International Socialist Archives

International Socialist was the journal produced by our tendency until January 2001, when we left the Committee for a Workers International. We now produce the journal Frontline.

Building Non-Payment in England and Wales

FOR THE thousands of students now starting university the first couple of weeks will be especially chaotic.

Students will register, sort out their timetables and library cards and decide which societies to join, etc. But many of them will be thinking about something else as well this year. That is, whether they can afford to, or want to pay their fees.

There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate the ill effects of the abolition of free education.
For a start thousands of students did not pay their fees last year because they could not afford them. While applications to attend university have gone down two years in a row. It is those from the poorest backgrounds, mature students, black students etc, those who struggle the hardest to get to university who have been most adversely hit by the introduction of fees and the abolition of the grant.

This is no surprise. They are the people who not only tend to be the poorer students, and therefore most daunted by thousands of pounds of debt, but are less sure of getting a decent job at the end of their degree.

For instance mature students make up 26% of graduates, yet they only make up 4% of graduates recruited by the ëtopí 120 companies.

These figures expose the lies put out by New Labour when they introduced fees, claiming that they were encouraging more students from ëunder-representedí backgrounds.
Fees are really about reducing the numbers of students at university. The reasons for this are revealed by Professor Tooley of Newcastle University, a supporter of fees, who quotes a study by the Institute of Employment Studies at Sussex University. This shows that two-thirds of graduates are in jobs which could be filled by school leavers, while one-tenth of graduates hold down secretarial positions (Times Higher Education Supplement, 3.9.99).

According to Professor Tooley and others like him, the state should not be spending taxpayers’ money on educating young people to university level, when there is no demand for them.
This is the view of British business. They are not prepared to pay out from their profits on free education while graduates’ skills are wasted in todayís low-wage, casualised economy.

This is what lies behind New Labourís introduction of fees. New Labour is merely carrying out the interests of their friends and paymasters - British business. It sets the lie to their claim that fees are justified because graduates are assured of entering a well paid job at the end.
In reality there is plenty of money in the system to pay for free education for all who want it. But under the rule of big business and their representatives in Parliament, education serves only their narrow self-interests, ie the pursuit of profit.

Build a mass campaign

The Socialist Party, Save Free Education (SFE) and groups of students around the country are making a concerted drive to sign up thousands of students to pledge non-payment of the £1,025 tuition fees with the aim of making the fees unworkable. If we can achieve this the government will be forced to scrap the fees and maybe even to reinstate the grant, which has been completely abolished this year.

Already this term Oxford University students have collected 500 pledges for non-payment. The University of East London has over 700 not paying fees. Non-payment is clearly set to increase dramatically from the position last year.

The campaign is not starting from scratch. We are building on the massive levels of non-payment last year. Literally thousands of students have still not paid their fees because they could not afford them or because they opposed them on principle.
While nationally, 10% of fees remain unpaid, some individual universities show even higher rates of non-payment. At Glamorgan, £1.1 million in tuition fees is owed by 1,300 students, 500 of them are last year’s first years.

The statistics are reminiscent of the figures for non-payment in the early days of the poll tax. The poll-tax was defeated by mass non-payment, involving 18 million people.
That campaign, which was led by the Socialist Partyís forerunner, Militant Labour, did not develop overnight, but over a few years.

In its first year, non-payment of the poll tax was 12.8% of the total amount owed, a figure almost the same as non-payment of tuition fees in their first year. In the second year non-payment reached 21% of the total billed and only in its last year did it reach 88%.
The Socialist Party believes that, as with the poll tax, non-payment of tuition fees will escalate as the idea of withholding the fees spreads. An editorial in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES, 30.7.99) came to a similar conclusion and warned vice-chancellors that "as news gets around that students owe universities millions of pounds, payment of the tuition fees could become as voluntary as the poll tax by students in the 1980s...".

The higher the number of non-payers grows, the more difficult it will become for universities to take action against students who do not pay. Last year a handful of universities tried to exclude students who did not pay their fees. They were met by determined resistance by their students.

At Goldsmiths College in south-east London, up to 500 students participated in a college occupation to defend 110 non-payers from expulsion. After a week, the university authorities backed down and said that they would not exclude any student who could not pay.

Other universities, such as Guildhall and UCL also backed down over exclusions after similar action by students. Whenever a student is threatened with exclusion we must build mass action to defend them, whether through demonstrations, pickets, walk-outs or occupations.

At the beginning of this term thousands of second-year students who did not pay their fees last year may not be allowed to re-register, either because they do not have the money to pay or because they decided to make a stand to defend free education.

We must build action immediately to demand that they are allowed to continue with their studies. SFE are organising protests at universities across the country to defend all such students.
Other universities, like the University of Glamorgan, have said they will allow students to register but that unless they pay their fees they will not receive their degrees at the end of their three years. This is equally unacceptable.

Wherever students who have not paid are threatened with penalties for not paying, action to defend them must be built. Last year many universities with-held access to facilities, computers, the libraries, withhold exam results etc.
No student should be penalised in these ways and have their education suffer because of poverty and lack of a grant.

Some people may say that non-payment is the wrong tactic to defeat fees, that it hits the universities and makes them suffer. This was a common argument against non-payment of the poll-tax. Some claimed non-payment would starve local authorities of desperately needed money. In reality, it was the Tories who starved local authorities of money while the introduction of the poll-tax put the burden of paying for services on the working class and poor.

It is now New Labour who are starving universities of money and putting the burden of the cost of education on the backs of the working and middle classes. The universitiesí vice-chancellors should join with students and demand proper funding from the government, while at the same time agree not to collect the fees.
If necessary the universities should cover the cost of the unpaid fees until the government backs down.

It is not for the universities to decide who is entitled to an education and who is not. Their job is to provide education.

As universities increasingly realise that collecting tuition fees is not possible and non-payment around the country spreads, then the government will be forced to recognise that they have no choice except to scrap fees and reinstate the grant.

If you are a first or second-year student who is asked to pay fees then you should think about withholding them. Whether you have to pay fees or not, you can join SFE to build mass non-payment and mass action to defend free education.

First steps to build mass non-payment campaign.