Issue 234 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1999 Copyright Socialist Review


It will all end in tiers

Students face the prospect of finishing university with debts of 2,000

Goldsmiths' students forced their college management to back down last year

Labour's introduction of tuition fees and student loans is pricing working class students out of higher education. A recent report shows that a full 65 percent of applicants from low income families with less than 25,000 a year have been seriously thinking about not applying to college at all. This figure is over three times higher than the overall figure for all students.

Since the introduction of loans and the abolition of grants, students face the prospect of finishing university with debts of 12,000--three times higher than the current average debt.

Students are also being guided by financial considerations when deciding what to study. So applications for language courses have plummeted in the past year, as have teacher training degree courses and those in medicine and architecture. All involve longer than usual courses or other additional expenses.

The applications from all students this year have fallen by nearly 7,000 on the previous year. And there is much anecdotal evidence that admissions to some courses in many colleges have slumped--for example in the former polytechnics.

The increasing financial burden also means that more students are now choosing to study at home to save money. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) recently published figures showing that the number of new students planning to live at home while at university or college has risen from 20.8 percent last year to 22.6 percent this year. Half of all prospective students seriously consider staying at home during their degrees. Hardship for students at the end of their degrees led to a third of last year's graduates choosing to return home and live with their parents.

Students working during term time have less time to develop broader interests, and this affects their ability to work, among other things. The Association of Graduate Recruiters found recently that 'job skills' such as problem solving or teamworking were in short supply.

Students are already finding it difficult to pay fees. In July universities reported that students owed 15 million in unpaid tuition fees. Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, despite urging institutions to be both 'sensible and flexible', is suggesting putting up even greater barriers to students who had difficulty paying last year. She says that, where a student's fees for last year are outstanding, 'it would not be unreasonable to require such a student to pay tuition fees for both 1998-99 and 1999-2000 before allowing him or her to enrol for 1999-2000.' This would mean having to find over 2,000 before being allowed even to enrol for the next year of study. Already a fifth of students drop out before finishing their courses.

The pressure is on for a two tier system of education. This is already taking shape, with graduates from Oxbridge and the older universities commanding higher starting salaries, having less graduate unemployment and attracting more interest from employers than those from new universities. Oxford graduates expect a starting salary of 19,200 compared with 16,000 at Southampton and Newcastle, against a national average of 12,225 for all graduates. The university authorities use this financial advantage and prestige to maintain pressure for top-up fees in addition to the 1,025 a year currently charged. In the US students at 'Ivy League' universities such as Yale and Harvard pay more than $30,000 in fees. Only the rich and a handful of scholarship students are able to do so. This will be the pattern in Britain, with an elite system for the few and, increasingly, vocational study on the cheap for everyone else.

But the unfairness of the new system is breeding opposition. Last academic year saw the beginnings of a non-payment campaign, and a handful of occupations over the issue of expulsion of students who hadn't paid their fees. At Goldsmiths' College, management backed down after seven days of the occupation, agreeing that students who could not pay fees should not be expelled.

NUS has called demonstrations in Edinburgh on 16 October and in London on 25 November against tuition fees and for the reinstatement of the maintenance grant as opposed to loans. And the newly formed National Non-Payment Collective has called for a demonstration to defend non-payers in Oxford on 10 October. A successful campaign will depend on organising groups of students across the country as soon as the new academic year starts, and arguing against the market in education.
Lindsey German


  • Just 0.3 percent of the annual income of the richest countries, some $71 billion, would be enough to write off the debt owed by 52 of the world's poorest countries. G7 leaders, including Gordon Brown, congratulated themselves after the June Cologne summit when they agreed to 'write off' $100 billion of debt. This generosity has had little effect as it meant help going to a few countries with nothing going to many others. Mali, the world's eighth poorest country, will now pay more servicing its debt.
  • A battle between Pepsi and Coca Cola for exclusive drinks contracts in US schools has led to the suspension of a teenager from a Georgia school on the grounds of insubordination. His crime? To wear a Pepsi T-shirt on his school's Coca-Cola day. At least they are teaching customer loyalty.
  • Since coming to power two years ago New Labour has deported over 76,000 people. Figures for the first six months of 1999 show a rise of nearly 10 percent in the number of people either deported or refused entry and removed from Britain, compared to the same period last year. Of over 650 asylum seekers held in prisons and detention centres, 42 have been detained for over a year.


