The student protests are about more than just top-up fees, but they will need to think past Thursday’s vote to make any real impact.
From the other side of the world I have been trying to keep up with the unfolding events in the UK over the proposed hike in tuition fees. This has been made substantially easier by the students’ effective use of social networking sites, blogs and events, and by their creative media management. One can’t help but be impressed by the level of enterprise achieved across the country by a generation previously criticised for its apathy.
Recently, David Cameron wrote a response to the student uprising in the Evening Standard suggesting that they had simply failed to understand the coalition’s new strategy for education, blinded as they are by their misplaced fear of debt. He emphasised that the purpose of the reformation of education in Britain was to bring about a particular vision of a ‘fair society’. While the students at the UCL occupation to whom Cameron’s article is nominally addressed may find it patronising, they are not its intended audience. Rather, it is more heavily aimed at reassuring the rest of the population that these angry, idealistic youngsters are woefully misinformed. The attempt to remove the sting of this burgeoning student movement echoes the recent article from Bagehot’s Notebook in the Economist, which dismissed the protest as “no revolution”.
The students’ reply was to articulate that it was actually the Prime Minister who had misunderstood; the protest is founded upon more than the collective whining of the young generation. It signifies an important ideological difference of opinion over the role of education and how it should be paid for. I sincerely hope that this is the case. However, if, after the vote is cast on Thursday and the students lose out, the sudden surge in political activism recedes into disappointed silence, many people will assume that they were correct to attribute a certain shallowness and fleeting enthusiasm to the students’ efforts. The protest, like many others before it, will be all too easily forgotten and a generation of young people will continue to renounce demonstration as pointless and ineffective. Things need not be so negative, however. The effort to dismiss these young voices as naive, selfish and incompetent is an attempt to prevent them from growing in confidence and coherence. These educated and articulate young people could be dangerous. They have already proved themselves to be extremely organised and effective in a short space of time.
The failure in communication between the students and the Prime Minister demonstrated a disparity in philosophies about the whole meaning of education and its place within our society. It is no surprise to find that the Conservatives see higher education as a competitive industry. Universities take school leavers as raw material and mould them into the lawyers, bankers and managers of tomorrow, creating a legacy of financial success that benefits not only the students themselves, but society as a whole through the resultant growth of our economy. However, as the Conservatives deem the students themselves as the individuals who benefit the most from higher education, they intend to make it a personal expense and not a societal one.
They justify this with traditional Tory dogma: the idea is to improve the quality of education – and therefore our graduates – through market forces. This attitude explains why the humanities and the arts have been hit the hardest by cuts in teaching allowances: the market might not see the study of 19th century French poetry as all that profitable. It also explains the businesslike language in which students become the high-paying consumers who will incentivise universities to compete with one another and offer the best service. They are taking Labour’s top-up fees system to its ideological extreme.
One of the key issues of the current protest is opposition to this idea of ruthlessly capitalist universities competing on price. They see the creation of an open market in the undergraduate system as something that is potentially damaging to the quality, curriculum and subject breadth as well as the accessibility of universities.
It is worth remembering that the idea of introducing a beneficial market influence on university was involved in the introduction of tuition fees in the first place and whilst we have not seen a radical improvement in the quality of university education, we have seen a continued rise in prices. In 2009 the NUS produced a proposal for a graduate tax as an alternative to the loans system. There are key similarities between what was proposed by the NUS and what the coalition has proposed, such as allowing part time students the same benefits as full time students. However, the NUS’s scheme is crucially different in its aim to prevent the creation of the sort of segmented market of higher education that the protesting students object to.
The students’ proposal is based upon a different ideal of what education is for and who it benefits. They have been talking about the overall benefits to society of an educated youth and how they see it as key to our progress as a society. The fear that surrounds the recession promotes the idea of cutting back on our ideals and “(dealing) with the world the way it is” as Nick Clegg recommended in a recent interview with the Independent. But where does such a pessimistic outlook leave us? Education is important to society not only to produce money-making captains of industry, but to lead it on philosophically, scientifically, technologically and creatively and everyone should have the opportunity to be part of that. Education is all about the future, for all of us. Hope for the future is absolutely crucial to breaking out of this downturn and it is something the new government is less able to inspire in the public than the new student movement.
In this ‘time of austerity’, fairness – in terms of who pays for what – is a key political football. The student protest sees the funding for higher education as a responsibility of the community, whilst the government stresses the specific benefit of higher education on the individual. The framework prescribed by the government to pay for people to go to university is based upon the idea that the individual alone must pay for the privilege of going to university. The suggested methods of levelling the differences in wealth and opportunity in British society are focused on the period of time after people have paid for university themselves, not before. Again and again the government stresses the fact that nothing is paid up front, even though this has always been the case for full-time students since tuition fees and student loans came into play.
The contrasting opinion is that education itself is the greatest leveller of all; it is the most effective gateway to social mobility and equality of opportunity. Therefore it should be protected, maintained and equally accessible to all in order to call ourselves a fair and equal society. If this is the type of society we want, then it is not a stretch of the imagination to ask members of that society to contribute to education through a fair taxation system so that everyone can have the right of access. Those that earn more from careers that have benefited from high education in terms of wealth will naturally pay more tax. After all, students and school leavers either already are or will soon be taxpayers too – we are all in this together.
