This blog posts explores some of the radical potentials of demanding a National Education Service within the Labour Party and beyond. It is based on a talk given by a Warwick For Free Education (WFFE) activist to the Non-Aligned Leftist Forum society on ‘What is the left’s vision for education?’. It was originally published on the WFFE blog.
The National Education Service (NES) was a policy proposed by Jeremy Corbyn prior to his election as Labour Party leader. It is now, nominally, Labour’s flagship education policy. However, little has been written about it beyond a couple of articles by Corbyn. The recent National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts conference, hosted at Warwick by WFFE activists, further developed those ideas, making them both clearer and more radical.
So what is the NES all about? There is an explicit analogy to the NHS and welfare state – the NES is to be ‘cradle-to-grave’ and ‘free-at-the-point-of-use.’ It is also sold as providing skills and lifelong learning in order to allow workers to adapt to economic and technological change. This is framed as both a way to give workers ‘opportunities’ and a way of providing skilled workers to businesses in order to boost productivity. Taxation to pay for the NES is justified on this basis; according to Corbyn, companies should be willing to pay ‘slightly more in corporation tax’ because they recognise the ‘business case for investing in staff.’
The framing of the NES is a classically social democratic one: the state will deal with producing and reproducing human capital and social infrastructure which will benefit capital – in turn capital is expected to contribute to the costs of these policies. There is a tension here; education is described as a ‘collective good’ which provides working class people with ‘opportunities,’ yet the NES is also framed as an ‘investment’ designed to aid productivity and capital accumulation. Social democracy has been extensively criticised for its symbiotic relationship with capital; this relationship allows improvements for (some) workers to come at the expense of continued alienation and exploitation, and the exclusion of more marginalised groups from the settlement. Indeed, the NHS (which the NES is posed as analogous to), is a prime example – it has in large part relied on an imperialist ‘brain drain’ of healthcare professionals from the global south, and like all policies of the 1945 Labour government, was premised on the profits of the Empire. Thus, there is always a tension at work in radical anti-capitalists’ defences of social democratic policies and institutions. How can anti-capitalists defend policies which are explicitly designed to maintain the conditions for exploitation and accumulation?
We must always point to possibilities beyond what we are ‘defending.’
We can see this at work in the experiences of student activists. As activists, we ‘defend education,’ protect ‘public universities,’ and fight cuts to services. However, we have also found it necessary to point out major structural problems with universities as they exist now. This is why ‘free education’ has come to encompass much more than abolishing tuition fees. I would argue it has more often come to mean a set of critiques of the university; to call for ‘free, democratic, liberated, etc.’ education is to point out how the social democratic and neoliberal universities have systematically failed to meet those criteria. Campaigns like ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ have revealed curricula to be Eurocentric and calls for a liberated curriculum have shown how they regularly exclude the work and perspectives of people from the global south, women and non-binary people, people of colour, disabled people, and LGBT people. In practice such demands mean a very significant reorganisation of universities’ teaching, admissions criteria, hiring practices, etc. Other activists critique the university as a capitalist enterprise – one at the forefront of exploitative labour practices, landlordism, and the creation of lifelong debt. Free education activists have been at the forefront of labour struggles within universities and many are now helping organise rent strikes. I will return to these critiques of the university later and suggest how they relate to the NES.
National Education Service – some key concepts
Several important aspects of a National Education Service come out of Corbyn’s writing on the subject and subsequent discussions.
- The Comprehensive University – this would mean ending the division between higher and further education institutions and the selective and exclusive nature of universities. This is similar to the principle of comprehensive schooling – the same education, for everyone, with no entry requirements. In practice this means abolishing universities as they currently exist. For example, Oxford University would merge with Oxford Brookes as well as local further education colleges; in their place would be a single institution open to, and democratically accountable to, the local community and students. It is clear how this would start to break down the elitist concentration of capital and resources in institutions like Russell Group universities.