    Turning the tables

    Turning the tables

    A devastating major investigation into the state of Britain's schools appeared in the Guardian last month. Nick Davies's report focused on two secondary schools--Abbeydale Grange, which was formed from three grammar schools when Sheffield went comprehensive 30 years ago, and Silverdale, which had been a secondary modern in the 1960s. Abbeydale Grange was 'once the cream of Sheffield's schools', while Silverdale struggled to shake off its secondary modern past. Three decades later, the position has been turned on its head.

    Abbeydale Grange is in a poor area, Silverdale in a middle class suburb. The schools had scarcely become comprehensive when middle class parents began moving their children out of Abbeydale Grange and sending them to schools like Silverdale. By the late 1980s the Tories banned local education authorities from trying to create balanced school intakes. Popular schools became oversubscribed and were able to choose the most able pupils, who usually came from middle class backgrounds.

    Tory education secretary Kenneth Baker also changed the funding mechanism for schools. They got money according to the number of pupils. Schools like Abbeydale Grange lost able pupils, this lowered exam results, they slipped down the league tables, and attracted less pupils. This meant less money, so schools in working class areas went into debt. The general picture, as Baker admitted to Nick Davies, was the destruction of comprehensive education by stealth.

    Those were the Tory years. This destruction has, however, continued under New Labour. All the market mechanisms remain in place. Schools have been named and shamed and the education secretary says 'poverty is no excuse'.
    Kevin Ovenden


    One of our aircraft is missing

    It was 9pm on a fine night in June 1980 when Itavia Flight 870 disappeared from the radar. The DC9 had been flying from Bologna to Palermo. Some 50 miles short of its destination, close to the island of Ustica the plane plunged into the sea.

    Accident--or conspiracy? The day after the crash a shadowy fascist group, the NAR, claimed responsibility for a bomb. But three weeks later the authorities disclosed the wreckage of a Libyan Mig 23 fighter in the Sila mountains in southern Italy. Reports began to circulate that Nato fighters, possibly as many as 30, had been in the skies at the time. Newspapers asked why, with so many Nato ships in the area, neither the wreckage nor the flight recorder had been recovered. Mario Dettori, radar operator at the Grosseto Nato base, told his wife, 'That night was a real mess. We were on the brink of an all out war' (he killed himself in 1987, obsessed by the tragedy). Five months after the crash Itavia stated that Flight 870 had been shot down by a missile.

    It was seven years before operations to recover the evidence began. In March 1989 an inquiry concluded that a missile attack was to blame, but two members reversed their conclusions a year later. Then, in 1996, Nato reluctantly agreed to establish an ad hoc committee 'to facilitate the contacts between the Italian judicial authorities and Nato with regard to the Ustica incident'.

    Ustica would have remained an unresolved mystery but for the determination of the victims' families and Itavia technical expert Luigi di Stefano; and the persistence of Rosario Priore, the magistrate appointed by parliament to investigate. On 1 September this year Priore presented his 4,500 page report. It concludes that Itavia Flight 870 was indeed shot down, probably by a US fighter. The crash of the Libyan Mig had been covered up; radar records had been falsified.

    Priore suggests the real target was a plane that Nato believed was carrying Libyan leader Gadaffi. The theory is that a Libyan plane was hidden in the radar 'shadow' of the DC9 and the airliner became the target. Four Italian air force generals have now been accused of treason; five other officials are accused of withholding evidence. But the cover up goes much higher. The Nato high command must have been in possession of the facts. It appears that it was prepared to launch a secret assault on Libya, and damn the consequences if innocent civilians got killed.
    Dave Beecham


    Cashing in on the poor

    Those too poor to have bank accounts are being penalised by a new boom industry--cheque cashing centres. Last year, cheques worth 1.5 billion were cashed in 1,200 centres around the country. It is estimated that a tenth of all adults in the UK are excluded from mainstream banks and building societies, and are forced to go to these centres if they want to cash a cheque. But they are paying for the privilege.

