The pace of privatisation in education is accelerating and those who would use it as a means to get rich quick are circling ever closer. The recent White Paper published by the government would allow universities to increase tuition fees above £9,000 in line with inflation from Autumn 2017. At the same time it would allow many more private institutions to adopt the title of “University”.
There are many good reasons to oppose these steps towards privatisation in education. Increased tuition fees means increased debt for students. This has come under scrutiny in recent weeks as many people are realising that interest on student loans currently accrues at a rate of 3.9% (£180 per month), considerably more than loans taken out on the open market. This limits the amount of money graduates will be able to save towards buying a house or paying into a pension. The interest is also so extortionate that many of these loans will never be paid back, as they are guaranteed to be written off after 30 years, leaving an enormous hole in government finances further down the road, which will require even harsher austerity to make up for.
Strengthening the position of private, for-profit institutions in higher education mirrors the rise of academies at school level. In both cases, where profit is the bottom line, teaching and other staff will find themselves with worsening pay and conditions, while management’s pay will drift ever further upwards. Students will be looked upon as sources of income for the institution, not as young people who want an education. Quality of teaching and standard of living for staff and students will be sacrificed in the name of profit.
But for the Tories and the private companies seeking to make a profit out of privatised student debt and universities, all of this is a price worth paying. Capitalism at the present time has exhausted all the avenues it can find to make profit. It has stretched itself all over the world and into almost every sphere of human life. If it is to survive, particularly in a period of crisis such as this, it must find new territory from which to extract profit. Education, traditionally shielded from the free market, is one such area. This explains the Tory White Paper attacking higher education and opening it up to the violence of the capitalist free market. It also explains the enthusiasm with which the leader of the Confederation of British Industry, a capitalist club, has greeted the news.
As leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn has said that he will not only oppose an increase of tuition fees beyond £9,000, but he will fight for free education for all students. This is a powerful rallying cry that explains not only what we are against, but what we are for as well. Education enriches the lives of individuals and boosts the productivity and cultural level of society as a whole. The world has vast resources of wealth and knowledge such that everyone should be able to to receive free and decent education up to university level and beyond. With a left-wing leader of the NUS and a Corbyn-led Labour Party, it is possible that a real movement to fight for free education could be built. It will require radical leadership on the part of these individuals, as well as linking up with education unions like UCU and NUT, and militant action by students themselves.
The key question that our enemies will throw at us is how we intend to pay for free education. Corbyn’s answer is to increase taxes on the rich and big business and raise the money that way. This is not the first time such a suggestion has been made. Francois Hollande was elected in France in 2012 on a similar promise. Syriza was elected in Greece in 2015 promising this and other radical measures. Unfortunately these promises were not fulfilled because the rich and the big businesses, thanks to their ownership of the economy, were able to blackmail the government into doing a u-turn on those policies by threatening to increase prices, cut production or simply by moving overseas.
This is why certain right-wingers can get away with saying that “The hurdle protesters serially fail to clear is making the alternatives [to tuition fees] sound attractive”. Without a clear and workable approach to funding free education, it remains nothing more than a nice idea, unworkable in practice.
Thus Corbyn, the NUS, and the teaching unions need to adopt demands for the nationalisation without compensation of the wealth of the 1% if they refuse to fund free education for all. Big business has been profiting for decades from an educated workforce. It is time the super-rich were made to repay their debt to society. If we are serious about making the rich pay, they must be stripped of their control and ownership of the economy, with which they would otherwise hold us to ransom. This demand must also be part of an analysis on the part of the leadership of the labour and student movement that tuition fees and privatisation are inevitable under capitalism. If you want to put an end to the former, you must put an end to the latter as well.
The demand for free education is a radical and bold one. If it is not to remain a utopian dream it must be backed up with radical, socialist politics and militant industrial action by workers, coupled with direct action by students. By welding all these components together we will be able to make capitalism history, and free education a reality.