- Modular learning – based on the idea that you don’t have to be a student and study a particular degree course in order to learn about something. This becomes possible with the breakdown of HE/FE divisions to form the comprehensive university; anyone can study a module offered by any local teaching institution. In my opinion the implications of this for mass, working class education are massive, much more so than the entry of – some – working class people into universities. If, for example, you’re doing a course in plumbing or carpentry at an FE college in Coventry, why shouldn’t you be able to take a module in history, English literature, or sociology at the University of Warwick? Is there any good reason for this absolute division of mental and manual labour which says that a carpenter or plumber can’t also take an interest in history, poetry, or feminist theory?
- Lifelong learning – strongly related to modular learning. A move away from the ‘student’ as something you are full-time for a few years – people should be able to access education as a significant part of their life, alongside other things, at any stage in their life. Importantly this should not just be framed as a way to ‘retrain’ workers in the face of ‘economic change’ but as a right to education as a transformative, creative, political, or even ‘just’ an enjoyable activity.
- Ending ‘elite’ education – alongside the comprehensive university there would be a parallel process at the school level to provide a truly comprehensive education. This means no more grammar, free, academy, or private schools. Further, schools should not try to model themselves on the cultural and academic norms of (former) private and grammar schools.
- Universal access and childcare – arguably one of the most laudable parts of Corbyn’s proposals for the NES is his focus on providing childcare as well as financial support for those wishing to study. As with many other activities, many women’s ability to access education is limited by childcare responsibilities. Patriarchal society imposes the burden of social reproductive labour mainly on women. Social reproduction is the labour of maintaining the household, raising children, supporting (male) workers – it is vital to the continuation of capitalism but generally not recognised or paid for as such, forcing women to take a ‘double shift’ of waged ‘productive’ labour alongside unwaged ‘reproductive’ labour. Free childcare is thus a vital feminist demand and the NES is an important framework in which to raise it.
Critiques of the university and of students as a ‘privileged’ group
It is important to begin this section with the caveat that students are by no means a universally privileged group and that universities can be sites of impoverishment and oppression for many of us. However, at an institutional level there are ways in which students are privileged over non-students. I was struck by this when I recently visited one of the main public libraries in Sheffield. The sociology section was one small shelving unit which was pretty small and contained mostly entry level or popular works (including Russell Brand’s ‘Revolution’!). We can compare this to our university library at Warwick which has more on any given aspect of sociology than the Sheffield library had on the subject as a whole; and that library is only serving around 25,000 people.
Universities must be understood as fulfilling a particular function in class society. They exist to produce knowledge necessary to the functioning of the state, capitalist corporations, cultural institutions, the military, etc. They also reproduce class divisions by producing the next generation of managers, administrators, and technicians of capitalism. Older elite universities like Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham have always been ruling class institutions and have accumulated huge pools of capital on that basis. For example embodied in their endowments or in grand old buildings. Newer elite universities like Warwick have forged their identities as ‘business universities;’ here the link to capitalist industry is explicit and, in many departments, includes direct corporate input into curriculums.
The University of Warwick has a long history of collaboration with local business elites, including historically monitoring of students’ and academics’ links with local worker struggle.
When coming across large accumulated pools of capital we should always ask where it came from and what social relations – indeed, violences – allowed it to be accumulated. Marx wrote in Volume 1 of Capital that ‘capital comes [into the world] dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.’
Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford, for instance, highlights that libraries and even whole colleges at Oxford are literally built on the proceeds of slavery and colonialism. More broadly this is true of many ruling class institutions and of social democratic institutions which are largely funded by the accumulated profits of imperialism.
Universities largely began as elite institutions for the children of the ruling class. The picture has been complicated now by mass entry of working class young people into Higher Education – in many ways a genuine and important victory for the class. However, access to university is still stratified by race and class. More fundamentally the rollout of universities is based on an expansion of elite institutions to be more ‘inclusive’ – they are still selective and the ‘best’ universities are only looking for the most ‘bright’ and ‘talented’ working class youth to bring into a middle and upper class institutions. Working class experience of entry into university often reflects this, and graduate earnings map more closely to social class prior to university than to the fact of being a graduate. One study found that:
“Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities.”
This is where the idea of a comprehensive university comes in. It would be non-selective and not oriented purely to producing ‘employable’ graduates but to lifelong, flexible learning for all. It would effectively mean the abolition of the university as a distinct institution. Thus universities’ often state-of-the-art facilities and extensive academic libraries would be open to the community at large and control of universities’ capital would be democratised and shared with chronically underfunded FE courses.
