Lancaster leads fight for fairer funding

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Lancaster students are leading the way in the North West in protesting against government cuts to higher education and an increase in fees.

Students protested against fees in London in 2005. Photo courtesy of the National Union of Students

Over 200 students at Lancaster have signed up to attend the national demonstration against the cuts in London on November 10. Universities in Liverpool and Manchester are trailing behind, with only the University of Manchester having broken 100 students signed up at the time of writing.

The influx of students has taken those organising the campaign to get students down to London by surprise. Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU) began a campaign to raise awareness of the demonstration and the cuts that have been the catalyst for it last week.  The National Union of Students and the University and College Union (UCU) jointly organised the protest.

LUSU had originally planned to take 200 students down to London. Sign up for seats on the coaches began at 12pm on Monday of Week Three. Lancaster students on campus received a yellow flyer through their door urging them to reserve a place on the coach headed to London on Wednesday Week 5. By 3pm the next day all 200 seats had been allocated, and a decision was taken to put on an extra 50-seater coach. LUSU paid for four of the coaches, with the Lancaster branch of the UCU donating money for another coach.

The University has granted an amnesty to excuse anyone attending the demonstration from lectures and seminars, though their attendance will have to be confirmed by the Students’ Union.

LUSU has been working over the summer with the other students’ unions within the regional: those at the University of Cumbria and Central Lancashire. Between them the Lancashire and Cumbria region is expected to take 500 students. The National Union of Students is expecting at least 5000 students to turn up on the day.

The demonstration is partly in response to the Browne Review. Published last month, the Review recommends lifting the cap on tuition fees altogether so universities could charge whatever they like. Although the recommendations of the Review aren’t expected to be brought about until the 2012, there is concern within many student unions for the next generation of students that could be affected by suggestions for policy change.

“The Browne Review has proposed a scenario in which students are looking to pay over twice what they currently do for a degree: but in which no improvements to the experience are made,” said Robin Hughes, LUSU Vice President (Academic).

LUSU President Robbie Pickles called the Browne Review “a major blow to students wishing to attend university” but says he remains optimistic concerning the demonstration in London. “It will hopefully put pressure on the Liberal Democrats to remember their election pledge to oppose a rise in fees and vote against coalition legislation rather than simply abstain”.

The Review also recommends an increase in the amount of interest students pay on their loans, an increase which would affect current students as well as those beginning in the future. Also due to affect current students are the cuts to higher education announced in the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

Cartmel student Emma Feather said: “Students leave university in enough debt […] to make that burden greater will only discourage people from further education.”

Writing for the Channel 4 News blog NUS president Aaron Porter called this time “bleak” for graduate employment, and questioned what the financial changes will mean for the next generation of students hoping to attend university. “Their parents may have just lost their child benefit for some of these very children, but this is a generation that will now be asked to start adult life already owing as much as £40,000,” Porter wrote.

In the time leading up to the London demonstration, LUSU is co-ordinating a number of on campus events. In order to raise awareness of the campaign an informative talk will be held in the Cavendish Lecture Theatre on November 3 at 7pm.

A bonfire rally has also been planned for Guy Fawkes Night. “It is a night to have fun, as well as a chance to come together as students and make our voices heard; to let both the University and the government know that we will simply not pay more for less,” said Chair of Social and Events Group, Bex Hamilton. “I urge anyone who feels strongly to come along. We have fought them before and we will fight them again for fairer funding.”

The reaction to the Review has been mixed. Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willets said the current higher education funding system is “no longer fit for purpose”. But David Latchman of the University of London suggested that the Review was “a significant breakthrough” in helping to bridge the inequalities between part time and full time students.

The likelihood of such a change is in doubt however, after Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg wrote a letter to his party on October 13 2010 stating that he “broadly enforced” the recommendations of the Browne Review. Clegg went on to say that he was “painfully aware” of the Liberal Democrat pledge to vote against a rise in tuition fees, yet he “signed [the] pledge at a time when we could not have anticipated the full scale of the financial situation the country faces now”. These statements appear to decrease any chance of Liberal Democrats abstaining during the decisive vote.

Despite concerns raised over the funding, the spokesperson for the Browne review says there are “no fundamental obstacles” to prevent the Government from carrying out its recommendations.

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