|Picture: JESS HURD
CAN STUDENTS like these from Glasgow look forward to celebrating the end of tuition fees?
SCOTTISH voters have voted for candidates who are against tuition fees for university students. The fees should go now. Students and everyone else who values education should keep fighting until the fees are abolished throughout Britain. After last week's election, 73 of the 129 members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) said they are committed to getting rid of fees.
This is not just an issue for students. It is a key test of whether the parliament will do what the people who elected it want. Labour, the only party which fought the elections supporting fees, should admit that the democratic vote has gone against them. Donald Dewar, Scotland's first minister, should announce that the fees will be suspended now and abolished as soon as the parliament meets to pass laws in July.
Fees have been a disaster for students, especially those from working class families. Applications to Scottish universities are down 6 percent this year, a clear sign that the prospect of poverty and years of debt are shutting ordinary people out of college. During the election campaign Jim Wallace, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said, "I want tuition fees to be dead. The people of Scotland have made it non-negotiable." But he was quick to open negotiations over the issue once a coalition with Labour was on the cards and a ministerial Rover car was at stake.
Kenny Hannah, president of Glasgow Caledonian University students' association, says, "Students across the country are demanding there must be no sell out or compromise on tuition fees and student hardship. What faith can the electorate have in the new MSPs when they appear to be backing down from 'non-negotiable' manifesto commitments?"
The compromises over tuition fees floated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats at the start of this week are just a sop which will do almost nothing to open up education. One idea put forward by Labour leaders was that fees should be paid when parental income reaches £18,000 rather than the present £16,000. But this figure includes the income of BOTH parents. So it would still mean fee payments for someone whose parents are a bus driver and a hospital cleaner.
David Welsh, the president of Aberdeen University students association, says, "The introduction of fees and the abolition of the maintenance grant is entirely at odds with the government's posturing on increasing access to higher education." It is a disgrace that one top Labour aide described any change to the present fees regime as "pandering to the BMW classes". It is not BMW owners that Labour is keeping out, but the children of people who build BMWs, service them or clean them.
Another proposal is to slightly increase the number of students who receive hardship grants. But that just means a few more of the most utterly destitute treated as charity cases. Education secretary David Blunkett was reported to be against making any concessions over fees in Scotland for fear that students in England and Wales would demand the same. Tony Blair has also intervened in the talks with the Liberal Democrats to defend fees.
With Labour's leaders battling to maintain the fees and Liberal Democrats more interested in office than principle, nobody should trust the politicians to get rid of fees. It will take pressure from below to win. NUS Scotland and trade unions must be pressured to call lobbies of the new Parliament to act as a focus for the movement against fees and for grants. Students at Goldsmiths' and Guildhall colleges in London showed last term that occupations can win concessions over fees at a local level.
If student leaders called protests across Scotland they could start a process which would win a famous victory for all of us. A majority of Welsh Assembly members are also against fees. They must call for fees to go, and if the government says it is outside the powers of the assembly, then they must call for defiance of the government.
The agitation should not stop at dumping fees. As socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan says, "Grants should also be restored so that working class people are not barred by lack of funds from receiving an education." The Scottish Parliament should celebrate its opening by burying one of New Labour's most unpopular measures.
A COALITION Government involving Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, which was under discussion as Socialist Worker went to press, would be a boost to Tony Blair's long term aim to merge the two parties. After the ignominious fall of trade secretary Peter Mandelson last year there was much less talk of "historic realignment" between Labour and the Liberals.
But the election results in Scotland and Wales have given the Labour "modernisers" a chance to trot out their ideas about partnership again. They see it as a chance to strip Labour of all identification with the trade unions-to break the idea that Labour is a working class party. Instead they want a vaguely "progressive" party which includes a few token left wingers but is centred on Tony Blair's "Third Way" politics and stretches to include Paddy Ashdown and Tories like Kenneth Clarke.
No wonder there is real opposition to deals with the Liberals. John McAllion, the MSP for Dundee East, last weekend attacked "stitched up deals behind closed doors" to form a coalition. He said, "There is a great deal of distrust across the Labour Party about the project that tries to unite the Liberal Democrat party and Labour. There are some people who support that. The vast majority in the Labour Party are opposed to it."