No more highly securitised libraries and study spaces, no more key-card access! Access to academic libraries and online journals for everyone!
Working class education, the NES, and grassroots struggle
The NES, as I have conceptualised it here, is more than a policy proposal – it is a potential theoretical approach analogous to ‘free education’ which relates to many struggles, demands, and principles. As such I think it is important to think beyond the Labour Party and policy-makers so I’m going to highlight a few struggles which I think point towards the principles of the NES.
Students in Bologna have sought to put into practice the demands suggested above about free access to libraries and study spaces. When management sought to set up barriers to further enclose their library they physically removed them and reclaimed the space through occupying it. As our statement of solidarity with the students states:
“The occupation was an absolute success: the space was crowded and busy, and people were even seen studying in the corridors. Without notice, the Chancellor called the police a few hours after the occupation started, who immediately charged the people inside, destroying tables, chairs and other studying material. To resist, the students started a demonstration around the University which was also violently dispersed by the police forces. Nevertheless, assemblies continue to take place, and the fight will continue.”
In addition to expressing our solidarity with the fight against enclosure of study spaces and police presence on campuses the statement noted that:
“Warwick’s own first occupation was in the library in 1969 in solidarity with students at the LSE who were fighting against the installation of metal gates around their campus. These gates were designed to increase management control over the LSE and create a more exclusive gate-kept community. Warwick stood against such moves then, and we stand against them today.”
The borders between ‘university’ and ‘community’ are not fixed, and how porous they are is a matter of struggle as the examples of the Bologna and LSE occupations demonstrates.
As was already highlighted above, Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford can be seen as advancing a critique of the university. The campaign is seeking to get the statue of British colonialist and racist Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College. They have also points out other parts of Oxford built on the proceeds of colonialism – e.g. the Codrington Library, built using funds left in the will of a notorious slave trader. This campaign is important in advancing a critique of elite universities as they relate to capitalism, the ruling class, and colonialism; it is also telling that Oriel made the decision not to remove the statue after an incredibly wealthy individual threatened to cancel a £100m donation.
Such institutions really ought to be abolished and their control by wealthy individuals broken. Let’s expropriate racist multimillionaires and tear down their beloved statues.
In this context, I would argue, dissolving Oxford University into a city-wide comprehensive would be a profoundly radical expression of class and racial justice which no amount of greater ‘inclusion’ of working class students and students of colour into the uni could match. The occupation of an empty Wadham College building by student activists and its conversion into a homeless shelter is a good start!
Finally, if we see the NES as promising a right to free, universal, lifelong education then the labour movement has a vital part to play in realising this. The length of the working day has always been a central part of class struggle – our labour-power is a commodity which capitalists purchase and then use to produce value. What this means is that they want to get as much out of us as possible for as low wages as possible. If it was possible they would like to pay us barely enough to live on and to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Of course, there are physical limits that prevent this, but the question of how much a worker needs to work in order to earn enough to live is also a question of the relative power of workers and bosses.
Bearing this in mind the labour movement can assert a right to lifelong intellectual development and education in a concrete rather than abstract sense – the right to sufficient free time to take courses alongside work, and of work that does not take so much out of us that we have no capacity to think, reflect, or read outside of work hours. Struggles over the working day, wages, and perhaps even a basic income can provide the material basis of this right.
“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he [sic] wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” – Karl Marx, The German Ideology
I want to end by highlighting the radical implications of a system based on lifelong modular learning rather than universities as 3-year degree factories.
In my mind it points to a post-capitalist society, one in which divisions of mental and manual labour are broken down, as are the class divisions which enforce this divide. A society which truly enables people to be well-rounded, free human beings. A National Education Service, in social democratic or radical form, will not give us that society – but it does point in the right direction. As student activists in California wrote in their Communique From An Absent Future:
“We demand not a free university but a free society. A free university in the midst of a capitalist society is like a reading room in a prison.”
I would argue that a creative rethinking of the institutions we take for granted in capitalist society, even superficially progressive ones, can help us fight for that free society.