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Students prepare for battle in a looming new class war

It is many years since I travelled to London on the overnight bus, and it hasn’t got any easier.

They always manage to time their “comfort” stops just at the moment when you’ve finally fallen asleep.

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Still, it’s the cheapest way to travel, which is why some 2000 students from Scotland piled into a fleet of buses to join the biggest student demonstration in London in more than a decade yesterday. As rector of Edinburgh University, I was with them on the red eye -- it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

But I’m genuinely glad I went, and not just because it allowed me to relive my youth by joining in the megaphone-led chants of: “No ifs! No buts! No to education cuts” and “Education for the masses, not for just the ruling classes”. Or something like that. The slogans haven’t changed much -- and nor have the Socialist Workers Party which was all over this demo like a rash. You have to hand it to them -- the Trots certainly have staying power. While most of the far-left groups have long since met their maker, the SWP still shouts on, as if the revolution were just around the corner.

And, of course, there were the anarchists who always turn up at these events. With their black hoods, crash helmets, face masks and ugly sticks, they really aren’t hard to identify. A tiny minority of the 45,000 who marched past Westminster yesterday, they were clearly out for trouble, and they found it.

A group attacked the Conservative HQ on Millbank which, for some reason, had been left without proper police protection, and caused a lot of damage though, fortunately, no-one was seriously hurt. I was oblivious to all this, as were most of the marchers, who enjoyed a carnival atmosphere in the November sun.

Now, there may be something faintly ludicrous about these relatively privileged students calling for unity with the workers. But their moral outrage was sincere. Remember, most of those on the march will never have to pay the £9000 a year fees that are being planned in England because they have already begun their courses. But they are angered by the manifest injustice of landing the consequences of the financial crash on the next generation. What infuriates students is the way that my generation, which benefited from free higher education, is now pulling up the ladder of opportunity behind it.

It is abandoning the principle of free higher education in order to pay the debts of the most profligate generation in history -- the baby boomers. I can’t argue with them, either. It stinks.

Of course, defenders of fees say that this is not the intention at all and that there will be no barrier to bright school-leavers from every social background going to university. Graduates will repay their contribution only after they start earning over £21,000 a year. What could be fairer than that, say the Liberal Democrats, who have incurred the loathing of practically every student in Britain for signing the pledge not to increase fees and then trebling them as part of the Coalition. I’m sorry , but that argument cuts no ice with students who face leaving university with debts of £40,000 or even £50,000

An analysis by the Chartered Institute for Taxation indicates that most graduates will be paying this debt of for the rest of their lives, and incurring a 45% tax rate into the bargain. This is because of the way in which the debt will increase by RPI inflation plus 3% over the years that the graduates pay it back. A teacher, say, starting on £21,000 and seeing his or her salary increase by 5% a year, will end up paying £64,239 over 30 years, and still have an unpaid debt of £26,406.

This is a mortgage-sized burden even before they try to get a mortgage. Of course, this isn’t a problem for Scottish students because the Scottish Government has promised not to introduce tuition fees in this country. But here’s a funny thing: everyone from university principals to student union leaders believes that tuition fees are coming to Scotland, and very soon.

I’m told that the Scottish Education Secretary, Mike Russell, has privately conveyed the impression that fees will be restored in the form of a graduate contribution almost as soon as the next Scottish election is out of the way.

This may come as a surprise to many in his party, since the SNP has made free higher education a central plank of its election manifestos since 1999, and has fiercely attacked the Liberal Democrats for reneging on their commitment to abolish fees. And this SNP commitment has always gone further than just ruling out “up-front fees”. No-one is talking about up-front fees any more, certainly not Lord Browne, whose bombshell report called for a graduate contribution to be paid through the student loans system. If the Scottish Government intends to stand by its commitment, it really should make this clear soon, and preferably before the cross-party summit Mr Russell has convened for next week to seek a “Scottish solution” to the fees problem. If he doesn’t, this issue may explode in their faces during the Scottish election campaign.

As the London demonstration has made clear, the sheer radicalism of the Browne Report has altered the terms of the entire debate. There is a real sense of betrayal. Many students who might have been prepared to see a modest contribution or increase in loans are appalled at the prospect of a lifetime of debt.

Even moderate student leaders now regard the UK Government’s proposals as tantamount to the privatisation of higher education. Such, indeed, was arguably the intention of Lord Browne’s report, which called for universities to be allowed to charge variable fees, so that elite universities could charge the “market rate”.

This really is decision time in Scotland. The politicians, of all parties, have been in denial for too long. They seem to believe they can hold the lid on the fees issue until after the Scottish elections in May, and then perhaps quietly reintroduce them. But on the strength of what I saw in London, this would be a most dangerous strategy -- and not just for the Liberal Democrats.

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