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Successive governments have forced obscene debt onto uni students – it’s time to fight back against tuition fees

The National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU) have called a national demonstration against tuition fees on Saturday, November 19th.

Given Jeremy Corbyn’s recent re-election as leader of the Labour Party, this demonstration could not be more timely, as one of Corbyn’s pledges in the 2016 leadership election was to scrap university tuition fees.

But if Corbyn is to make good on this promise, he must be willing to face down the right-wingers in the Labour Party – because of their recent opposition to the removal of student bursaries, the Blairites may appear to support free education. This is nothing but naked opportunism.

When locked out of power, the Labour right will, like the Tories, always take the progressive position on tuition fees. When in power, however, the story is very different.

Prior to the election of New Labour in 1997, Tony Blair assured the country that “Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education.” In a Commons debate on July 23, he reiterated this message:

“Our proposals will be designed to safeguard the position of low-income families… We need a system that is fair, does not involve additional parental contribution, is linked to students’ ability to pay and safeguards the country for the long term. That is what we will provide.”

Just six months after Labour’s election, a vote to support tuition fees was passed overwhelmingly by the Labour government. Originally, fees were set at £1,000 to be paid by every student for every year of study, but the motion also replaced maintenance grants (set at £1,710) with repayable student loans.

This pattern of betrayal continued in 2001 when Labour was re-elected on a manifesto that, amongst other things, promised to fight against “top-up fees.” The manifesto reads:

We will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them… We will ensure that the funding system continues to promote access and excellence.

And yet, on January 24th 2004, the majority of Labour MPs voted in favour of university tuition fees increasing from £1,125 per year to up to £3,000 per year. The Tories voted against this policy.

Of those who voted in favour of increasing fees, many remain amongst Labour’s ranks today, some with positions in the shadow cabinet: Tom Watson (Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office), Barry Gardiner (Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade), John Healey (Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning), and Angela Smith (Shadow Leader of the House of Lords).

Corbyn now has fewer Blairites in his cabinet: key positions within the Labour Party are now dominated by new faces, or those few who took a principled stand against tuition fees such as John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett.

But the Parliamentary Labour Party is still riddled with those who voted against manifesto promises in 2004. Unsurprisingly, many of these individuals also supported the undemocratic coup against his leadership, such as: Hilary Benn, Chris Bryant, Vernon Coaker, Angela Eagle, Maria Eagle, Rosie Winterton, Yvette Cooper, Alistair Darling, Jim Dowd, Harriet Harman, John Mann, and Keith Vaz. The full list can be found here.

Spinning on to the next seminal moment in the history of tuition fees, on December 9th 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat (Con-Dem) coalition government won the vote to raise the upper limit of tuition fees to £9,000, against a backdrop of massive national demonstrations and police violence.

Labour, now safely out of power, bloc-voted against this policy. Many of those who took a “principled stand” against this deeply unfair policy voted for the increase in 2004. Conversely, many Tories who voted against tuition fees in 2004 voted in favour in 2010.

Recent history has shown that the Blairites, and even the Tories, will take a progressive stance on student issues when locked out of power. But when it matters, they both vote the same: more tuition fees, more loans, and less grants.

Today, we are presented with an historic opportunity for change. The Tories currently hold the reins of power with a desperately small mandate from just 24% of those eligible to vote. At the same time, the Labour Party has recently re-elected the most potentially progressive leader in its entire history, and his supporters are leading the charge within the NUS.

Unfortunately, however, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the local councils do not yet reflect these changes.

Corbyn’s support for free education must also, therefore, be accompanied by calls for re-selection of Labour MPs and councillors. Only this can ensure that his views, and those of the membership, are translated into party policy.

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