Education not for sale!
On September 21, a Guardian survey of English universities showed that two-thirds are preparing to charge the maximum possible top-up fee in order to maintain their image against competitors. This information, while not unpredicted, should be ringing alarm bells for the student movement — yet despite the election of a new president, Kat Fletcher, on a left-wing platform, the National Union of Students appears to be continuing on the same course that has meant defeat after defeat for the student movement throughout the last 20 years.
To rally the forces necessary for a change of course, activists from the Campaign for Free Education are joining with others to launch a new campaign, Education Not for Sale. Below are extracts from ENS’s publicity.
Education is up for sale. According to Barclays, top-up fees will mean average student debt rising from £18,000 for students graduating in 2004 to £34,000 for those graduating in 2010. An essentially cosmetic maintenance grant of £1,000 a year — available in full only to those whose family earnings total less than £15,000, with those from families on more than £22,000 getting nothing — will do almost nothing to offset the consequences for student poverty, drop-out rates and access. According to another recent survey, more than two-thirds of school students are significantly less likely to apply to university because of top-up fees.
At the same time, top-up fees are radically deepening educational divisions to create a two- or multi-tier university system, with an elite of full-fee institutions providing real academic choice and a liberal education to the children of the rich, while the rest make do with glorified training by underpaid staff at underfunded, undervalued colleges.
Already, we have seen a wave of courses, departments and institutions closing or merging on the basis of “market calculations”; once top-up fees make the HE market that much “freer”, this wave can only become a flood.
Education for all or just the rich?
The marketisation of HE is having disastrous consequences for students and those who work in our universities; but it is part of a wider process not limited to higher education.
In every part of the education system, “new” Labour is applying policies which will mean greater educational choices and opportunities for the rich and a worse deal for everyone else. In further education, tiny Education Maintenance Allowances available to an even tinier handful of students are being used to mask increasing fees and hidden costs, while the curriculum is more and more openly dominated by the demands of businesses for cheap training.
In pre-16 education too, the Government has cut down subjects like art and music in favour of basic skills, started testing children from the age of seven, and even allowed private companies — including ones run by religious fundamentalists — to take over schools. Once again, profit comes firmly above people.
If we are to defeat New Labour’s reactionary agenda for education, we need a clear agenda of our own, one that puts the need of students, education workers and the wider community above the demands of business.
Education as a right
When it has been willing to fight at all, the National Union of Students has limited itself to opposing this or that particularly bad policy, with no attempt to develop an overall alternative to the Government’s plans.
ENS believes that it is not possible “simply” to oppose top-up fees; we need to go onto the offensive, counterposing our own conception of what education should be.
That means saying loud and clear that in a society like ours — an immensely rich society possessing a huge body of accumulated knowledge and learning — access to that learning should be a right to which every citizen is entitled.
Education should be about individual and social development, equipping us to analyse and think critically about the world around us, not about how to boost corporations’ bottom lines.