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Laurie Penny on rising tuition fees: A breathtaking attack on social mobility

Lifting the cap on tuition fees isn't just an attack on young people -- it's much, much worse than that.

It's worse than we feared. The Browne report, released today, advises the government that the best way to fund a "competitive" higher education system and provide businesses with the goods, services and skills that they require is to replace state funding of higher education with a punitive fees system which is set to triple and or even quadruple the amount that British students have to pay to attend university. This provides the coalition with all the excuse it needed to turn our universities into cowed commercial spaces, crammed with young people so terrified of their mounting debts that they will fashion themselves into obedient corporate drones with less of the soul-searching that goes on in today's academy.

Once they have graduated, rather than having their loan charges frozen as is currently the case, students will be obliged to pay interest at market rates, meaning that the poorest students will potentially be paying thousands of pounds' worth of extra interest over 30 years. Meanwhile, the very wealthy, who do not need loans, and the middle-aged and elderly, who enjoyed free higher education paid for through progressive taxation, will see their odds of remaining "competitive" in the meat market of modern moneymaking vastly improved.

This is a breathtaking attack on social mobility. The report, which is likely to be directly incorporated into policy, is a statement in bald black and white that neoliberal political doctrine will now be more mercilessly pursued than it ever was under New Labour. At root, the Browne report is not about what students and graduates are willing or able to pay, but about what the government is unwilling to pay to fund a higher education system that, with its fusty emphasis on learning and personal development, has always contradicted to some extent the interests of profit.

The question isn't where the money to run our universities will come from -- the question is where it won't come from. If the Tories push ahead with their plans to raise tuition fees, then it won't come from taxpayers; not anymore.

Let's remind ourselves of the levels of stomach-churning hypocrisy at play here. The politicians currently wrangling over how many tens of thousands of pounds students from poor families should be obliged to pay, and when, for degrees which are now all but essential to any hope of decent employment in a beleaguered job market, all attended university for free. Not only that: Cameron, Clegg and Osborne, despite having families wealthy enough to educate them at top private schools, were all offered generous maintenance grants to support them through their prestigious free courses, payable by edict of the Education Act 1962.

Like many universal benefits, the student grant was long ago tossed into the dogpit of corporate cannibalism, with young people and their families now forced to make up the shortfall of what was once ours on principle. The student grant and free tuition used to be financed perfectly adequately through the tax system -- a system that saw top-rate taxpayers paying 83 per cent on their earnings in the 1970s and 60 per cent even during the grimily golden years of Thatcherite neoliberalism.

This isn't just a tax on the young. It's far, far worse than that. Today, the new, caring Conservative party plans to effectively abolish higher education that is free at the point of delivery, and instead deliver the functions of the welfare state to the market in their entirety.

The attack on university funding is part of a fiscally sadistic cuts agenda that seeks to roll back the state in order to turn universities, hospitals and even jobcentres into little more than third-sector service providers jostling for the business of the desperate consumers who we used to think of as "citizens". This kamikaze capitalism has now cynically incorporated the language of "fairness". The coalition mouths platitudes to "fairness" precisely because fairness before the market is the one thing that savage neoliberalism can promise without blinking. This is about more than fairness, however. This is about justice.

The people of this country now face a choice -- between cringing complicity with a compromised and misleading notion of 'fairness' and the challenge of fighting for justice, genuine social justice, which is more than equality, more than fairness, and certainly more than the market can deliver.

This is a choice that faces all of us, including those who are unlucky enough to have endorsed, voted or chosen to work for the quisling Liberal Democrats. Will we remain complicit as our welfare state is destroyed and our young people's futures are aggressively pimped out to an uncaring private sector? Or will we turn around and say, while we still have the strength: enough?

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

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Leader: Goodbye to global glut as the financial markets stumble

Cheap money is a shaky foundation on which to build genuine economic growth.

After China’s main stock exchange plunged by 8.5 per cent on 24 August, the Shanghai composite index’s worst single day fall in eight years, state media declared it “Black Monday”. Markets elsewhere in the world fared little better. Germany’s DAX index fell 4.7 per cent, pushing it into a bear market. The FTSE 100 also slid nearly 5 per cent, a tenth consecutive day of falls, and in the US the S&P 500 slipped 4 per cent, taking its losses since May to 11 per cent.

If traders – and anyone with a share portfolio or pension invested in shares – were not already nervous enough, the former US treasury secretary Larry Summers weighed in. “As in August 1997, 1998, 2007 and 2008 we could be in the early stage of a very serious situation,” he wrote on Twitter.

That remains to be seen, and the small bounce in share markets outside Asia on 25 August would have offered some reassurance. What is clear, however, is that more than seven years after the start of the global financial crisis, which ushered in the present period of austerity and deepening inequality, the world economy remains fragile.

One reason is its heavy dependence on China as an engine of growth. For years the world’s second-biggest economy has been sucking in raw materials from around the world to feed its factories and infrastructure projects: it is the world’s most voracious consumer of energy and buys about half of the world’s industrial metals, such as copper. But the days of 10 per cent or even 8 per cent growth in China are over. Even before the recent stock slide in Shanghai, which should not have been a big shock, given the steep rise in the market earlier this year, there were signs that the economy was slowing. Prices for commodities from iron ore and platinum to oil have slumped over the past year, partly because of supply issues but also because of weaker Chinese demand.

For countries dependent on revenues from raw materials, such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Nigeria, this is a challenge and raises concern about unrest. Even Saudi Arabia has been forced to borrow on the financial markets for the first time since 2007. Emerging-market currencies have plunged: it now costs more than 20 South African rand to buy a pound.

Rich western economies, which are left as the main drivers of global growth, appear to be more insulated from China’s troubles. But as our columnist Felix Martin points out, there are warning signs. The strong performance of US stocks in recent years is at odds with the underlying economic data. The strength of shares there and in the UK owes more to loose monetary policy: mainly low interest rates and quantitative easing, which involves printing money to buy back assets from banks and other institutions, in effect pumping cash into the financial system.

Yet cheap money is a shaky foundation on which to build genuine economic growth. And because interest rates are ­already so low, and debt and deficits high, governments have few tools to employ if investors’ confidence melts further and markets crash. Much worse may be to come.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism