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Alistair Thompson: Students should switch tactics - they would have far more power as consumers than protesters

Alistair ThompsonAlistair Thompson was Conservative candidate for West Bromwich East at the general election. He also runs Media Intelligence Partners with business partner Nick Wood, the former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.

Today, 10,000 students are expected to take to the streets of London complaining about the hike in tuition fees to a maximum of up to £9K per year.

This demonstration is nothing more than a throwback to the 1970s, when Union activism last mattered. This will, I’m afraid, fail. Not least because there is a high probability that it will be hijacked by anti-capitalist loonies, hell-bent on vandalism and destruction.

Peaceful pictures of students walking past Downing Street and through Parliament Square makes poor TV, compared to pitched battles with police and masked yobs.

The second problem that the students face is that when they call a rally or strike, no one notices, or cares. They don’t provide any important service that the general public see has gone, like the trains, or fire brigade. And the only people they are harming are themselves, by not attending lectures and not getting the education they are paying for... oh and a few motorists who will be caught in the traffic chaos around the march.

Thirdly, the battle over fees was lost more than a decade ago. I say this with a heavy heart, because at the time I was a student officer and took part in yet another ineffective NUS march, calling on Tony Blair’s Government to ditch their plan to introduce them.

As the campaign against tuition progressed, a few things became absolutely clear. Firstly, once fees were introduced, they would never be scrapped, no matter which party was in Government, and secondly, even in a period of massive increases in public spending and despite a manifesto commitment not to introduce fees, the Labour Party pushed ahead with the policy, doing the electoral maths that students, by and large, vote Labour, or don’t vote, and bringing in fees would not cost them a single seat.

They were right, as at the next election they, Labour, walloped both the Conservative Party and Lib Dems and then pushed ahead with Top Up Fees.  

Back then, as now, the response from the NUS was completely inadequate and out-dated. I suspect this had a little to do with NUS’ close ties to the Labour Party, with several former NUS officers being cabinet ministers and with the fact that the organisation has not evolved since the 1970s. 

And here we are again repeating the mistakes of previous campaigns; poor leadership and outdated tactics.

Don’t get me wrong, I wish them well. I think that tuition fees and top up fees are nothing more than a middle-class rip off. The poorest will be exempt and have always been able to get substantial help with paying them, and the very wealthy don’t care - its only middle England - as the Scots are exempt, and the Welsh receive a subsidy - who will feel the full force of these changes and who will bite the bullet and grudgingly pay up.

But anarchistic marches are not the answer - what students need to do is realise that now they are paying for their education, they are consumers in a competitive market and should treat the provision of their education as they would buying a mobile phone.

Universities that fail to deliver on educational resources, facilities, contact time, or pastoral support offered in their prospectus should be held to account. Just as people would not tolerate a faulty mobile, why should students tolerate a defective course, poor lecturers, or little contact time?

Students have far more power as consumers than those who continue to relive the 1970s and take to the streets. Student organisations and their members must do more to harness this power if they are to get the education they are paying for.

The move to a consumer-based campaign does not mean that I undervalue the importance of a university education, but since the introduction of fees a decade ago the campaign against them remains largely unchanged. Students and their elected representatives must realise this, switch tactics, and when they do not get the education they are paying for, they must take action against their provider.


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