The trebling of student fees took place without any of the normal trappings of parliamentary oversight: no Green Paper, no White Paper, no committee scrutiny. All it took was a tiny amendment to legislation introduced by Labour…
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Demonstrators in London on Thursday 9 December
Aim One of the government: avoid discussion of any sort
In the national press the emphasis has been on what happened outside parliament on 9 December 2010. Workers readers may want to pause and reflect on what happened inside. The Browne Report, commissioned by the previous Labour government, was published on 12 October. None of the normal processes of the Mother of Parliaments has been undertaken in relation to that report. No Green Paper, White Paper, Bill, no legislation to scrutinise in committee – nothing.
The fig leaf of parliamentary democracy was unceremoniously cast aside as MPs were able to make the most drastic change to Higher Education by the simple device of an amendment to the 2004 regulation laid down by the Labour government when it introduced fees. Having scraped this through by 21 votes, the government rushed the item to the Lords on Tuesday 14 December – the chamber where 50 new Lords have been appointed to do the coalition’s bidding. The attempt to disguise this undemocratic attack by asking vice chancellors of universities to sign a letter of support to be published in newspapers on 8 December was utterly unsuccessful.
Aim Two of the government: focus public attention on tuition fees rather than the direct attack on institutions and communities
The other aim of the Coalition has been to turn the nation’s attention to the question of fees rather than the fundamental basis of the attack, which is the cut in teaching grants to institutions – the removal of between 80 and 90 per cent of public funding, and 100 per cent in some cases. To reinforce that attack, the cut to the teaching budget is with immediate effect for the academic year 11/12 whereas the fee rise is not available to the institutions until the following year, thus creating an immediate hole in the budgets of all institutions, a deliberate wrecking tactic to destabilise institutions and communities.
The University and College Union (UCU) has analysed the impact in its document Universities at Risk, available at http://www.ucu.org.uk/media/pdf/t/a/ucu_universitiesatrisk_dec10.pdf .
The document lists the 49 institutions at immediate risk and further details the impact of this on the local economies surrounding those institutions.
As with the attempt to use the vice chancellors to cover their actions, their attempt to disguise the attack on public funding has not been the success they hoped for, as it has sparked a wide-ranging debate amongst students about taxation and what it is used for. In particular, their awareness of who pays taxes and who avoids taxation has had a great educational leap forward. Some students have now become subject specialists in tax avoidance and can give chapter and verse on the Vodafone tax avoidance scam of £6 billion.
This is no mean feat as it involves a very complicated story of sub companies and the exploitation of legal ambiguities between British and EU law. Students have also discovered that George Osborne lobbied for Vodafone and that Vodafone is now trying to avoid a £1.6 million tax bill that it owes to India.
Aim Three of the government: use student protest to ratchet up its attack on civil liberties
Although students have consistently outwitted police tactics, the government aim of increasing the attack on civil liberties has been successful.
In one short month from 10 November to 9 December, the police in London have moved from supposedly reviewing their strategy of kettling after the death of Ian Tomlinson in 2009 to discussion of water cannon and plastic bullets. In the same way that the most successful strike never needs a picket line, students need to consider tactics which do not permit this policing practice and experimentation.
Aim Four of the government: distract other workers from acting in their own sectors to deal with the government
The pupil and student action will continue in 2011 in different ways. University lecturers will have to fight for their jobs and their institutions. The attack on education is not unique – the attacks on the NHS and public service broadcasting, to name but two examples, are just as fundamental.
Such was the concern of this weak government that it had to hold the line on 9 December that it discussed flying an MP all the way from Mexico and back again to go through the lobby.
The “Fib Dems” as the students call them are a spent force. If workers don’t act in the face of this weakness and fight their own diverse battles, it is a case of condemning ourselves and acquiescing in the dictatorship of a minority government.