In the past few years there has been an ongoing debate about free education in the student movement. In 2012 NUS adopted policy in favour of it, in 2013 a similar policy was voted down. This year in particular lots of old and tired arguments, which I had assumed were dead in the water, came back to haunt us. So I’ve written up my thoughts on the subject: why I’m in favour of free education, why I think it matters so much, and how I defend my position to the arguments against.
What’s education for?
Education is a social good. Imagine a world in which nobody has been taught how to build bridges, speak foreign languages, make art, practice medicine or programme computers. That is a very poor society, in every sense of the word. Education is a social good and should be funded by society –by those who have the most money to pay.
So when we demand free education we don’t just mean the abolition of tuition fees. We mean the creation of an education system run entirely as a public service: free to all, mass expansion of access, full living grants, democratically controlled for the needs of society not the market.
We are fighting against means testing and for the idea that public services should be universally available and progressively funded. This is the only way in which a truly tertiary education system can exist. We cannot separate our vision for education from the politics of funding it.
Nothing is free, so the debate on free education is about who pays. Free education campaigners are not in favour of paying for education through greater government debt, through cuts to public services, or through taxing the poorest in society.
Our demand is simply that we raise the money from those who can easily afford to pay it: the super-rich. The Sunday Times Rich List was published a few weeks ago and the wealth of the 1000 richest individuals in Britain has increased to a staggering £450,000,000,000 (£450bn).
Taxing these people to a level that would still leave them richer than most people could ever dream of would be more than enough to fund education for all. This is not a radical demand; it’s the bare minimum that any civilised society would agree to.
The arguments against
The major opposition to free education and universalism is from the ruling class, the ultra-wealthy in society. Unsurprisingly they don’t want to sacrifice their grotesque wealth to pay for education and public services for everyone else. But there are people who are not super-rich who also argue against free education, what are their arguments about?
The worst off in society shouldn’t be expected to pay for education for middle-class kids
This assumes somehow that education funding would be raised through taxing the poorest in society – clearly it should be done through taxing the rich!
Interestingly, NUS’s structures allow for democratic decisions to be taken autonomously by different parts of the student population: liberation campaigns and nations. In Scotland where college funding is are under attack by an SNP government NUS Scotland Conference, which is majority college students, has voted two years running to defend and expand free education to all students in Scotland.
Similarly the LGBT Campaign, the Black Students Campaign and the Women’s Campaign, which together represent some of the most oppressed in society, all have policy in favour of free education.
And that’s because free education in the fullest sense cannot exist when education is the preserve of the middle-class. New Labour were right to expand higher education. The problem was that they did it on the cheap. Genuine free education would expand access much further, ensuring sufficient funding for everyone who wants to go into education. We cannot win this through managerial solutions, we have to win the fight for education as a public service.
Free education is an unrealistic goal
This is predominantly a question about time-frames and the kind of organisation we want NUS to be. We are not suggesting that the few meetings that the NUS President gets with government ministers should be spent demanding free education. That time should be spent winning achievable concessions.
But NUS should be more than a lobbying group in the Westminster policy village, because unlike any other organisation in the UK, NUS can claim to represent 7 million students. And if we were able to harness that power, and mobilise our members, we would be in a position to shape public opinion and put real pressure on future governments. Sadly large parts of NUS spend their energies convincing the membership not to aspire to such ideals!
Students benefit financially from education, they should pay for it.
It is certainly true that many students benefit financially from education in higher expected life-time earnings. But we aren’t the only ones to benefit from education. Aside from the non-financial benefits of living in an educated society, lots of other people benefit from higher education: the businesses who employ graduates and the people who enjoy the products of educational innovation. Society at large, in other words. If graduates end up earning large incomes then of course they should contribute more, but we already have a mechanism for this: income tax.
When other services are being cut how can we defend cuts to education?
There is nothing about education that makes it more important than healthcare for instance but by backing down on education we undermine the fight for other public services. The only way that we will win the fight for free education is through winning the political argument for universalism, and that applies to healthcare and the rest of the welfare state too. So this means refusing to be divided, and standing shoulder to shoulder with those fighting for public services across the board.
Why does free education matter?
Free education matters because it is at the heart of the debate over what education is. Is it a product that some people may choose to buy to make their lives better in some way, like a tennis racket or a shoe? Or is it central to creating an equal and progressive society?
Other questions become secondary to the question of free education. Debates on assessment and feedback are meaningless without a conception of why education is valuable. Discussions over how education providers should be governed cannot be tackled without first addressing what education is for. And these questions all boil down to the political ideas of universalism, public services and free education.