Beyond tuition fees: Democratising higher education

The amount of debt each graduate holds has increased at a nauseous pace, but focussing on the image of the debt-burdened student hides what else is happening to our universities.

For years, the student movement, and, indeed, the left more generally, has used a sole image – the debt-burdened student – to argue for free education. Given this, it is not surprising that Labour’s manifesto proposals for higher education relate only to fees and access. Of course, the amount of debt each graduate holds has increased at a nauseous pace, rising to £57,000 for students in receipt of the highest maintenance loan. But focussing on the headline figure hides what else is happening to our universities. Treating education as simply good or bad value for money keeps us within the discourse of marketisation.

While Labour’s higher education manifesto pledges fail to move beyond this limiting framework, it’s worth considering the potential of their proposed ‘National Education Service’. Not only could the NES overhaul teaching and learning in the UK, it could reformulate the idea of education itself, by demanding education not only as a social good but as an emancipatory part of human life. This would mark a significant change from previous policy: ‘education, education, education’ was a New Labour mantra, but that was education understood merely instrumentally, as the vehicle for social change only narrowly defined. That social change entailed, at best, the admission of a few working-class children into jobs they were previously locked out of. This should not be understood as a particular break from the Labour tradition; even the most progressive education policies under Wilson tended towards managing how education was incorporated into capital’s purposes, rather than drawing on or creating alternative ones.

The NES, on the other hand, doesn’t aim merely to promote a few of the deserving poor. Instead, it has the potential to transform people’s view of themselves and of the world around them, to promote human flourishing at the individual and societal level. Unleashing that potential, however, requires going beyond the fee-focussed outlook of the manifesto.

What have fees got to do with it?

Although the tripling of fees is undoubtedly a regressive policy, it’s important to recognise that its impact on access to higher education has been limited. Part-time study is a notable and important exception: the number of part-time undergraduate students has more than halved between 2005 and 2015. For full-time, ‘standard-age’ students, however, anticipated debt is rarely a barrier to beginning a degree.

There is a point to be made about the kind of debt we’re talking about: an income-contingent repayment system. In fact, the dreary centrist dream of introducing a graduate tax (the position of the right-dominated Labour Students for over a decade) is effectively already a reality: graduates pay an additional tax levy for a limited time period. This isn’t to excuse tuition fees, but rather to point to their fundamental unfairness. The wealthy do not need to take out loans, escaping this additional tax altogether, while poorer students pay an additional 9% on all income over the repayment threshold.

The impact of this kind of debt is, often, much less drastic than imagined, as the majority of students will never pay back their loans in full. There is some sense in the liberal rejoinder to alleged tuition fee hysteria. This doesn’t mean the current fee system is in any way acceptable – quite the opposite. A radical party should make radical demands because of how they think things ought to be, whether or not politically-limiting claims made by their opponents are technically accurate in the small domain of their applicability.

We need this level of pedantry because the terms on which we understand the impact of fees do matter. When we focus on the individual burden of debt, we can easily end up inadvertently supporting a reactionary approach to higher education – one in which education is an investment in an individual’s future, and their future alone, that they must pay for, sooner or later. We end up slipping into the idea that there is an acceptable amount of debt or an acceptable amount of tax. In reality, whether it’s a delayed payment for a ‘service’ on the promise of future gains or an unfair tax regime, fees are failing to provide stable funding to higher education, and failing students, workers, and society at large.

Labour’s planned removal of tuition fees and the reinstatement of maintenance grants will reduce the total amount of debt held by individual graduates. But what kind of system should replace the current fee regime, and what have ‘reforms’ brought in at the same time as the tripling of fees done? In short, how ought we be more ambitious?

Education as a commodity

The tripling of tuition fees was a politically-motivated decision to change the function of higher education. Beyond increasing individual debt, it represents a totally failed experiment, one that will cost far more money than it could ever save. It makes a degree a product to be bought or sold and students mere consumers. With fees rather than public funding now the largest area of income for universities in the UK, higher education institutions have seen a deterioration of working conditions as management aims to make individual universities more attractive to their imagined 18-year-old customers. This means that classrooms are overflowing and core lecture series repeated to meet the swelling intake (more students means more money), unpopular courses shut and precarious contracts the new normal (how could you hire someone permanently if everything you do is subject to market fluctuations made by ‘choices’ of teenagers). Universities build new gyms to attract more students but fail to pay their staff properly.

