What happens now? The bill to triple student fees in England became law on Thursday, even as Parliament Square itself was ablaze, and the heir to the throne besieged in his limousine by angry demonstrators. Is that it? Will the students now go back to their rooms to study while the nation indulges in the usual orgy of Christmas consumerism? No way! The students should not abandon their intifada, but take it north to Scotland where fees are still free - but perhaps not for long.
The 2010 student uprising is the biggest show of popular discontent since the poll tax demonstrations twenty years ago. The poll tax became law too, but not for long. Mass protests made the law unworkable, and its author, Margaret Thatcher, was brought down by her own cabinet in large part because of the unpopularity of the community charge. The students can do the same. They have lost the parliamentary battle, but won the argument. They must now demand that the Scottish government sticks to its pledge not to reintroduce tuition fees, nor any "graduate contribution" which amounts to the same thing. A victory in Holyrood will make Westminster think again. The May Parliamentary elections in Scotland should be turned into a referendum on tuition fees. And a funeral for the Liberal Democrats.
This battle can be won in Scotland. The Labour-led administration in the Welsh Assembly has refused to impose the new fees and has promised subsidise Welsh students studying in England so they don't have to pay it. And here in Scotland there has already been a significant shift in tone. The Scottish education secretary, Mike Russell has dropped the canard of “no up front fees” (no one, not even Lord Browne, has been proposing that) and is now insisting there are “no plans” to introduce a graduate contribution. Of course, that “no plans” is the classic get-out for politicians, since their plans can, and usually do, change. Remember how the Tories had ‘no plans’ to increase VAT.
Mr Russell's game plan had been to avoid saying anything about fees until the general election, thus avoiding the opprobrium of scrapping the commitment to free higher education, which has been a centrepiece of their SNP manifestos since 1999. This act dumb tactic is clearly no longer sustainable. With universities across the country occupied and a rolling revolt by students and school pupils, it is simply untenable for the Scottish government to have no policy on tuition fees. It is time for the SNP to find its voice and speak clearly for free higher education.
The Scottish government is due to publish a green paper on higher education funding before Christmas that will “present a range of options” including a graduate contribution collected centrally. By March 2011, the Scottish Finance secretary, John Swinney, will have to give an indication to Scottish universities about their funding 2012/13 .. In the New Year, the Scottish government should announce that, having looked at all the angles, it sees no reason to abandon the Scottish tradition of state-funded higher education.
I believe they have little option but to do this because it would be a disaster were the SNP to cave in on fees during on the very eve of the Scottish election. Far better to stick to their guns, defend the principle of free higher education, force Labour and the Liberal Democrats to join the Tories in the graduate contribution camp. They would have won the hearts and minds of students, academic staff and most of Scotland’s parents. The Nationalists should then condemn the other parties for capitulating to the marketisation of higher education
How would the SNP pay for it? Well, ask the Welsh, who have decided not to accept the fee increases. The Labour led copalition in the Welsh Assembly has examined the figures and has concluded that the funding crisis in higher education has been overblown for ideological reasons. In Scotland the cost of maintaining Scottish universities without fees has also been exaggerated by university principals and their representatives. Talk of a £300million black hole in finances from 2012/13 overestimates the shortfall by a factor of three. The UK business department isn't planning for reductions on that scale, at least for the next five years, and under the Barnett process there will still be cash flowing across the border from that department for some years yet.
The Welsh government will charge English and EU students in their universities the cost of their tuition, and there is no reason why Scotland could not do the same. At present EU students pay nothing, and English students pay just over a thousand pounds. If the English government wants to introduce £9,000 fees, let them go ahead. But there is no reason why the Scottish government should subsidise English fees in Scottish universities, when the cash could be put to better use. The money from English and EU students would go a long way to eliminating the funding gap.
People will claim this is discrimination, educational apartheid even - well let them. Browne has changed everything. It wasn’t Scotland's choice to impose crippling debts on students. And if Scotland and Wales ( and possibly Northern Ireland) hold firm, and the Liberal Democrats continue to wobble, there is a chance that the Coalition in London might have to think again. The tuition fees revolt took a while to ignite, but it is now raging. An entire generation is being radicalised by the experience. This is turning into a generalised revolt against the government's decision top bail out the bankers and make ordinary people pay the cost of their mistakes.
The SNP has a unique opportunity here. Rejecting the reintroduction of tution fees could be the Big Idea that Alex Salmond's administration is desperately seeking in the fag end of this parliament. Rudderless and outvoted, Salmond has had to dump the devolution referendum, local income tax and minimum alcohol pricing. If he restores fees, even in the form of a graduate contribution, it will be seen as the final u-turn that destroyed the SNP’s credibility. Look what has happened to the Liberal Democrats. But if the SNP have the courage to stick to their principles they could go into the election in good order.
I'm not saying that resisting tuition fees could actually win the May election for the SNP – but it could mean the difference between a rout and a decent showing. A lot of student votes would flow their way and they would receive financial and organisational support from academics and undergraduates determined to halt the privatisation of higher education . For a party that is strapped for cash, facing an election where every vote will count - that’s worth thinking about.
And when the incoming Labour-Liberal coalition (if such it is) reintroduces fees, the SNP would have the moral foundation for a serious challenge to the integrity of both parties. Labour MSPs have been trying to hide their views on tution fees; it is high time they were smoked out. Iain Gray has strongly hinted that he supports some kind of graduate tax, following the lead by the UK Labour leader, Ed Miliband. This translates into a fees by graduate contribution in the Scottish context because Holyrood lacks the economic powers to set up a new tax.
The student intifada is turning into our version of the US Tea Party movement. It’s time for the SNP to get off the fence and join it.