Comment: Education is a public good, not a product to be bought

Over the last two decades, the vision of an education system open to all has been battered by rising fees and cuts


One day, when we’re sunk in debts we’ll never pay off, we might look back as a country and wonder: why did we ever imagine that education was a product to be bought?

As rational inquiry usurped the gentlemanly havens from which university life had been crafted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the academy soon began to spearhead advances across the breadth of the natural and social sciences – and also became, through philosophy and the arts, the centre by which societies aspired to become self-aware.

The public university might never have fully escaped the pomposity and elitism with which this liberal idealism endowed it, but growing access to higher education was undoubtedly a steady but very real victory for Britain’s working majority, uncontestably transforming it from a preserve of the wealthy and into a public good.

Over the last two decades, this vision of an education system open to learning for all has been beaten and battered. With unprecedented numbers heading to university in the 1990s, the Major government had determined that around two billion pounds would be needed to make higher education fit for purpose.

Its triumphant successor, New Labour, could very well have used its vast mandate to invest these funds from the public purse, proud of the social good education provides.

But rather than defending the right of all to the free education enjoyed by the middle-class of his generation and those before, for Tony Blair it was to be education, education, education – all for the modest price of £1000 a year. Since trebled and trebled again, Britain now shames itself with the most expensive tuition fees in the industrialised world.

In hindsight, this was about far more than the money. Once higher education had a price, it needed a return: and so the entire university experience became just another effort to notch up a rung on the social ladder. Students became ‘customers’. We chose to fetishize our egos, seduced by idle chatter about investing in our future and threatening the institutions we bequeath to the future as we were.

Take UCL, my university: large departmental cuts are currently looming in a bid to fund a new £1 billion campus in East London, at a time when a full half of the teaching workforce are already employed through hourly or fixed-termed contracts.

Today, the absurdly-paid officials of university senior managements sport with one another like Victorian gentlemen, funding gross vanity projects by battering their staff and lobbying to burden students with unlimited debts. It is prestige they crave, not learning.

When the government first released its Higher Education Green Paper last November, Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson paternally dedicated himself to safeguarding ‘the time and money students invest in higher education’.

By these reforms, raising tuition fees in the future won’t require a Parliamentary Act, and steps to set up private universities will be simplified. Moreover, and with characteristic euphemism, a so-called ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ will determine the allocation of public funds based not on teaching, but ‘outcome-focused criteria’, meaning graduate careers and student satisfaction checklists.

‘Value for money’ obviously has no room for teaching standards – it’s a glib deflection intended to legitimate fees we shouldn’t be paying in the first place.

These latest reforms are, in other words, a further step in rationalising the steady dismantleing of the public university and the commodification of what remains. For the Conservatives, universities are about cultivating a solipsistic and myopic class of graduates obsessed with their own economic self-security, competing for scraps in a stagnating and soulless labour market.

It’s a psychology determined to stifle any learning or creativity that the market considers hostile or redundant, depoliticising and atomising students and thereby the next generation of the working class as it does so. Knowing what a university ought to be, it robs us of our dignity.

If we accept these reforms it will be a defeat not only for students, but for the labour movement as a whole.

Nothing about this is or ever was inevitable. Across most of the European Union, full-time higher education is either free or with costs close to the figure set by Blair in 1998. With the white paper on higher education due to be published later this year, the student movement needs to fight back – and fast.

We can start by sabotaging the National Student Survey, a metric central to the Teaching Excellence Framework by which university managers hope to increase their fees.

Then we can fight on for everyone’s ultimate right to a free education – because we are not ‘customers’. Education is a public good, and for what we make of it we should be indebted to no one but ourselves.

Mark Crawford is an activist in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, and from the summer he will be an elected sabbatical officer at UCL Union.

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