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Tuition Fees - The End Is Near

Since the Scottish elections in May one of the major political issues has been the what will happen to tuition fees in Scotland.With the Scottish parliament due to vote at the end of the year the battle for free education is underway.We look at the prospects for tuition fees in Scotland.And drawing on the lessons of the campaign in England and Wales last year Kieran Roberts outlines the strategy that can win free education for all.

As the results came through in the early hours of Friday 7th May it rapidly became clear that the overwhelming majority of voters in Scotland had opted for parties who promised the abolition of tuition fees. The Scottish parliament elections saw 66% of MSP ’s elected on a mandate to scrap fees it was therefore expected, in some quarters,that the first act of the Scottish parliament would be the scrapping of tuition fees in Scotland.Of course that did not take into account the shameful role of the Liberal Democrats, who in forming a coalition with Labour in the Scottish Executive described their "non-negotiable"pre-election pledge to abolish fees as merely "election rhetoric".

Such was the mood of anger and betrayal felt by particularly Liberal voters that in electoral terms the Lib -Dems have suffered one set back after another since the big sell out on fees in May. None worse than the utter humiliation at the recent Hamilton South by-election where the Liberal candidate came sixth losing their deposit in the process.

The Lib-Dems who like all capitalist parties are prepared to dump any and all election pledges to stay in power are caught in a vice.On the one hand the New Labour establishment have been insisting that the Lib Dem ministers have to act collectively as part of the Labour dominated Scottish Executive. On the other,the Liberals are facing electoral annihilation unless they are seen to stick to their promise to vote for the abolition of fees.It is therefore likely that the second pressure will win out in the end.

Cubie Committee

First Minister Donald Dewar was forced to agree to the setting up of an Independent Inquiry on Student Finance or the Cubie Committee whose remit is to investi gate ways of funding Higher Education in Scotland.

The fact that the chairperson of this inquiry is the former chairman of the CBI in Scotland gave a clear indication of the continuing favoured role of big business in education and with the government.Other members of the 14 strong committee include the former Vice President of Motorola,the Education Liason Manager for Standard Life Assurance,a Senior Partner in KPMG as well as the Chair of the Highlands NHS Trust and the Depute Chief Executive of East Renfrewshire Council.

There is one NUS member on the inquiry team plus one from the EIS and the AUT unions.

Most likely the Cubie Committee will bring forward a number of differing options for the parliament to consider. Fees abolition and the return of a student maintainence grant will probably feature and given the mood for the abolition of tuition fees it is very likely that when the Scottish parliament votes in either December or January fees will go.

Of course when it comes to big business politicians any number of betrayals are possible.It is vital that as big a campaign as possible is organised to keep up maximum pressure on the
MSP's in the run up to the vote in parliament.

A mass campaign

It was members of the CWI in Scotland who proposed that the Scottish Socialist Party should advocate a campaign of withholding payment of fees.Following the work done in England and Wales last year and the already existing levels of non-payment of fees it was vital that the SSP put itself in the forefront of the movement to win the return of free education. The SSP has agreed to assist in building the biggest possible non-payment campaign backed up by active local campaign groups and SSP societies in every university in Scotland.Any university threatening disciplinary action against students who can not or will not pay fees must be met with an immediate response.Occupations,pickets and protests of universities and college management should be the type of action taken to defend students who are not paying fees.

And it's not just students who are facing fees who should be involved in the campaign.60%of new first year students at Scottish universities are paying fees this year.But all students should be approached to get involved in the demo's,lobbies and in defence of students who may be targeted for victimisation by the university management. The campaign should also be organising lobbies of MSP's in the run up to the vote in parliament.The calling of a mass demonstration on the day of the vote has already been agreed by the SSP.

Restore the grant

Recent reports have indicated that in some universities in Scotland up to 80%of students are working part time at the same time as studying for a degree.There have been dozens of horror stories about students working two even three jobs in order to survive financially while at university.One young woman in Dundee described how she was working 20 hours a week in the local call-centre because she does not have enough to live on.

