Organising against Keir Starmer’s betrayal on tuition fees


“Young members have been met with bureaucracy & often blatant obstructionism in an attempt to make a student push back near impossible.”

By Joshua Freestone

Today’s young people will be the first generation in a hundred years to be worse off than their parents and are now expected to graduate with the burden of an average student loan debt of £44,940 hanging around their necks.

Moreover, tuition fees have transformed universities into businesses rather than places of learning. Marketisation has meant that a university’s single largest source of income is students. Whilst Vice Chancellors reap sky high pay packages, young people are squeezed.

The National Union of Students has found that 96% of students are being forced to cut back on spending, with more than a quarter left with just £50 a month after paying rent and bills. In the context of a national housing and cost of living crisis, universities across the country have been raising accommodation charges.

At my own university they have announced a huge 10.3% hike in rent; the largest rise in years. This means that Durham University will be expecting students on the average maintenance loan to find an extra £4k a year just to cover housing costs.

Durham already has the lowest state school intake of any university; marked with a reputation of being stale, male and pale, now working-class students are being completely priced out of this institution, with University accommodation costing roughly 150% of the average maintenance loan.

Such exorbitant increases are being seen across the country and are happening in the context of an unprecedented assault on workers’ rights on campus. Staff at universities have had their pay cut by 20% since 2009 alongside a wave of ruthless casualisation. Management would like to tell us that there is no money, but the higher education sector is hoarding approximately £44 billion in reserves, and the heads of the sector have never had it better. This is why the UCU have joined workers across the country in returning a huge mandate for industrial action. Such monumental responses fly in the face of clear intimidation from management and the most draconian anti trade union laws in Western Europe. Instead of entering negotiations, university management would rather allow 1000s of students to leave three years of learning with absolutely no degree.

The failed experiment of marketisation was brought in by New Labour. It wasn’t the Tories but rather the Blair government who, in 1998 introduced the tuition fee system. Paving the way for their eventual trebling under the coalition government. This system is utterly unsustainable; tuition fees necessitate exploitation. So long as universities are run as places of profit rather than people, staff and students alike will suffer. Higher education is in an existential crisis. Young people know this. We want free, fair education for all, and will not be lectured by those who paid nothing in tuition fees about the impossibilities of our demands.

Despite this, it seems like these demands are falling on deaf ears. Young people are a vital part of Labour’s electoral coalition with over half of under 40s voting Labour in 2019. This is why, as a candidate for Labour Party leadership, Keir Starmer championed social justice, promising the abolition of tuition fees in favour of a bold, transformative vision of higher education. Three years on and the party couldn’t be further from this vision. After much speculation, Starmer announced in May that the party would be ditching its pledge to abolish tuition fees.

Students haven’t taken such a grotesque betrayal lightly and across the country we have remained vigilant in our struggle to end the marketisation of education. The fight against Keir Starmer’s higher education U-turns have been an uphill struggle. Young members have been met with bureaucracy and often blatant obstructionism in an attempt to make a student push back near impossible. Despite this we have mobilised students from across the country. The fight against fees doesn’t belong to one faction but rather to everybody who believes that education is a right not a privilege.

Young people have elected majorities to both the Young Labour and Labour Students National Committees in favour of free education. Furthermore, in January Durham University Labour Club launched an open letter to the leadership demanding a reaffirmation of the party’s commitment to tuition fee abolition. This letter was signed by the majority of Labour clubs across the country and the majority of NLSC, resulting in Labour Students formally voting to support free education.

At the Labour Students conference not a single delegate spoke against free tuition, and all attendees were united in the belief that our higher education system is completely broken. For all the talk of fiscal rules the leadership likes to spout, maintaining higher education as it currently exists would be an act of gross irresponsibility. We know that the university system is failing both students and staff alike.

Our campaign is part of a much wider escalation of student activism, from rent strikes to occupations, there is a new wave of militancy on campus. We are proud to be part of this movement and encourage young activists to join us in our fight against marketisation.

  • Joshua Freestone is Labour Students Northern Rep.
  • You can follow Socialist Future in Young Labour and Labour Students on Twitter.
Featured image Young labour Socialist Future supporting the TUC’s Demand Better rally on June 19th, 2022. Image credit: Lizzy Olley/Socialist Future Young Labour

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