    The normal introduction fee is 4, and then between 5 to 9 percent commission is charged on the value of each cheque.

    Unsurprisingly, pawnbrokers are at the centre of the industry. Former pawnbroker Eddy Ford, based in Liverpool, has 240 cash centres and processes 750,000 cheques a year.

    This big business has as its core customers anyone who can't get a bank account, has a bad credit rating, is bankrupt or wants an advance on wages. But since many of the cheques are issued by government, official agencies or large employers, there is little risk to the cheque casher. The centres are not just in areas of high unemployment, but are spreading throughout 'Middle England', to places such as Guildford, Chichester, Tunbridge Wells, Plymouth and Exeter.


    Labour law breakers come a cropper

    The NHS may be unable to guarantee supplies of important vaccines
    Protests do get results, as has been proved by those taking direct action over GM foods

    The furore over genetically modified (GM) foods refuses to go away. Last month the government demonstrated how seriously it views people's concerns when it flouted its own safety guidelines. It allowed the multinational GM firm AgroEvo to greatly expand its planting trials without obtaining a new licence. Only a court action by Friends of the Earth forced environment minister Michael Meacher to admit this was totally illegal. Meacher was also forced to withdraw threats he had made earlier in which he said that GM trials might have to be conducted in secret. The GM companies have been pressing for such secrecy ever since environmental activists began attacking the trials.

    The companies claim the trials are scientific experiments to test the safety of GM crops. Yet they have more the air of a Trojan horse, a toehold designed to ease the move to full scale commercial development. Purely scientific trials would be carried out on a small scale. So why has AgroEvo applied for the right to plant 12,500 acres of GM crops next year? And how can the trials be objective tests of safety when some of the 'independent' scientists involved are being funded by the GM companies whose products they are investigating?

    The GM companies have shown they are quite willing to use any means they can to force their products into Britain's fields and onto our supermarket shelves. So they are using the World Trade Organisation to try and force their US-grown products into Europe. Another tactic is blackmail. Labelling all protest against GM crops as anti-science and anti-technology, the multinationals are now claiming that the protests will endanger British bioscience and biotechnology as a whole.

    One leading British biotechnology entrepreneur recently claimed, 'We're collectively being demonised as Frankenstein's assistants... We must raise money, but people who buy shares are affected by what they read. It could limit options for raising funds for the medical side of the industry.'

    The collapse of Cambridge company Axis Genetics, which went bust last month after failing to raise the 10 million it needed to develop a potato-based vaccine against hepatitis B, is being cited as part of this argument. The company was also developing other GM vaccines based in plants, such as against cholera and other diarrhoeal diseases. The advantage of vaccines generated in this way would be that they could be grown cheaply and taken orally.

    Hit by cuts in funding in the universities and record numbers of researchers on insecure short term contracts, perhaps it is not surprising that many scientists have been drawn into defending the biotechnology business. But we should be asking why such important medical research should be dependent on private investment and the whims of the stock exchange in the first place.

    The dangers of allowing private companies to dominate medicine was demonstrated last month with the shocking announcement by Dr Hamish Meldrum, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association GPs' committee, that the NHS may be unable to guarantee that future supplies of important vaccines match demand. Ironically, his warning came in the same week as British scientists at Southampton University announced their breakthrough in the development of a novel asthma vaccine. As Dr Meldrum put it, 'At the same time as this potential good news... the bad news is... family doctors cannot obtain enough supplies of the most basic vaccines developed 20 or 30 years ago.' The Department of Health blamed the shortages on the manufacturers. One answer would be to bring production under public control.

