By Daniel Waldron, QUB Socialist Society
Northern Ireland is becoming a cold house for working class young people wishing to enter higher education.
The new financial arrangement New Labour introduced last year, which brought in top-up fees of up to £3,000 per year, has hit the North harder than any other area, with an 11% drop in applications over all.
This is largely because wages are lower in Northern Ireland than in Britain on average and there is a high level of poverty. Students from working class backgrounds are wary about taking on the huge amount of debt studying for a degree now entails. According to the University of Ulster, applications from those in the ‘two lowest social groups’ fell 5.2% and 10.3% respectively.
For those already in university, struggling to pay the bills is getting more difficult as well. The boom in house prices in the recent period, driven by profit-hungry speculators, means that students are being forced to pay extortionate levels of rent.
The cost of basic necessities is also considerably higher than the UK average. Belfast ranked 19th out of 27 university towns in a survey of cost-effectiveness. Thus, more students, particularly those from less well off families, are being forced to work part-time jobs where they are exploited as cheap labour.
These trends reflect the over-all assault on public, accessible education by New Labour, backed by their neo-liberal cronies in university management. If unchallenged, their agenda will mean higher education becoming again a luxury for the well-off, under the control of big business, run for profit, not for students.
Queen’s University has recently been admitted to the elite Russell Group, which includes Oxford and Cambridge. Plans have been announced to increase the average UCAS points required to gain entry to a course in Queen’s to 400. This is the equivalent of 2 A grades, a B and a D at A-Level. Peter Gregson, the university vice-chancellor says this is an attempt to attract ‘high quality students’. In reality it will be a system that greatly favours the well-off, who can afford extra tuition and can spend more time on their studies.
Gregson has also echoed calls by others in the Russell Group for universities to charge even greater tuition fees and for higher education to become more ‘business friendly’, in other words run to meet the needs of bosses who wish to exploit our skills.
Socialists believe education is a right not a privilege. We call for free, properly funded, public education with a living grant for students, not the burden of loans and tuition fees. As part of this struggle, Socialist Societies across the North this year will continue to build the Campaign to Defeat Fees along with our sister organisations in Britain. Get active on your campus!