After the General Election, let’s keep free education on the agenda

This is a comment piece written by NCAFC National Committee member Ana Oppenheim.

students 4 labour 4 free ed

In the 2017 General Election, over 40% of voters backed parties which committed to scrapping tuition fees. The biggest of these was obviously Labour, which after almost two decades of supporting student fees (indeed introducing them in 1998), made a U-turn and made free university education a key manifesto pledge, alongside extra funding for schools and re-instating maintenance grants.

Free education was popular on the doorstep, and anecdotal evidence is backed by polls showing that nearly half of the British public thinks that scrapping fees is a good idea (37% are against.) While early reports claiming huge increases in youth turnout have not yet been confirmed, we know that Labour unexpectedly won seats in areas with high student population: such as Reading, Canterbury, Warwick, Leeds and Sheffield Hallam, where Nick Clegg lost his seat. These successes cannot be attributed purely to Labour’s education policy – other pledges, like £10 minimum wage and banning zero-hours contracts no doubt also appealed to young voters – but it’s certain that the vision of debt-free degrees inspired many.

For years, it felt like free education could not be further from the political mainstream. After the LibDem’s infamously broken promise in 2010, few politicians had the courage to speak out against the consensus on education funding. Labour toyed with ideas like reducing fees to £6000 or replacing them with a graduate tax – but these proposals failed to challenge the logic of making students and graduates pick up the bill for their degrees, and ultimately convinced no one.

It was years of sustained student activism that kept the demand for free education alive. Dismissed by many – even within the student movement itself – as unrealistic daydreamers, we kept organising on our campuses and nationally, spending days in meetings, occupations and demonstrations, winning the arguments in NUS and finally also in the Labour party. Following years campaigning which put free education on the political agenda, Corbyn’s Labour brought it back into the realm of possibility.

Now it’s our job to make sure it stays there, and becomes reality.

Why free education?

But despite the long columns written by pundits about Labour’s HE policy, the manifesto contains no more than a few short paragraphs. It doesn’t go into detail about the reasoning behind the policy, or what the proposal to create a National Education Service would mean in practice.

“No one should be put off educating themselves for lack of money or through fear of debt” says the manifesto. Critics were quick to point out that numbers of English 18-year-olds applying to university, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are at a record high. But these numbers don’t show the whole story. Numbers of mature and part-time students have collapsed since the last fee increase, meaning hundreds of thousands of predominantly working-class students giving up on higher education. Applications for arts courses fell by 17% after the tripling of fees and never quite recovered, as many students abandoned their creative dreams out of fear of debt. Recently, we’ve seen applications for nursing courses fall by 23% as soon as the NHS bursary got scrapped.

A recent study has shown that the prospect of debt does indeed discourage working-class students from going to university. While a growing number of student places combined with widening participation/marketing efforts by universities as well as the pressures of the job market mean more young people in HE, many are still put off by high fees.

However, access is not the only argument. It’s important to remember that tuition fees, in a wider landscape of marketisation, influence decisions made not only by students but also by universities. An institution constantly chasing the bottom line cannot be truly democratised. The interests of the market need to be prioritised over the needs of students and workers, pushing institutions to invest in marketing, shiny buildings and vanity projects while cutting courses that are costly to deliver and saving on staff. It’s no coincidence that since the last increase in fees, lecturers’ pay has been falling and casualisation is on the rise – while management salaries skyrocketed.

Presenting a degree as a product to be bought and sold changes the dynamic between students, staff and institutions. The customer relationship adds to the stress faced by both students (who worry about the debt they’re in) and staff (who are under increased pressure from management), which is a likely factor contributing to the university mental health crisis. The system also reduces education to a form of individual investment, rather than a public good that benefits society as a whole. Fundamentally, tuition fees are a tax on learning and aspiration – instead of income or wealth. Free education is not “the poor paying for the middle classes” if funded from the pockets of the very rich, for the benefit of all.

Let’s demand more.

These arguments were not put forward by Labour. The manifesto also lacked a broader idea for what education should look like, who and what purpose it should serve. The idea of a National Education Service is an exciting one, promising to make education truly accessible for all, from cradle to grave – but we can build on the idea and be even more ambitious in our vision.

Let’s demand universal living grants, so that no student has to get into debt or rely on their parents to afford food and rent while studying.

Let’s demand democratic institutions, accountable to students and staff – not ran by unelected management.

Let’s move towards abolishing hierarchies and league tables, challenge elitist admission processes, rethink how and what we’re taught.

Let’s debate and develop these ideas and spread them on our campuses, in Students’ Unions, in Labour clubs and CLPs, in activist groups or anywhere else we organise, in meetings and in the streets. There is a long way to go but we’ve never been closer to making them reality.

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