Education for all, not the few

Ben Lewis on the need for a united communist party for an effective fightback against the neo-liberalisation of education

Tony Blair's fetish for high-risk politics reached its zenith on January 27, as Charles Clarke's highly controversial Higher Education Bill squeezed through its second reading by just five votes. This bill is still not statute, but it is now past the 'awkward' stage and its being carried represents a defeat for students. Watching Blair from the spectators' gallery as he arrogantly swaggered into parliament, I realised that the chance of this bill being defeated was remote. Weeks of behind-the-scenes arm-twisting, bribery and golden handshakes had proved enough, and Nick Brown's sudden change of heart had doubtless contributed to the broadness of Blair's grin.

Any remaining hopes were immediately dispelled by Clarke's speech on the bill. Pro-fees interventions were little more than staged set-ups by careerist sycophants attempting to justify the concessions that the government had made in order to make this bill slightly less unacceptable. Neither of the main opposition parties had much to contribute, and in many ways what could have been a grilling for the government degenerated into an opportunistic point-scoring exercise.

A few of the Labour rebels highlighted the problem of variability in the bill, and the fact that the government says it needs to charge students for education, while finding no problem in spending whatever it takes on the war and occupation of Iraq. To this Clarke predictably replied that there are scarce resources in this country, and 'national security' must have priority.

This question of spending highlights the false premise upon which Clarke's drive to charge tuition fees is based. Constantly in his speech he portrayed Britain as a poor country, in which someone "must pay" for the educated labour force which is necessary to compete with other countries in the world. Clarke, of course, wants the students to pay for their bog-standard higher education once they become exploitable wage slaves - only the bourgeoisie and upper middle classes will be able to afford the extra fees envisaged by the elite universities in 2008 or 2009.

Nowadays he could not even contemplate the idea that - just as with primary and secondary education - perhaps the state should pay through raising corporation and other such taxes. Britain is the world's fourth richest country, and certainly has the resources necessary whereby a first rate further education can be the right of all, an integral part of becoming an adult human, instead of a commodified thing which is bought and sold.

Blair's drive to subordinate every public service to this kind of massively subsidised pseudo-market stems from the contradictions of state monopoly capitalism itself: on the one hand from an inability of anything run along purely capitalist lines to deliver universal provision without incurring astronomical and spiralling costs, and on the other the inevitable failure of bureaucratic controls to allocate in an efficient manner according to need. This exposes New Labour for what it is - the servant of a capitalism which long ago become exhausted and fit for nothing except the historical graveyard.

If only there had been somebody to put forward a working class alternative in parliament: the Tories want to freeze the number of university places, whereas the Liberal Democrats' posing is just another attempt to win votes - any leftish commitments or, dare it be said, principles that they claim to possess were exposed in their about-turn after the invasion of Iraq. Charles Kennedy was granted a place on the platform at the huge February 15 2003 demonstration - only to come out in support of 'our boys and girls' a few weeks later.

If the situation within parliament itself was depressing enough, so too was the action outside. A mere 400 or so showed up to demonstrate.

It must be obvious that we students are already having a rough time of it at the moment. Debt is the order of the day. Fees may be paid on behalf of poorer students (something which will largely remain the same under the new proposals) but this is but a small part of the equation. Students are often charged ludicrous amounts for cramped and run-down accommodation and have to take low-paid and menial employment, where union rights are non-existent. At the other end of the stick, we are exploited as consumers and stereotyped as debauched party-goers.

Even without top-up fees it is still the case that the best education is mostly reserved for the privileged - look at the percentage of private school students in the top 10 universities, for example. Look at the 10 lowest ranked, and the results are somewhat different.

Clarke's Higher Education Bill will only exacerbate this dire situation. Sooner or later the top universities will be allowed to charge far above the £3,000 annual limit Admittedly, after one of Clarke's concessions, this would now require further legislation, but, given the supine nature of most MPs and the swings and roundabouts of parliamentary majorities, this represents a minor problem.

Australia is a good example - since the introduction of top-up fees in 1989, student applications for the most expensive (and thus the best) courses from working class students has fallen by nearly 40% (Sheffield Students Union leaflet.) It is thus evident that we may soon have a handful of well financed universities as a result of this, but these will be competitive only in a Harvard or Princeton sense - brilliant university education enjoyed only by those who come from a rich background and who confidently expect to be rich themselves.

The fragmentation of revolutionary youth into a plethora of sects again raises the question of how students, and indeed the wider workers' movement, should organise in order to resist these attacks. There is crying need for a revolutionary party. Most students are convinced of the objective necessity for change, yet the absence of a party only makes future attacks even more probable.

To counterattack and help rally students to the fight for a Communist Party we fight for:

* Education as a right, not a privilege. * No tuition fees - tax the companies who will exploit tomorrow the labour of today's students. * Students over the age of 16 to receive grants set at the level of the minimum wage. * The right of every young person on leaving education to either a job, proper training or full benefits. * The provision of low-cost housing/hostels for youth, including students, to enter of their own choice for longer or shorter periods.