The comment from Arlene Foster that raising tuition fees needs ‘positive debate’ should act as a warning that the prospect of fee hikes can again be put on the table by the new Stormont Executive.

Education should not be for profit

The raising of tuition fees would be a direct attack on access to higher education, especially for working-class students. It is part and parcel of a broader strategy of “marketisation” in education. Westminster is committed to de-regulating the higher education sector in favour of private companies, creating what it calls a ‘level playing field’ for profit-making companies. Stormont has not stood in the way and has facilitated this approach at every stage.

This will remove the academic checks and balances that protect standards in universities, allowing companies whose primary obligation is to their shareholders to drive down costs and opening the door to the kind of mis-selling, recruitment and fraud scandals seen in the USA. Profiteering is harmful to the quality of education and research, as the interests of a university as a business are often contrary to the interests of staff, students and society as a whole.

Funding crisis doesn’t wash

The excuse used for the potential raising of tuition fees is that it would be a “cost saving” measure for the new Executive. Socialists fundamentally reject this idea. The same politicians who are now talking about the need to reduce spending fought rabidly for the right to reduce corporation tax for large multinationals.

The reality is that the money for a free and accessible education system exists in society and it’s being hoarded by a tiny, super-rich minority. There are currently 134 billionaires in the UK, their wealth amounts to a staggering £419 billion. This gives a glimpse into the huge wealth that exists and could be utilised to fund free education. Tens of thousands of pounds of debt is an unacceptable price to pay for an education while big businesses and the super-wealthy continue to hoard the wealth created by the labour of working people. Education should be publicly funded and run democratically to meet society’s needs.

United struggle with university workers

The last attempt at hiking tuition fees by Stormont was met with a wall of resistance from students, who marched, walked out and occupied to take on the proposal. These tactics were effective in forcing back the Stormont parties. These are the methods that should be utilised if a serious threat again emerges. This – combined with linking up with university workers who are currently fighting a battle against the drive towards a for-profit model of education – could not only defeat this proposal but lay the basis for a movement for free higher education for all who want to study.