While those of us shocked by the General Election result piece together what has happened, a new government is steadily working out what policies it will implement for universities and students. Some of these will be a continuation of existing or halted policies. The cuts to Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) which were delayed until 2016, with some changes coming in 2015, look like they will now go ahead. That means disabled students could have to fork out £200 for specialised equipment they need. Vince Cable has now left his post as Business Secretary, which puts a sale of the student loanbook back on the cards, something George Osborne said he was considering during his recent speech to the Confederation of British Industry.
The postgraduate loans system may now be introduced, chiefly a £10,000 loan for taught masters students. But this is capped at under-30s, and only covers part of the expenses. Taking out this loan would also add to the repayments many of us will be making as undergraduates. In other words, as a response to higher fees and debts deterring access to higher education, the government has prescribed – you guessed it – higher fees and more debts.
The big question is whether tuition fees for undergraduates will go up. It has become increasingly likely that the government is considering this, and William Hague, Conservative Leader of the House of Commons in the last Parliament, repeatedly refused to rule out a fee rise when asked. Whether the government is able to get through another fee rise will depend on the strength of the British student movement. If all non-Tory parties voted against higher fees (and the DUP and UKIP are likely to do just that) the government could only survive nine rebels from their own benches.
Given that five Tory MPs who rebelled against increasing fees in 2010 are still in Parliament, if students can cause enough trouble around the threat of a fee rise, especially in Tory-held student marginals like Derby and Southampton, then the government might not risk their chances over a move that would threaten both party unity and public image. Looking at the Lib Dems’ recent decimation at the polls, it is clear that the issue of student fees is one that resonates deeply with the student population and the public at large.
The final possibility is among the most worrying. The Conservative party has a long-held disregard for students’ right to organise, and for unions in general, so a fresh round of attacks on student unionism may be on the cards.
In 1972, Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher led an assault on the rights of students’ unions to campaign politically, which was defeated by NUS, and John Major brought it back in 1994, in what became the Education Act.
If higher fees are posited by the government, and then the student movement fights back, we may have a fight on our hands for our democratic rights too.