‘Students’ are apparently at the centre of this new university. The government body designed to preside over the final wave of neoliberal extraction in the higher education sector is, after all, called ‘The Office for Students’. But the kind of student it imagines is an individual consumer, not a vital part of an academic community. Moreover, it narrows the idea of the student – something in which the left, and particularly the student left, has been complicit. By focussing on students as a specific identity – 18-21 years old who’ve just left school and left home – we lose out on understanding education as something for all of society and all of life. We defend free education as a parochial demand, something for a subsection of society rather than something with the power to transform all of our lives.

What’s the point of higher education?

When it comes to the detail of free education there is a lack of clarity in the manifesto: ‘Labour believes education should be free, and we will restore this principle’. But what does this actually mean? That education should be free for anyone who wants to do a degree? And what kind of degrees are we talking about – what about postgraduate degrees? What about the fact that the idea that degrees are simply instrumental - merely a stepping stone on the way to a career - is now dominant?

If we merely take the existing system and remove the fees, we are not necessarily left with something radical. If we want serious change in higher education, we need a system that enables individuals to critique the world, not education to serve an individual career. That means education for life. It means a liberatory curriculum – one that understands the power of education to transform people’s understanding of themselves, to make them wilful political subjects. It means ensuring that universities serve their local communities and develop training programmes and public courses (whether or not they lead to qualifications) that meet specific (re)skill needs in their given region as well as giving anyone the chance to learn about anything they’d like to. Knowledge shouldn’t be locked behind high university walls, it should be developed in line with a democratic industrial strategy, and, beyond this more instrumental use, allowed to spill out into all of human social life, encouraging people to understand, critique, and change the world in which they live. Access should mean access for all, student or not.

Labour must properly and fairly fund universities through taxing the rich, not merely because this is the right thing to do, but because funding can only be sustainable if it is public rather than subject to whims of the market. Vast financial disparities between universities should be reduced – it is deeply unfair that two universities are wealthier than all other universities in the Russell Group combined. Until these disparities are reduced, funding should be tied to quotas for working-class students. If Oxbridge prides itself on the strength of its teaching, let it show just how good it is. And teaching success is not, against what government metrics like the Teaching Excellence Framework claim, anything to do with ‘value added’ and ‘career prospects’. Labour must stop the collection of this kind of data and its use in league tables.

It won’t just be the removal of fees that stops students seeing themselves as consumers and stops universities treating them as if they were. This is how students have been taught to see themselves for years. To correct this, we should return to the rallying cry of the student movement for decades — democratise the university. Despite the neoliberal university’s claim, students are not truly empowered; they’re just asked to fill in surveys to inform and justify management’s decisions, decisions that they play no part in making. Alongside a curriculum that makes students aware of their political position, we must demand worker and student representation at all levels of the university, not forgetting that universities contain workers other than academics (cleaners, counsellors, administrators, and librarians to name a few). Moreover, as with the linking of universities to democratically-decided local needs, this process of democratisation needs to democratise the relation between universities and their surroundings.

The fight for free education

When we fight for free education, we often forget that universities have long acted primarily as a way of keeping out working-class students from parts of the economy, even while permitting, in recent decades, a few individuals to enter. We must not hark back to an imagined golden age of universities before the 2010 reforms. Instead, we must fundamentally reimagine higher education: end marketisation, shut down the Office for Students, fund higher education for life. We must break down the walls around and within universities until they become home to profound joy and serious critique, allowing those who enter them to both understand and change the world, not just find a job.

Even when they were ‘free’, universities were never truly open to all. We must end the injustices of under-funded education, of a class-stratified system that denies all but a wealthy few the ability to understand the world in which they live. The National Education Service offers a glimmer of hope, but it can only be fully realised with a fundamental transformation of higher education. Labour must go beyond the semi-imaginary figure of the debt-burdened student, demanding the democratisation and the opening up of universities such that they become places of intense and joyous training, learning and research for all.

An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that Oxford and Cambridge were wealthier than “all other universities in the UK combined”; that has been amended to “all other universities in the Russell Group combined”. Thanks to Chloe Tomlinson for the correction.