Up to 1 in 4 students who start univer sity drop out mainly due to either finan cial pressures or stress.The abolition of the student grant replaced by loans has proved to be a disaster for those wanting to attend Higher Education. For these reasons it is vital that the fight against fees is linked to the return of a maintenance grant and the aboli tion of student loans.It is little wonder that applications to universities have fallen for the last two years.A four year degree course in Scotland will now cost at least £12,000 in loans which is a massive disincentive for working class people in particular.

The SSP and the Socialist Party in England and Wales (CWI)have con sistently fought for the return of the student grant set at around £5,000 a year for all students.The SSP has sub mitted evidence to the Cubie commit tee which calls for income support,full housing benefit and council tax benefit to be made available to students during the holiday period.

Only these policies would allow access to higher education to all who wanted to go to university or college.While the abolition of tuition fees would mark a step forward it would only represent the first step.Free education for all means the abolition of loans and the return of the grant with other benefits to help with housing and living costs. Graduate tax
It is likely that New Labour have concluded that tuition fees are now a lost cause in Scotland.The issue for Tony Blair and Donald Dewar is how to hold the line in England and Wales and how would the abolition of fees be paid for?The abolition of fees in Scotland would cost around £40 million a year which is roughly 0.25%of the annual budget of the Scottish parliament. There has been fevered speculation that a form of graduate tax would replace tuition fees in Scotland.In other words fees would be paid by the government but would be added on to what students would pay back after graduating and getting a job.This would allow New Labour to hold onto some credibility with the city and big business as they could claim it would not cost them anymore than the current system at least in the long run.

Without question a graduate tax is now being considered for Scotland by Tony Blair in an effort to save face and to try to cling onto tuition fees in England and Wales.It would also have the benefit of allowing the Liberals the chance of saving face by voting against fees and at the same time backing a graduate tax which would allow the Labour-Liberal coalition in Scotland to survive intact.

Sections of big business would back a graduate tax.As the Times Higher Education Supplement put it "Before non-payment becomes an epidemic....the Cubie committee should revisit the recommendations of the Dearing committee.This stated that students should contribute to the cost of their education-but out of their earnings after graduation ”

Despite the hopes of Tony Blair and David Blunkett the abolition of fees in Scotland would give the fight for free education in England and Wales a massive boost.It is an open question then as to whether the government could hold the line for long and keep tuition fees for the rest of Britain.If fees are abolished in Scotland it would also give those calling for more powers for the Welsh Assembly a boost as the assembly has no powers currently to abolish tuition fees.

An independent socialist Scotland.

Similarly in Scotland this battle for free education comes up against the limits of the powers and the financing of the Scottish parliament.At present the entire budget for Scotland comes from Westminster which is around £16 billion a year.

Although the parliament has the fiscal powers to vary the basic rate of income tax by up to three pence in the pound,it represents a small portion of the overall budget for Scotland.And even if used to the full would penalise the lowest paid workers disproportionately while the richest would get of relatively lightly.

For free education to be introduced in Scotland it is clear that the parliament would need to either demand a significant increase in it's budget or extra powers to allow the parliament control over corporation tax,as well as the higher rate of tax and the powers to take industry and finance into public ownership.We would demand an independent parliament which would retain all revenues raised in Scotland linked to a socialist Scotland.It is important that the SSP also raises these issues as part of any campaign for free education.

In order to win the lasting implementation of free education,the abolition of fees and the return of a living grant as well as access to full benefits would pose the question of the need for socialism in Scotland and throughout Britain.

Many young people who are facing a choice of a life of debt by going to university or a life on the dole or dead end jobs are open to socialist ideas.There is a growing mood for action among students and young people and an interest in socialism.A new generation can be drawn to the SSP in the weeks and months ahead.A generation who will be the most determined fighters for socialist ideas,many of whom can be won to the ideas of Marxism and the CWI.

The fight for free education is on. But in the long run only an independent socialist Scotland linked to a socialist alliance of Scotland,England,Wales and Ireland as a step to a socialist Europe can guarantee free education for this and the future generations.

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Non-Payment Campaign in England and Wales takes off.