How did it start? I remember going on a march in 1996. I went on a coach to London with other students from Newcastle where I was studying at the time. As we set off, an activist gave us an impassioned speech about standing up for the right to education. In London, we got some placards and marched around the centre in the rain. Then me and my friends went to the pub.
A year later, I’d dropped out of Newcastle and started at UCL. We were to be the last year of UK students to have a free university education. After that students would have to pay.
How did tuition fees come in in the first place? That’s what I mean. Education is free here in the UK, free until you’re 16 that is, and used to be beyond that. How did university education become something that was politically acceptable to charge for?
Over a drink in Bethnal Green this summer, Sarah (a fellow UCL occupation veteran) reminded me the public never actually voted for tuition fees, and how New Labour snuck it in when they got in power. Blair’s New Labour was famous then for its rousing call ‘education, education, education’ – a Labour government would put education at the centre of its agenda.
Education, education (and tuition fees)
The language was stirring. Blair refered to ‘educational apartheid’, Labour promised to abolish the social divide where the rich benefited from private school education and advanced to the top jobs (like when Eton boy Boris Johnson becomes PM), whilst the rest of society varied in the quatity and quality of education they received.
The 1997 Labour manifesto doesn’t say much about universities. The focus of New Labour campaigning verve was on schools, but a few paragraphs give the wink as to what was to come: ‘The improvement and expansion needed [to expand university education] cannot be funded out of general taxation.’
The only explicit commitment is about student maintenance. ‘The costs of student maintenance should be repaid by graduates on an income-related basis, from the career success to which higher education has contributed.’ In other words Labour would abolish the grant. Charging for tuition is not mentioned.
The Dearing report was also referred to in Labour’s manifesto. Commissioned by John Major in 1996 it was published after Labour was elected. The report looked at the quality, benefits and funding of education and recommended most radically that students should pay towards their tuition.
It said the clearest benefit was to individuals by increasing their earnings and it was therefore reasonable for students to pay towards this cost. It also pointed out that participation in higher education was unequal, wealthier groups were more likely to go to university and benefit, whilst all of society contributed to it through taxation.
The report recommended fees of 25% of the actual cost of tuition, and that students could pay through a loan system (based on the existing loans company established for students’ living costs). It recommended the grant be restored to ensure poorer students were able to afford living costs. Someone’s ability to pay would be assessed on the assumption that their family or spouse would contribute, an issue that was to be (just) one of our objections to tuition fees.
Debt or ‘graduate commitment’?
Dearing recommended loans were repaid according to people’s capacity to pay. A brilliant phrase notes that:
‘the liability is a new form of financial instrument, and we choose to refer to it as the ‘graduate commitment’ rather than as an irrevocable debt.’
In 1997, six months after Labour got in, the Dearing report was published and education secretary David Blunkett announced that tuition fees would be introduced and the grant abolished. The role of the NUS in resisting this is another story, I think they were the organisers of that 1996 march I went on but later the lack of support from the NUS was to be a crucial factor for us and other students resisting fees.
Borrowing money was to be the future for students. No longer free, university was to be paid for through individual debt. In 1999 the consequences started to be felt, and UCL and other occupations kicked off.