…is still worth fighting for
– by Elaine Bagshaw
The Bill which saw the introduction of tuition fees in England was won in Parliament by only 5 votes. Nearly a million students marched in London against this tax on education. The NUS lobbied against it, it was denounced as unfair, and our own party promised to abolish it. The policy was seen as an unforgivable assault on free education that, to begin with, was questioned at every opportunity.
Fast forward ten years, and the landscape of the debate is much changed. NUS has dropped its commitment to free education (an indication of how close the union has become to the Labour leadership), campaigning from students is almost silent, report after report claims fees have had no effect on accessibility and at Harrogate this Spring, our party will debate Higher Education policy, and its commitment to the abolition of fees.
When everyone runs onto the same ground, it’s easy to think you should follow. The voices in favour of free education have dwindled, and we are often referred to as “loony lefties” who back a regressive policy which is only a middle class subsidy from the taxpayer. The majority of those involved in this debate seem to have accepted that fees are here to stay, and that if you want to enter Higher Education you better be prepared to take on the minimum £9,000 debt that comes with it.
The idea that crippling young people with huge debts is acceptable and something we should see as an investment, especially in the current economic climate, is an absurdity. Graduate debt is the first and last solution of other parties’ Higher Education funding schemes. This way of thinking is not fair and it is not progressive. As the recession takes hold, it is people in the under 25 age bracket that are making up the lion’s share of redundancies.
People will argue that it is a debt that no-one chases you for, and you only pay it back once you’re working, but it is still a debt and it still accrues interest. I myself have £14,500 of student debt to repay. This is accruing £60 of interest every month. If I were made redundant tomorrow, this interest would still be added onto the overall debt. And if the economy doesn’t recover for two years (the minimum that’s expected), that’s another £1440 added on.
But there’s more to it than just student debt: Since the introduction of tuition fees, we’ve seen a market creep into Higher Education which is damaging the sector. We are being forced to think about only how to get a job after University – one which will earn us enough to repay our massive student debts. Lecturers are being forced to teach to the mark-sheet and find it harder and harder to explore, with students, their knowledge or their potential – this has even begun to hit the age-old institution that is the University of Cambridge. This isn’t the fault of students or lecturers, but of yet another failed ‘Labour’ policy.
Research clearly demonstrates that poorer students are more likely to choose a University that is close to home, meaning that these students miss out on all the extra skills and experiences the rest of us get from University. Social skills, independence, involvement in student activities and much more: all missed out on not because you don’t have the talent to go to a better University, but simply because the structure of the system means you just can’t afford it. Higher Education in this country remains inaccessible to poorer students and the best Universities continues to be implicitly reserved for the most privileged, rather than the most capable.
Dropping an illiberal and artificial 50% target (proportion of people going to University) – seemingly plucked out of thin air – coupled with a system of progressive taxation and sensible budgeting from a Government would provide well-funded, accessible Higher Education. The benefits for every student in Cambridge would be immense. It would develop all forms of diversity, free up access teams to do their job, and push the reputation of Cambridge even higher.
Free education is not regressive. Means-tested grants, loans and fees are regressive because it means that at the age of 18 (or older if you take a gap year) you are still tied to your parents. Every other section of the law views you as an independent adult – free to vote, get married without your parents’ permission and take on commercial credit and yet the current tuition fees system ties a financial commitment to you that your parents are expected to keep, yet on the Government’s terms.
The fight for free education is still worth it because free education is something that should not be compromised on. Education is a liberating, developing force and can free us from any background we are born into. What matters is that the principle of free education is still strong and its benefits worthwhile. This is something the Liberal Democrats have always stood for, and I hope always will.
Liberal Youth will be leading the fight for free education and the abolition of tuition fees at Harrogate conference. If you want to get involved, email email@example.com and help with anything from lobbying to literature.