Fees fury hits Westminster

Two Oxford MPs have signed a pledge to vote against raising of tuition fees after being lobbied in Parliament by OUSU delegates including President Stefan Baskerville.

The meetings ran alongside a campaign to raise awareness of the government’s review of Higher Education funding, which saw Oxford students joining NUS protesters outside the Palace of Westminster.

OUSU has joined with the NUS on the “funding for our future” campaign to urge the government to listen to students on the subject of Higher Education Fees. The campaign is responding to a government review of funding for university education launched this week. The review will look at how much to charge students, how to ensure that poorer students are not deterred by higher fees and how employers could contribute more of the cost of degrees. However, many view the review as an attempt to defer discussion of the issue until after the general election, allowing parties to avoid scrutiny over the issue.

Stefan Baskerville, OUSU president, explained, “A rise in the cap on fees would be disastrous. At fees of £7000, the average Oxford student would leave with debts of £35000 and would need to earn £30000 a year just to pay off the interest on their loans, before they even start paying back the money they borrowed.”

On Wednesday, a delegation of Oxford student representatives, including Baskerville, and St Peter’s JCR President Daniel Stone, met local MPs Andrew Smith and Evan Harris in Parliament to discuss the issue. Both politicians signed a pledge on a large white board to vote against a rise in tuition fees during the next Parliament. It read, “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.”

Baskerville was pleased with the signatures. He added, “All MPs and parliamentary candidates should come clean on fees before the election, so people know what they are voting for. Anything else smacks of a stitch-up by political parties to stay silent on this key issue until after the general election.”

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The meeting preceded a gathering of more than 100 student leaders and MPs in a Parliamentary committee room to represent students’ views on education. Those gathered were addressed by figures such as Wes Streeting, NUS President, and David Lammy, Minister for Higher Education.

Today, a letter signed by 300 student leaders appeared in the Guardian calling to stop another fee hike. It read, “Labour and Conservative leaders seem to believe they can maintain their cosy consensus of silence until the election and beyond. Today we are descending on parliament to demand that MPs come clean on their stance. Any parliamentary candidate that does not sign the NUS pledge to vote against an increase in fees and support our calls for a fairer funding system will be named and shamed.”

In Oxford, more than thirty students handed out leaflets in the city centre on Wednesday morning. These informed about the funding review.

Owen Evans, St Anne’s JCR president commented, “We were leafleting today to draw attention to the significance of the government’s launch of a review of undergraduate fees, and its potential consequences.

“Essentially, the review takes tuition fees off the political agenda until after the general election. We are worried that the review will recommend an end to the cap on tuition fees, which would result in universities across the country raising fees to levels which are unaffordable to many people.”

Business Secretary Lord Mandelson has promised to consult “all who would be affected by any changes” during the funding review. However, Wes Streeting, President of the National Union of Students (NUS), is worried that students are under-represented on the review panel. “I have limited confidence that this review will do anything other than give universities the chance to increase fees after the general election,” he said.

“Politicians should remember the student backlash in 2004 that almost brought [Tony] Blair’s government down and saw many pro-fees MPs lose their seats. There will be an even greater backlash if the review proposes plunging students into greater debt.”

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The review was promised by the government in 2004 in an attempt to placate rebel MPs who were considering voting against £3,000-a-year fees. It had to start this year, but the fact it will not be completed until after the election has prompted criticism.

The University and College Union (UCU) says publishing the review after the election will allow politicians to “duck the issue”, while OUSU’s leaflets argue that this delay reflects “a cosy stitch-up by the two main parties so they can avoid taking a position on higher education funding before or during the election.”

The launch of this review comes shortly after the NUS released a survey showing that only 12% of those members of the public who were questioned want fee increases to be considered.