For decades, students have been campaigning for a free education system – free from debt and market forces. As a student, I co-founded “Defend Education Birmingham”, where we fought the raising of fees and the privatisation of loans. In 2010, I joined hundreds of thousands as we marched to Parliament in opposition of fee rises. Despite the efforts of so many students across the years, our politicians have presented us with a mixed bag of policy, uninspiring platitudes and broken promises. Now, in the Labour manifesto, we have finally been offered a shred of hope. The official opposition has presented a costed alternative to fees, and in doing so has at last answered the student movement’s call for free education. This is a call that all parties will now need to address ahead of the general election.
It isn’t always recognised in mainstream politics, but the current funding system simply doesn’t work. Tuition fees in higher education have brought with them a myriad of problems. We know that the debt burden – which now stands at £45,000, and gets higher the poorer you are – discourages working class students from applying to university disproportionately. An education system that shuts out those from less privileged backgrounds is not a healthy one.
A costlier education has also increased the pressure on students to come away from university with a good degree. Many students are now more focussed on getting a good grade than enjoying the full student experience. It’s no wonder that this has coincided with a student mental health crisis, with the number of those seeking support from services up 132%, citing stress and anxiety as the cause.
The curriculum is another victim of tuition fees. In the last year alone, we have seen a 7% drop in the number of applicants to art and design courses. This means fewer places are available than they once were, as university departments have been cut back. These fields just aren’t considered worth forking out tens of thousands of pounds for when the graduate prospects are so unpredictable. Without a price tag, there will undoubtedly be more demand for a greater, more diverse range of subjects. When we open up education to more people, we broaden our knowledge base as a country.
It’s not just fees. We cannot define education as “free” if students still incur huge costs to complete their courses – from rents, travel and so on. So it’s important, too, that EMA, NHS Bursaries and maintenance grants are re-instated. Since those lifelines were cut, the number of mature and part-time students has dropped dramatically – 50% in total. These are people who are more often carers, parents and those with pre-existing barriers to access further and higher education.
Free education is often attacked on the grounds that it doesn’t make economic sense. This is demonstrably untrue. The UK has one of the lowest corporation taxes and most expensive higher education systems in the world. Under the current fees regime, many students are not expected to pay back their debt – ever. So the government is not even expected to collect the costs incurred, yet graduates are left with an added 9% tax on their payslip for life. Instead, does it not makes sense that corporations, which benefit most from a skilled workforce, should pay accordingly?
According to YouGov, tuition fees top the list of the issues students care about most when deciding their vote in a general election. A recent study found that over 90% of students are already registered to vote, so we may see this policy play a big part in the upcoming general election.
This isn’t the first time a Party has offered us free education of course. All parties must learn the lesson of the Lib Dems, who suffered huge losses at the polls in 2015, after having betrayed students on fees. They learnt that you cannot take the student vote for granted: we will make our views known at the ballot box this time, and in elections to come.
This policy has been ridiculed by some who would rather see education run as a business, and it is not new to see a popular policy that would disproportionately benefit young people dismissed as a “pipe dream”. But across Scandinavia, Latin America and in Germany, Austria, Belgium and more, students enjoy tuition-free education. If countries with both a higher and a lower GDP than the UK can do it – so can we.
Malia Bouattia is the president of the NUS
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