Since tuition fees were introduced in in 1998 (cheers for that, Labour) the idea of education as a commodity has been increasingly normalized. Students today think of their degrees in terms of debt, cost-value and future economic benefits. The idea of education as knowledge, a social good and an opportunity to expand one’s horizons are now hostage to a market logic. In this article Alia Al Ghussain argues that if students are to reject such ways of thinking about university, they must demand free education for all. Here are five reasons the fight is still worth it:
1. There is enough money.
A common argument for tuition fees (that is actually getting incredibly boring to hear) is that the government ‘doesn’t have enough money’ to provide free education. Really? The government spent £8.92 billion on the Olympics so there is clearly enough money to throw around, what is more tax avoidance costs the country billion of pounds every year which could be spent education. The decision to under-fund higher education by central government is an ideological one that coheres with broader understandings of the world, human behaviour and market rationality. Until 2008 much of that was, of course, highly contested but since then its been exposed to be a flight of fantasy.
2. Tuition fees turn students into consumers.
We are used to paying for commodities: cups of coffee, laptops, phones. These are things we purchase. Education is something that we experience. It doesn’t come nicely wrapped up and stamped with a brand logo. University should be a place for people to open their minds, rather than their wallets. The high cost of education today means that students think of their teaching time in terms of pounds-per-hour, rather than knowledge that is absorbed or critical faculties that are developed. Students are atomized and individualized, and, too busy keeping up with the price tags on every resource they use to be able to look at the wider picture of the marketization of higher education.
3. Education is a social good.
Yes, free education would be funded by taxes. Yes, you can complain about that if you like. But education, like healthcare, is a social good. Everybody benefits from a more educated society and it is central to the well-being and fulfilment of individuals. Globally, higher levels of education correspond to lower levels of unemployment and poverty.
4. Student Debt.
In the current economic climate, graduates are finding themselves pushed into low-paid, unskilled jobs and in-work poverty among graduates – as with everybody else – is on the rise. What is more these same graduates are saddled with a mountain of debt that they will one day have to pay off. Plans to privatize the student loan book suggest that future graduates could be expected to pay off their loans no matter how little they earn in the world of work. Free education – funded by society as whole – would liberate young people from a lifetime of debt. What is more this could be realistically achieved through general progressive taxation, rather than relying on a ‘graduate tax’ which would still burden workers with the cost of their education – an education which ultimately equates to investment in ‘human capital’ for private enterprise to make profits in the UK anyway.
5. Education is a right.
With the advent of £9000 tuition fees, more and more working-class college students are opting not to go to university and money is often the deciding factor in that decision. The fact that someone who is able and willing to go to university may have that door slammed in their face because of their lack of finances is at odds with claims – by all of the major parties – of their championing of social mobility . Entrance to university becomes contingent on possessing the means to pay for it – that is classism, pure and simple and will only further exacerbate major income inequalities in the UK, which is already the most unequal country in the West according to a new UN report.