Over ten thousand students are expected to march through London on 15th November under the banner “Free Education Now – Tax the Rich.” We have three demands: abolish tuition fees; bring back maintenance grants and extend them to all students, enough to live comfortably on; and end the cuts which are sweeping across university campuses.
Support that students and the young once received from the state has been rolled back by successive government reforms. 2010 was the watershed moment, when the coalition government announced it would triple the cost of a university education, raising fees from £3,000 per year to £9,000. A second announcement came almost immediately: college students would stop receiving their weekly allowance, EMA, which kept many in education.
We have arrived at a situation where working-class university students will find themselves in the highest level of debt now maintenance grants have been scrapped and replaced with loans. £50,000 is the price tag for those who take out the full loan.
Yet paying the bills is still a problem: eight out of ten university students–more than ever before–are working while taking their degree. Students typically work on precarious contracts, in workplaces without trade unions, and earning a wage much lower than their over-25 colleagues thanks to the National Living Wage, which sets a lower rate for those under that age.
Meanwhile, £30 million has been cut from support for disabled students. It is no surprise there is a mental health crisis.
Public universities are also under siege. Recent government reforms and new proposals will bring higher education into the service of business as the Universities minister pursues his vision of a “knowledge economy.” The most recent announcement is indicative: the Knowledge Exchange Framework, proposed just a few days ago, will rank universities on the basis of their partnerships with business. And these rankings will determine research funding, in an attempt to generate more spin-off companies and intellectual property income from university research.
The funding system is shot through with contradictions. The new fee regime radically altered the way universities are financed, with money from students’ higher fees (via the Student Loan Company) replacing much of the money coming directly from the state.
This, and other reforms, have created funding uncertainty and an imperative for universities to massively expand student numbers while cutting costs. Durham University has applied this logic rigorously: in April, it announced plans to cut £15m from its budget while also trying to attract 4,000 more students. At least fifteen other universities have also announced cuts, with many hundreds of workers facing redundancy.
The Prime Minister’s recent announcement on tuition fees throws higher education into further jeopardy. Any reduction in fees–including their abolition–must be introduced alongside an increase in funding from elsewhere. Otherwise, a funding gap will be created which will lead to redundancies, higher class sizes, less resources for research, overfilled libraries; in other words, it will deepen the crisis in education.
Education can be liberating; it can drive social progress forwards. Imagine a world without medical research, literature or engineering; a world in which no one was taught to speak other languages or programme computers. Yet it can also be placed in the service of injustice: designing bombs, training future bosses, justifying exploitation.
Thus education is not inherently a social good: its value depends on who controls it, and for what purpose. That is why we also demand that the higher education system be brought under the democratic control of workers, students, and communities. The only way to fund such a project without undermining democratic control is through taxation, and justice demands that it is the very wealthiest who should pay.
2010 saw the coalition government rocked by explosive protests which culminated in Tory party headquarters being ransacked and at least twenty-five universities occupied. This summer, the young turned to electoral politics. But 2017’s “youthquake” need not be confined to the ballot box: students and the young can provoke further political crises in the streets, beginning on November 15th.