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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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.