The cry going up is that the students – demonised as those ‘middle class kids’ – want ‘subsidised education’ by sponging off low income tax payers. Rather, they want education for all – including children from low income families – paid for by a progressive taxation system that asks more of the richest in our society and less of the poor. If members of the public from lower income families are worried about being taxed in order to pay for people to attend university it is because they don’t see themselves or their children as part of a demographic that can benefit from higher education. This only underlines the inequality throughout our education system from primary school to secondary school and through to higher education. In this light, the government’s removal of the EMA seems completely counter-productive to the creation of a ‘fair’ society.
To those opposed to paying taxes towards others’ education, the loan appears to be the obvious solution and in theory the loans system does aim to give everyone the chance of earning a higher education. However, as people came to university unequally, so they will leave it. For those that go into a lower paid job – let us say as a teacher or a nurse to make them suitably worthy – it will take them much longer to repay the debt. Someone – let us say a banker – earning a higher wage will pay off the debts much faster. As they are paying the same percentage out of their larger paycheck the loan total will diminish faster. Even if they are paying a larger percentage the same is true. Those that take longer to pay the loan back will meanwhile accrue further interest. Worse still, those children of rich parents who were lucky enough not to have needed to take out as high a loan in the first place (or at all) will not have to pay back as much. The coalition’s proposed system still contains the major flaws that it did before they came to power and is certainly neither fair nor equal.
Whilst not the epitome of the ideal of free education for all, the graduate tax still offers a viable alternative. Crucially, it only applies to those who have been through higher education – making it easier to stomach for those worried about ‘fairness’ – but it does not involve taking out a loan and facing the effects of interest. According to the NUS proposal, former students would pay ‘contributions’ to an organisation called the People’s Trust for a ‘fixed period of twenty years after they complete their course, instead of paying fees fixed when they started their courses’. The amount of tax paid is based on the size of the graduate’s salary which means that ‘the total contribution a person makes would be linked to the benefit they obtained from higher education over a longer period, leading to a much higher total contribution from very high earners.’ There is an important ideological difference within their plan. The NUS’s proposal for a People’s Trust that organises the distribution of the funds gained from the graduate tax to universities around the country is the type of central organisation that is anathema to the Tory view that the market can best maintain the quality of higher education. There is also a crucial psychological difference between taking out a loan and paying tax. The tax is not about paying back a fixed amount of money that you have borrowed. It is a method of giving back to the system that allowed you to excel in order to allow others that same opportunity.
This sense of social responsibility is incredibly important to the student movement, as evidenced by the breadth of their campaign – a depth largely ignored by the mainstream media. Their protests against tax avoiders such as Philip Green have attempted to highlight the hypocrisy of the rhetoric that we all have to accept our new financially precarious situation while big businesses and big earners are unduly protected, leaving those who have less to suffer the burden. They also understand that society doesn’t necessarily just mean Britons, let alone just students, as they stand in solidarity with Greek students as well as the teachers and workers at their own universities. Whilst most are arguing that they personally shouldn’t have to pay for these ‘spoilt students’ to attend university, the students are arguing for why we should all put our oar in to turn our country into the place of real equality in which we are all involved.
The students are in a difficult situation. They are arguing for the benefits of education for education’s sake, both for individuals and for society at large, in a country that no longer works on this basis. Higher education in all its forms is more clearly focused on qualification than ever before. The paradoxical consequence of this has been that school children have been sold a promise that can no longer be fulfilled: that a university education guarantees a stable career. This has become less and less true as more and more people go to university. This only amplifies the distress at facing enormous debts post university, an ideal that seems counteractive to the need to move away from a debt-founded society. The benefits of a university education have become understood entirely as the size of the student’s paycheck after graduation. In this light, it is easy to see why many resist the idea that it is a public responsibility to pay for the education of the next generation because it has nothing to do with them.
The student protest is part of a much wider argument against the coalition government’s economic strategy of cutting public services and constricting the welfare state. Not only does this threaten some of the aspects of British society that people hold most dear, but can be argued to be actually counter-productive to growth. The students may have originally been mobilised over a cut that affects them personally, but it hasn’t taken them long to reassess the larger picture. This protest is not only about the hike in tuition fees or even the 80% cut in funding for university teachers. It is an opposition to a particular political ideology adopted by the coalition government and must be sustained as such in order to have any lasting effect.
The coalition’s rhetoric – often accepted without enough debate- is that we have no alternative; there is only one choice. This is not necessarily true. The Labour government opposed the ‘stringent cuts’ espoused by the Conservatives throughout the electoral campaign and the students have been keen the hear their view to see if they offer a viable political alternative stance. They have recently come out as against the government’s’ higher education proposals. However, I suspect that none of these old parties really have the ‘new’ politics that the young protesters hunger for and will ultimately fall short of the new generation’s much higher aspirations. Sadly, with few alternatives in sight, the young people of Britain must continue to challenge accepted opinion, offer options and maybe one day have the imagination and dedication to create something genuinely new. The vote on Thursday can only be the beginning.