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Free Education, the Middle Classes and Radical Education Policy: a 5-Point Analysis

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election has transformed the political landscape and given a new sense of optimism and importance to the free education demo on 4 November. Removing tuition fees is a massive potential vote winner amongst young people and should provide a key rallying point in 2020.

However, the perpetual elephant in the room in talking about higher education is class. I say this not because gender and race do not matter in accessing education, but because politically the dominance of the white middle class over (higher) education goes unaddressed and we need to tackle it head on.

This matters for students in how we formulate our demands, both electorally and crucially in the driving ideology which underpins a radical left approach to education, so here’s the problem and some proposals in five steps:

1. When it comes to (free) education, the left doesn’t talk about middle-class domination of universities.

The most prestigious forms of higher education remain dominated by, and culturally geared towards, the middle classes. The student left shies away from talking about this; something which comes out in that powerful but anachronistic chant, ‘Education for the masses, not just for the ruling classes’. Education in its state-organized form is neither the preserve of the ruling class, nor has it ever really been defined or created by or for the working classes.

Higher education is also already a ‘mass’ system: 47% of 17-30 year olds were in university in 2013-14 and it’s actually over 50% for women. This is a system which is riven by a de facto binary division with working class students overwhelmingly concentrated in the former polytechnics. Universities, and state education more generally, has been essential to upward mobility into the middle classes and in ensuring that people’s children achieved the same status. That intergenerational link is increasingly threatened and here there is political hay to be made.

2. The weakness of the middle class is politically powerful and higher education counts.

Free education is a policy which, pre-election, actually had relatively little support amongst the general public. This finding matters, but it is probably misleading about the political potential of free education.

If we look at how income inequalities have developed over the past 30 years, what we see is the top end of the upper middle class pulling away. A lot of the current policy coming out of Cameron-Osborne HQ is designed to prop up middle-class social reproduction beneath this group. Whatever surveys say about fees, these problems reveal the scope to manipulate middle-class anxieties from the left and not simply from the right.

Of course these are not just anxieties – they are structural problems. If inequalities between what Thomas Piketty has called ‘super-managers’ and the rest of us continue to grow, there are problems ahead for the Conservatives. The battle to be had is about framing and the Tories know it. Their ‘good right’ rhetoric is both a response to Corbyn and an acknowledgement of the deep fissures running through British society. We need to put forward an alternative which deals with these issues and free education should be a central plank in this project.

3. We need a broad coalition to challenge educational power structures.

Let me be frank: I do not think the middle classes should (or would) be the main beneficiaries of free education, but these insecurities are there to be played on.

Chicago’s impressive movement against Charter School reform and gentrification is a broad multi-racial and multi-class coalition. Including the white middle class does not mean allowing them political control, but acknowledging that power means sitting around one table. British educational reform has been at its most radical when it has taken advantage of working- and middle-class dissatisfaction.

This requires absolute clarity about the exclusionary nature of middle-class cultural dominance in education. We don’t want to embed middle-class social reproduction – we want to abolish it. To do this we need to go beyond talking about funding. Attempts at educational reform which leave the elite untouched will fail. Turning Oxford into a comprehensive is the type of radical measure we need. Oxford and Cambridge determine far too many of the norms about what counts as learning. These judgements are frequently flawed and arbitrary. There is nothing more violent than imposing forms of elite culture and knowledge and building an education system which deliberately and systematically classifies people on such a basis.

4. Fighting anti-reformist reforms and subverting old political assumptions about education.

Free education needs to be a rallying call for a deeper critique of education. What we are really fighting for is an anti-reformist reform and this requires a new language.

Contesting the government’s discourse on social mobility is a key site for the kind of battle we face. Individual aspiration is a blind alley for the left. Social mobility structurally (I’m not talking about individuals) is not a good thing – it is predicated on accepting and legitimizing inequality. If we want to use it as a term we need to transform its meaning. We need a language of collective ‘aspiration’. This means attacking entrenched privilege at the top, not just ‘compensatory’ measures to improve educational results or ‘access’ for working-class people and people of colour.

The real battle in education is about institutional hierarchy and how that combines with the curriculum to reproduce divisions. What we define as ‘knowledge’ and learning is embedded in an institutional power structure which serves to reproduce class, racial and gender inequalities on the employment market.

5. Free education and beyond: what we are asking for is life.

And this brings us back to where we started – because the position of many young people on the left, including myself, is as products of this educational system built on middle-class cultural assumptions about learning.

It is hard to see how alien and exclusionary higher education is from the position of someone who is a second or third generation student. For the 50% of people who still aren’t going to university, we need an alternative. The student left may be institutionally weak (though stronger than for a long time!) but it is a whole lot stronger than young people in work and apprenticeships. We want grants and free education, but fundamentally what we are asking for is life: we want a fully-funded transition from childhood to an autonomous, luxurious livelihood for everyone.

Alongside our call for free education must be a vocational alternative which is fully-funded and offers secure livelihoods thereafter. Ultimately we have to smash the boundary between vocational and ‘academic’ forms of knowledge. In the meantime a demand of five years of fully-funded education or training will do. We need a pragmatic language to talk about education which draws people in without losing a radical critique.

Fundamentally, we have to demolish structures and cultures that remain deeply violent. The old curriculum has to go. The white, male, middle-class monopoly on what counts as knowledge has to come to an end. Hierarchies of institutional prestige need to be eroded. Education has to be free in every sense.

This is the task we face. See you on 4 November.

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Published 28th October 2015

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