    Despite the millions of dollars the GM multinationals are spending on advertising propaganda and winning governmental support, they are far from getting their own way. Until recently the GM companies insisted it would be impossible to separately label GM foods. Now they have been forced to concede, in words at least, that this is possible, which shows that protests get results.
    John Parrington


    Do you want to know a secret?

    Melita Norwood

    The latest spy revelations, focused on Melita Norwood, paint a picture of a Soviet espionage machine highly effective at penetrating British secret service defences. But if Melita Norwood could pass vital information, how effective a machine do you need?

    The revelations came out of the so called Mitrokhin Archive--files smuggled to Britain by a high ranking KGB defector in 1982. Brought to light are such mind-boggling plans as disrupting the 1969 investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, circulating forged documents portraying blacks as 'African monkeys', arresting the pope and maiming ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. This hardly suggests that the Soviet secret service had either much grasp on reality or an ability to be the critical factor in undermining the West. These plans are all too reminiscent of the crackbrained CIA plot to debeard Fidel Castro in order to destroy his popularity.

    Indeed the history of spying suggests that sometimes genuinely vital information which espionage ferrets out of its opponents is treated with suspicion. US spies told President Roosevelt that Japan would attack Pearl Harbour. Soviet spies told Stalin that Hitler was on the verge of invading Russia despite the non-aggression pact between the two countries. Yet such revelations ran counter to dominant preconceptions and were discounted.

    Whether acting on such information would have changed the course of history is open to doubt. But it does suggest that the immense, costly and deadly apparatus of espionage and counter-espionage is not quite what it is cracked up to be.

    Indeed the context of these latest revelations suggests something else. Melita Norwood believed in a principle which she tragically and mistakenly identified with Stalin's Russia. Her masters believed in nothing so much as perfecting their apparatuses of control and feathering their nests. As Russia slithered towards crisis from the 1980s onwards all they became concerned with was maintaining the style to which they were accustomed.

    Jumping ship by defecting exposed a lot--and not just the labyrinthine world of espionage east and west. It showed how they could continue to feather their nests by trading in their apparatuses of power to the other side, a situation which caused the west no moral qualms at all since it was like speaking to like. Our rulers in the west will be happy to keep the spotlight on Melita Norwood (even though she is unlikely now to be prosecuted). It allows them to hide the fact that these internationally hostile brothers always had more in common than Cold War rhetoric allowed.
    Gareth Jenkins


    'This is just about money'

    Anger as the arms dealers come to town

    The sight of huge frigates in London's Docklands highlighted the reality of the Defence Systems Equipment international (DSEi) arms fair which took place last month. Over 20,000 delegates, including representatives from the world's most repressive regimes, visited the exhibition to buy weapons.

    Many of the protesters outside the arms fair felt a huge sense of anger towards New Labour. As Gideon from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade explained, 'The peace movement feels betrayed by Labour and Robin Cook--not only because of the ethical foreign policy, which is nullified by arms fairs such as this, but also because of the new order which was promised but has not materialised.'

    Lois, another of the demonstrators, was angry at the lack of response she'd had when she met with MPs to ask them about arms sales: 'All parties basically said that money comes first. We don't care about human rights where money is concerned.'

    Labour claimed it 'would. not sell weapons to regimes which would use them for repressive purposes'. When it comes to human rights abuses in countries such as China, Burma and Nigeria, the British government is willing to impose complete or partial embargoes. However, when it comes to countries like Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, where large orders are at stake, human rights considerations are completely ignored.

    The Balkan War has allowed arms sellers to use images of cluster bombs to increase their sales. But the war angered many Labour Party members. Jill, who recently joined the party, and her husband, who had been a member for 40 years, explained why Labour's stance on the war in the Balkans had forced them to resign their membership: 'Labour was supporting Nato, not the UN. We disagreed with everything that the Labour government has done on defence policy. The ethical foreign policy doesn't mean a thing--it's rubbish. I'm here today because I'm against armed conflict, and the British government selling arms to repressive regimes only fuels such conflict. This is just about money.'

