On Sunday, 20 January 2019, the Guardian published an opinion piece by Anne-Marie Canning, the Director of Social Mobility and Student Success at KCL, in which she asserted that cutting tuition fees would mean “shut[ing] the door to poor students”. Her paradoxical argument rests on the fact that, since the Tory-led coalition government hiked tuition fees to 9,000 pounds per year in 2012, 800 million pounds have been spent on funding “schemes and bursaries for poorer students”. It follows, then, that were tuition fees to be cut, this funding would dry up, reversing “this progress and vital work”.
Indeed, this “vital work” has produced downright miraculous benefits. According to Ms Canning, “in 2017 English pupils receiving free school meals were 83% more likely to go to university than they were in 2006”. When quoting this figure, it is perhaps useful to also provide a baseline, something Ms Canning conspicuously neglects to do. Alas, since she is probably too busy doing “vital work” for the student body at KCL, I have taken it upon myself to supplement her data. It’s not exactly hard to find. In 2006, according to UCAS’ 2017 end-of-cycle report, slightly under 10 percent of students who had received free school meals (FSMs) were going to university, as compared to 25 percent of those not receiving FSMs. By 2017, those numbers had risen to 17 percent and 34 percent respectively.
Thus, the increase Ms Canning reports, while appearing impressive on the surface, must be seen in the context of the extreme disadvantage poorer students face. This disadvantage, we should note, has increased. In 2017, the attendance gap between FSM and non-FSM students stood at 17 percentage points, two more than in 2006.
What about the £800m figure? Surely this much money must have made an impact? Again, a little context will clarify the picture. According to Universities UK, there were around 1.75 million undergraduates in the UK in 2017. A Commons briefing report from 2018 states that higher education institutions across the UK received a total income of 35.7 billion pounds in the academic year 2016/7, of which around half, £17.85 billion, came from student fees. Ms Canning isn’t entirely clear as to whether the £800m she cites is an annual figure, or covers the period since 2012 (six years). According to my reading of the article, I will assume this is an aggregate figure, which means that, on average, universities allocated £130m annually to funding “schemes and bursaries for poorer students”, or less than 1 percent of their income from student fees alone. If this is an annual figure, £800m represents about 5 percent – still pretty paltry.
The cost of funding education has increasingly fallen on the shoulders of students. Grants from public funding bodies have declined from representing over 40 percent of total university income in the mid-1990s, to 14 percent in 2016/17. This is indicative of the vicious austerity imposed on society by successive governments. Hiking student fees to compensate for public sector cuts is nothing but another way of making the working class pay for the crisis of capitalism. We say the rich should pay for their own crisis: education should be free and paid for through expropriation of the banks and biggest businesses.
We have already seen that despite the high-flying rhetoric, poorer students continue to be disadvantaged. With the phasing out of maintenance grants, more and more students are forced to work alongside their studies, which compounds their stress levels and directly fuels an ongoing mental health crisis, all so they can graduate with £50,000 of debt into a dismal job market. As this example proves once again, our tuition fees do not benefit us; instead they are directed to prestige projects such as Bush House, which will cost KCL £500m over 50 years. While our health service now has fancy new quarters, the help it offers students is as scant as ever. Indeed, mental health support for students is especially chronically underfunded and inadequate at our university. According to a 2018 report by the Higher Education Policy Institute, “Estate & Premises” and “Administration” were the two highest not teaching-or research-related expenditure categories at KCL. “Student Support Services” and medical facilities came in at a woeful 7th and 8th respectively, together receiving as much funding as “administration” alone. Ed Byrne, Ms Canning and their ilk evidently know what they’re worth.
The truth is, the wealth exists in society to provide free and high-quality education for all. Ms Canning outlines the detrimental effects of a tuition fee cut “without compensatory safeguards”. In truth, the only “compensation” we will require once we do away with student fees is the uninvested wealth of the capitalist class, which will provide ample means to fund education, accommodation and healthcare – from cradle to grave – for every prospective student in the country. Rather than being used to buy expensive buildings and line the pockets of senior management, this money will be democratically allocated to invest in the betterment of future generations.
Ms Canning does end her article on a more positive note, calling for “the fruits of higher education [to be] fairly distributed”. We agree. Clearly, this won’t be achieved by tinkering around the edges of a failed system, at whose core is the exploitation of the working class. Well then, Ms Canning, it is clear what you – and anyone else who wants to end injustice, both in education and wider society – should do: fight alongside university workers and students for an education system that is free and accessible for all, funded through the expropriation of big business.
by Anthony Oakland, KCL Marxists