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Students must not let George Osborne and the Tories destroy Britain's higher education system

 The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts urges students to march against cuts through London on 4 November

Callum Cant
Thursday 08 October 2015 17:04
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Last year's NCAFC demonstration saw more than 10,000 people take to the streets of the capital
Last year's NCAFC demonstration saw more than 10,000 people take to the streets of the capital

The Tories’ emergency Budget in July was an open attack on young people. In it, George Osborne announced the scrapping of maintenance grants for the poorest students. Unsurprisingly – although facing stiff competition – this attack went down as one of the most regressive and least popular policies of the Budget. Straight away, 52 per cent of the public said they opposed the policy.

That 52 per cent were spot on. Because the grants will be replaced with loans, these cuts will put the poorest students in the most debt – and it isn’t just student campaigners who say so. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says: “This means that students from the poorest backgrounds are now likely to leave university owing substantially more to the Government than their better-off peers.”

The student movement now faces its best chance for a victory since 2010. A national mobilisation is underway for a huge national student demonstration on 4 November, and there is a sense on campuses around the country that students know they can win. Grant cuts are so unpopular, and so obviously unfair, that if a big campaign emerges, the Government will be under huge pressure – and will have to start backing down.

But if Osborne is successful in scrapping grants, those who previously received full maintenance grants will leave university owing £53,000, whereas better-off students will owe only £40,500. This comes at a time when repayment conditions on our loans are changing, meaning students are going to have to pay back more of their debt earlier and on lower incomes.

What does that mean in practice? Well, if students with a household income below £42,000 want to access university education, they will have to take on more debt that their richer peers and then spend longer paying it off. National Union of Students (NUS) research indicates 52 per cent of those in receipt of a maintenance grant felt it was absolutely essential to their attendance at university.

We can’t tell what impact these changes will have before they are made, but there is potential for grant cuts to seriously reduce the number of students from less wealthy backgrounds going to university. At the very least, it will force students from low income backgrounds to accept colossal amounts of debt.

Seen in broad perspective, this is just an extension of the Tory agenda that began by trebling tuition fees to £9,000. But the student movement is making a different argument now than it did when that happened in 2010. We’ve spent the years since the tuition fees increase not only criticising cuts, but also proposing what a new, free education system could look like.

The NCAFC has also confirmed the route the demonstration will take through London

We’ve been winning the argument for public funding of education on campus. It was the focus of last year’s 10,000 strong national demonstration, and the NUS finally came round to supporting free education at its national conference in 2014. What’s more, the Corbyn campaign made it a major plank of its policy offering to young people by proposing to fund free education at university level through a 2.5 per cent increase in corporation tax.

We’ve also been focusing on the broader definition of ‘free’ education. Students have led the way in fighting against police and state repression on campuses, opposing the Prevent agenda and police brutality against student protesters. They’ve demanded the decolonisation of the curriculum, and decent housing for all students.

Our movement is no longer simply about a negative reaction to austerity: we want more than that. We know where the education system needs go, and we’re willing to fight to take it there.

It might seem strange to some that, after Corbyn’s victory, we are going back to the streets. But in reality, a newly left wing Labour Party will never win without social movements changing the conversation and putting pressure on the Government.

The momentum of Corbyn’s victory now needs to be used to meaningfully challenge the aggressive Conservative agenda before the 2020 general election. If we watch and wait as grants are cut, the NHS is privatised, benefits caps are introduced, and tax credits are withdrawn, the public is likely to be too demoralised and desperate to be able to fight.

It’s not enough to hope for Corbyn to do some good at some point in the future. Our society is in crisis now, and so we have to act now. For students, this means mobilising around grants – and the demonstration on 4 November must be huge.

George Osborne and the Tory government think they can destroy the education system. It’s time for students to prove them wrong.

Callum Cant is an organiser for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and a postgraduate student at the University of Sussex

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