    New Labour promoted and supported the arms fair. Robin Cook even refused to withdraw the invitation to the Indonesian military at the last minute. A quick glance inside the Labour Party's conference shows where the priorities lie. Raytheon, one of the larger companies at the arms fair, has paid for a stall at the Labour Party conference, while CND's application for a stall was at first refused although they have now been given one. This shows the priorities of New Labour's ethical foreign policy.


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    The clock is ticking, time is running out

    The drive to cut costs in the early days of computers will now cause problems for modern systems
    The clock is ticking, time is running out

    With three months to go to the millennium, worrying signs are appearing that the millennium bug has not been dealt with. Many electronic and computer systems have been built on the assumption that all years start 19, and only the last two digits ever change. After the end of 1999 such systems may assume it is January 1900, or stop working entirely. So all computer software which handles dates has to be checked and often rewritten.

    Many problems still have to be fixed. In August 30 percent of US chemical companies had yet to tell the government anything about how prepared they were--dangerous chemicals are stored at over 100,000 locations in California alone. The US health industry is also causing serious concerns. Many facilities are reporting that they will only be ready for the millennium bug in December or even after the new year. Six US nuclear power plants expect to fix the bug only in the last two months of the year. Three of them are leaving it until the last two weeks before the millennium.

    In Britain a government survey in July found that 12 percent of local government systems in Scotland face such a severe risk of disruption that it may be too late to rectify the problem. There was still work needed on 41 percent of systems in the fire service, 93 percent of systems in English and Welsh local government, and 25 percent of London Underground systems. Only 4 percent of NHS systems were ready for the millennium. The bug will also cause problems in many parts of the private sector.

    There is a real risk that some countries, particularly those in Africa and eastem Europe, will not have a functioning phone system after December. A survey showed that only one phone company had completed all its millennium bug work by September. Phones in Zimbabwe are not planned to be bug proof until October, the Lithuanian phone system will only be ready in November, and in Mozambique the new systems will have finished testing only on 15 December.

    The situation with phones is repeated in electricity supply and healthcare. Indian railways plan to make its computerised ticketing system, which issues 600,000 tickets every day, bug proof only by the end of September. The Chinese government reports that 40 percent of electricity supply systems in south China are not compliant, and that half of Chinese state enterprises have problems with their software.

    If only one system in 100 fails, the cumulative effect around the world will be huge. The Observer reported last November that 'economist Leo Doyle at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson predicts that even if only 15 percent of UK plant and machinery is vulnerable, and 80 percent of those problems are solved, output will still be reduced by 2 percent easily enough to trigger a recession.' Other analysts predict that in western Europe the bug will cause 8 percent of all companies to fail.

    The drive to cut costs in the early days of computers will now cause problems for modern systems

    The problem exists in the first place because of the profit motive. It costs more for a system to store all four digits in the year, so companies increased their profits by only storing two. The only way to deal with the bug is by planning and cooperation. When every company is competing with every other, the system pushes each of them to spend as little as they can trying to fix the bug. A January editorial in Computer Weekly advised bosses that 'many 2000 failures can be tackled before they hit, if early victims come clean and warn others.' But the market prevents such sharing of information. As the same article reports, many workers are under pressure to keep quiet about problems. 'Many companies fear the effect such information could have on their reputations and share price'.

    Government policies are making the problem worse. Public sector cuts mean that services are run on a shoestring, with no slack available if problems arise. Privatisation has only made matters worse. As the recent crisis in the passport office showed, computer companies have put in low bids to win contracts, and then failed to deliver the goods.

    The Blair government has allocated no extra cash to deal with the millennium bug.

    Trade unionists need to start sharing information about their experience at work to find out how much different bosses have done. We should demand to know what work management has done to check systems, when replacement systems will be in place, and what contingency plans exist. There is no reason why staff should have to work harder to sort out problems which should have been foreseen.

    The effects of the bug will not be over in a few weeks. Failures in health, welfare and infrastructure are set to cause serious problems for governments worldwide. The more we raise these issues now, the better the position we will be in after January 2000.
    Colin Wilson

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