the system to get in and who did not have parents to bail me out, I know that the present student loans scheme plus minimal grants do not ensure real opportunity for all.

The student movement also has to wake up to the reality of a government that is not going to fund higher and further education in a way that will ensure wider access and maintain quality. Estimates have shown that it would cost the taxpayer more than pounds 10bn to pay for the NUS wish list: full grants at pre-1979 levels (pounds 4,700 in today's money), reinstatment of housing and social security benefits and much more. All this would mean at least 5p in the pound on the basic rate of income tax or 22p on the higher rate.

The question to those who argue for so-called "free education" is: which political party in its right mind is going to implement this? Even a Labour government committed to investment in education would have competing demands for any extra money raised through taxation or economic growth - with comprehensive nursery education, health service funding and the need to tackle unemployment all strong candidates for limited money.

The NUS has for now clung to its devotion to grants. But the debate on education funding has just begun. It is a debate in which students can play a leading role in formulating the education policy of any future government, but only if the student movement is willing to challenge the old taboos. An organisation or movement that cannot accept the realities of a changing environment, that rejects the need for reform and continues to hide under the security blanket of the past, is one that is failing its future - a future that must maximise access to higher and further education and provide real opportunity for all.

The writer is president of King's College London Students' Union and president-elect of the University of London Union.