Women’s access to higher education may initially seem like a non-issue in Britain; especially considering that women undergraduates now outnumber men. But this comforting statistic masks the particular injustice of the fees and repayment system to women, writes Rida Vaquas.
The existence of fees themselves is a proliferation of gender inequality. Women will accrue a greater debt burden over their lifetime than men, due to the graduate pay gap which leaves women earning thousands less than men. Repaying their loans over a longer period of time necessarily means that for women, there will be a greater cost in interest. Every hike in fees is an attack on women, every penny of debt is one that women will feel more, and for longer. To make the demand for the abolition of fees is therefore to demand financial equality between students of all genders. It is no wonder that when the Australian Gough-Whitlam government abolished tuition fees in 1974, after demands from feminist organisations, enrollment of women students more than doubled.
But even with abolition of fees, more needs to be done to make free education ‘free’ for all women. Women are more likely than men to be primary carers of children; yet the support provided for student parents is highly limited at best.
The maximum childcare grant, which only full time students are eligible for, is £150.23 a week. The weekly fees of the on site nursery at the University of Warwick are between £269.50 and £276.00. In other words, the childcare grant doesn’t even cover childcare, let alone anything else a child may need. Support for part time student parents is virtually non-existent, being entitled to neither the childcare grant nor the Parental Learning Allowance. This renders university education unaffordable for many women who are mothers, left without means to support their children or their studies. Free education must entail free on-site nurseries and childcare support and a better grant for all parents, regardless of whether they are part-time or fulltime students.
Support for primarily women will always be viewed with suspicion among those who believe education ought to be restricted to an elite of their own. Boris Johnson revealed a little more than he would care to admit when he suggested women attend university ‘to find husbands’. It reveals that education, won by women after protracted struggles, is still seen as not vital to women’s lives. Moreover, it devalues the educational labour of women, a devaluation that exists hand-in-hand with the devaluation of the paid and unpaid labour women are compelled to do for capital. It’s not new either; the Open University, when it was first set up, was lampooned for being a ‘housewives’ university’ – a criticism made because it seemed to be benefiting women who otherwise could not enter higher education. Removing financial obstacles constructed to keep women out of education is an attack on capital; it asserts that women’s education is of equal value to men’s, not subsidiary to it and is a part of uncovering all the ways capital more or less covertly takes advantage of women’s labour.
Education can and must do more for women than it does currently. Jennie Lee, on the establishment of the Open University spoke of “a great independent university which does not insult any man or any women whatever their background by offering them the second best, nothing but the best is good enough.” The concluding words should be what propels us onwards, against the tide of neoliberalism, to building a truly exhilarating education system that everyone can participate in equally and one in which every circumstance is sufficiently provided for.
I support free education as an action of solidarity in the worldwide struggle for education for women on equal terms as men. And that’s why I’ll be marching on November 19th as a first step in making this happen.