Welsh government continues attacks on education - NUS must fight
£65 million cut from further and higher education
Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats have joined together in a budget which caves into the Welsh Tories' headline demand: stop NHS cuts by sacrificing services across the board. The Assembly's consensus for cuts is in complete opposition to the needs of Welsh workers and students, who continue to suffer from low pay, high unemployment, and collapsing public services. Despite Leighton Andrews' departure from the Welsh Education ministry little has changed: students will be hard-hit in a budget that includes deep cuts to both higher and further education while locking in £9,000 tuition fees.
According to analysis by the National Union of Students Wales, a net £20 million is being cut from higher education and £45 million from further education, sixth forms, and other continuing education programmes. The Welsh Assembly want colleges to make up the cuts in "efficiency savings": a ridiculous proposition, as further education in Wales has just gone through years of course-cutting and mergers. In such dire circumstances, colleges might dip into their reserves to cover the shortfall – but the FE bill still making its way through the Assembly would, if passed, take away colleges' power to keep reserves, while handing more power to college principals to run colleges like businesses.
Adding a slap in the face to a punch in the gut, the Education Maintenance Allowance and Assembly Learning Grant funds are taking a small cut. Adjusted for inflation, these grants have each lost over a third of their value since being established, while becoming harder to access. Skyrocketing energy prices mean more students will have to choose between heating their homes and travelling to college as winter sets in.
Meanwhile the cuts to higher education are buffered by £50 million in income from Coalition's tripling of fees (the total cut in public funding. University vice-chancellors are already hungry for more, with Cardiff University vice chancellor Colin Riordan joining other vice-chancellors in demanding a raising of the fee cap. As lecturers across the UK, including Wales, prepare to take strike action against another year of real-terms pay cuts, students can be sure of one thing: tuition fees are making universities less and less accountable to the needs of workers and students. They need to be abolished.
NUS Wales, in a positive move, has launched the "Fund Further, Fund Higher" campaign this week which calls on the Welsh Government to reverse the cuts to education. So far, an e-petition is being circulated alongside an e-mail lobby of Assembly Members. The campaign is engaging NUS Wales' membership like no other initiative the organisation has undertaken in years, proving students' hunger to fight attacks on education, but it won't be enough in its present form.
NUS Wales should begin organising an all-Wales demonstration against the cuts, mobilising its hundreds of thousands of members. It should also refuse to play the divide-and-rule game; instead of saying "don't cut education, cut something else" it should link in with the already-established campaigns against cuts to the NHS and to local government and with the trade union movement. Students and workers united could be a voice for the idea that cuts are not necessary, that Westminster's £3 billion in planned or implemented cuts to Wales are change down the back of the sofa compared to the hundreds of billions the Coalition waste on rail privatisation, foreign military adventures and bank bailouts – and that they can be defied and defeated.
Ways to do this have never been more clear. The devolution of borrowing powers to Wales is a matter of when, not if. The pages of the staid Western Mail have carried proposals from economist Gerry Holtham explaining how the Assembly and local authorities could coordinate borrowing & spending reserves in order to lessen the cuts in Wales. These answers distract from the real question: if the Welsh Assembly, backed by a mass movement of workers & students, set a budget based on need and handed the bill to Parliament, what would the Coalition actually do?
A Coalition which cannot hold the line on Syria, or even on taxing pasties, cannot stand up to organised Welsh workers and students. Churchill needed the army to quell strikes in Wales; we can run a political infant like David Cameron all the way back to Eton.
Edmund Schluessel, NUS National Executive Council & Wales Executive Council (pc)
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