Students and university workers are bearing witness to the most sustained attack on our right to education for a generation. The tripling of tuition fees will saddle the upcoming generation of students with as much as £50,000 of debt, including rising living costs and hidden course fees for textbooks and equipment – this will of course hit poorest students hardest, being the most debt-averse and the least able to pay off their debt quickly to avoid interest.
Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has been taken from college students, removing the vital support needed by many to continue their post-16 education. Higher and further education budgets are being massacred, as much as 80% of teaching budgets being removed from some subjects at my university, the University of Sheffield.
Of course, students and workers are right to point to the shameless betrayal by Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, utterly reneging on their manifesto promise of working towards the abolition of tuition fees; yet it was a Labour government who first introduced tuition fees in 1998, and tripled them from £1,000 to £3,000 in 2004.
If the actions of past governments are any yardstick, £9,000 per year is the thin end of the wedge, with many on the Tory right eyeing up American-style Ivy League tuition fees of £25,000 per year with approval. There is no doubt that such a system would be tantamount to a return to the Dickensian days of elite universities training small numbers of highly wealthy students to becoming the ruling class of tomorrow, with the vast majority excluded from pursuing any educational aspirations beyond their sixteenth birthdays.
There is no doubt that these attacks on students and lecturers must be resisted, and it is clear that resistance will not be forthcoming from a Labour Party which has already prepared the ground for a continuation of austerity and cutbacks, with Ed Balls telling the nation that ‘we cannot reverse tax rises or spending cuts’. These vicious education cuts are part of an agenda of austerity shared by all three main parties, who are scrabbling for answers in the face of the largest financial crisis Western capitalism has ever faced – their only answer is to slash and burn public assets in the desperate hope that vulture-like multimillionaires will swoop down from the heavens to pluck the choicest parts of our welfare state, and to turn them into profit-making enterprises with no heed for social responsibility whatsoever.
Students and workers did not cause this financial crisis; it is the inevitable result of a corrupt capitalist system which has turned away from any socially useful production whatsoever, favouring the banker, the hedgefund manager, the offshore tax accountant and other assorted parasites. Its ills are systemic in nature, and thus they demand a systemic solution: namely, the replacement of exploitative private ownership of productive forces by a democratically controlled socialist economy where the 99% collectively manage their own economic lives and share in the common labour of all.
The French student revolution of 1968 proved that students alone cannot make and sustain a permanent transformation of society – the only force which can do so is the organised working class. It is vital that student anti-cuts organisations and trade unions combine their struggles against the Tory government – student activism can be the spark which ignites the bonfire of class struggle, as the 2010 student movement demonstrated so clearly. Yet fighting the Tories is putting sticking plasters over a gaping wound – they are symptom rather than cause, and a deeper understanding of the class nature of the attacks on students is required. The only theoretical framework to do so accurately is Marxism, the ever-increasing relevance of which attests to the far-sightedness of its founding fathers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Viewed in a wider context of a historical assault on the living standards of working people, the need for a new society is more stark than ever; the fight of students for our right to free education is but one expression of this deep and abiding conflict between the capitalist class and the working mass of people. The only resolution to that conflict is democratic socialism.