Something exciting happened at the annual NUS National Conference in Liverpool earlier this year. The second day of the conference began with a debate on amendment “215c – Free education“. The text of the amendment can be found below. In summary, it resolved that the NUS should campaign for free, publicly funded education, without individual students having to pay via tuition fees, a graduate tax or any other mechanism. That might not sound too contentious, but NUS Conference had not actually supported free education in the UK for over a decade (the leadership have favoured a graduate tax model).
As expected, the amendment was strongly opposed by the NUS leadership, with NEC members and even the President taking to the podium to speak against it. However, after a lengthy debate, the vote was taken and the amendment passed, to a standing ovation in the hall. NUS Conference 2014 had voted in support of, and to campaign for, free education!
Fast forward to the end of May and the University and College Union (UCU), which represent academic staff in higher and further education, held its annual Congress in Manchester. Towards the end of the first full day, the Higher Education Sector Conference held a debate and vote on motion HE38, submitted by the Open University branch. The motion highlighted the severe harm that changes to HE funding over the last decade have caused, warned of the imminent threats posed by further planned privatisation, reaffirmed the Union’s position that the sector should be financed by a progressive corporation tax and resolved that the Union would actively campaign with student and other trade unions to bring about a return to public finance of HE.
The University of Bath UCU branch had submitted an amendment to the motion, so that it would explicitly call for an “abolition of student tuition fees”. I had the pleasure of speaking for the amendment and just about managed to get through the following in the 2 minutes allotted time:
“Conference, tuition fees are harmful to students, to staff and to the higher education sector as a whole.
They are part of a funding model that is expensive to maintain which represents poor value for money for the public, they are a barrier to entry into HE, they are a source of stress and anxiety for graduates and for current and prospective students, who are burdened with ever increasing levels of personal debt and, conference, they are at the forefront of the privatisation and marketisation of HE.
Tuition fees encourage universities to behave like corporations, VCs to act like CEOs and students to see themselves not as participant in the academy, nor recipients of a public good, but as consumers. In so doing, tuition fees drive a wedge between students and those of us who teach and support them. They undermine solidarity and unity in our common struggles just when we need it most.
This year Germany will abolish tuition fees, joining the other EU nations who never saw fit to adopt them in the first place. And this year, for the first time in a decade, NUS Conference has declared that tuition fees must be abolished and that HE must be free for all.
The time has come to end the failed tuition fee experiment, I move amendment 1 to motion HE38.”
The amendment and substantive motion were both carried with enormous majorities (in fact, I’m not sure that anyone voted against either). As a result, for the first time in over a decade, the NUS and UCU, the largest union of students in the country and of post-secondary educators in the world respectively, are united in their support for a return to free, publicly funded higher education.
So what now? Disappointingly, the NUS National Executive Committee appear to be dragging their feet. At a meeting in May they rejected a motion recognising what appears to be the clear will of the Union membership as decided at Conference. Undeterred, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) are pushing forward, starting with a national meeting on Free Education to be held tomorrow (Sunday 15th June 2014) at the University of Arts Students’ Union in Holborn, London.
After the successes at NUS and UCU Conferences, it is vital that supporters of free education keep the momentum going. These were significant steps, but as the NCAFC have said:
“The campaign for free education is not won at NUS conference. It has to be fought for on the streets, in our classrooms and student unions. It won’t be won easily, and it is done in the face of much repression and difficulty. June 15th is the start of that, and we wish to work alongside all those who believe in free education.”
If you can make it to the conference tomorrow, please do, and take friends and colleagues with you. If you can’t get there, email the NCAFC to express your support and to see what you can do to help move the campaign forward.
After years of fees and cuts, and as we approach what is likely to be a close-run general election, there is an opportunity for us to reverse some of the most harmful policies enacted by recent governments. But that will not happen by accident or without organised effort – it requires that we all do our bit to fight for change. That fight starts now (or, more specifically, at 10:30 on Sunday morning in Holborn).
Update (2014-07-05): Following the national meeting on free education in June, a coalition of students and activists have declared their support for a national demonstration for free education on the 19th November. Add the date to your diaries and get involved – for Free Education: No fees. No cuts. No debt.
NUS and UCU Conference Motions
Motion passed by NUS conference 2014 (215c – Free education)
1. There is an alternative paying for university through tuition fees or a graduate tax – public investment for free education.
2. The proposal to replace tuition fees with a ‘graduate tax’ is simply replacing one form of student debt with another. Under both systems the experience for the overwhelming majority of students would be the same: to pay tens of thousands of pounds for a university degree over the course of a number of decades after graduation, taking the form of automatic deductions from graduates’ wages every month.
3. Higher education is a public good and should be free for everyone to access.
4. Free education would pay for itself. The government’s own figures show that for every £1 invested in higher education the economy expands by £2.60.
5. Investing in free education would not only offer opportunities for young people but would play a central role in reviving the economy now and in promoting longer-term prosperity and growth for the future.
6. There is an austerity agenda that refuses to fund education properly, which produces a false choice between underfunded, fee-laden, debt-ridden education for the many or free, elite education for the privileged few.
7. This is no choice at all.
8. NUS believes in democracy – but political democracy is incomplete when the distribution of wealth is violently unequal and undemocratic.
9. Vast wealth lies in the coffers of a handful of rich, powerful people and their private businesses, instead of being invested in socially useful purposes such as education.
10. In 2008, the UK government spent £850 billion to bail out banks, but these banks have continued to operate much as before, instead of being required to spend that public money on the public good.
11. If this wealth was instead under democratic control, our society could use it to build a comprehensive accessible free education system for all and pay every education worker decently, and still have plenty left over for free, world-class healthcare, good social housing, and decent public services and benefits for all.
12. NUS should reaffirm the idea that education is a right not a privilege
1. To reject the absurd idea that our society lacks the resources to provide decently for its citizens, and make campaigning for the democratisation of our society’s wealth a priority running through NUS’s work.
2. To make the case for free education and demand that free, accessible, quality education, and decent wages, public services and benefits, are funded by:
a. Ending tax evasion and avoidance and cracking down on tax havens b. Imposing serious taxes on the incomes, inheritance and capital gains of the rich
c. Taking the banks, and their wealth, under democratic control
3. To raise these demands in particular when putting forward positions on fees and education funding, and when organising protest actions.
4. To oppose and campaign against all methods of charging students for education – including tuition fees and a ‘graduate tax’ which is nothing more than a euphemism for ‘student debt’.
5. Foundation courses should be free of fees for all students, regardless of age or nationality, with full access to a grant.
Motion passed by UCU Conference 2014 (HE38 – Sale of the student loan book -Substantive Motion including Amendment HE38A.1)
HE sector conference notes:
- the 40% fall in part time HE students since the introduction of higher fees and the current student loans system
- that the proposals in the Rothschild report and sale of the student loan book will open the door to lobbying from private companies for higher interest rates on student loans
- vulnerable sections of the population who are debt averse will be even less likely to enter HE
- that enrolments of adult part-time students in HE may fall further, exacerbating the damage already caused by ELQ cuts and fee increases.
Conference re-affirms that higher education should be financed by progressive corporation tax, and resolves:
- to make this a politically sensitive issue, and campaign with student unions and other trade unions for the abolition of student tuition fees and for a fundamental reversal of the policy changes of the last decade, and return to public finance of higher education.