The most recent report from the NUS Poverty Commission, aimed at highlighting the barriers to further education faced by working class students, is the culmination of a year-long study. The problems it highlights are very real ones, which working class students know all too well, of being unable to access and get the most out of the education system for those from less well-off backgrounds.
However, this report unfortunately fails to deliver any noteworthy conclusions about this problem beyond what we already know. And it offers only a banal set of recommendations for how to tackle the problems, without even trying to address the source of the inequality in the first place – the free market, capitalist system.
The report collates the findings and testimonies of evidence submitted between October and December 2017, with contributions drawn from student unions, academics, education agencies and business groups. 12 commissioners were selected from across these fields to draw up a list of recommendations for both politicians and NUS members to consider, in order to rectify the current situation that places the working class at a pronounced disadvantage within higher education.
The overriding emphasis of this report lies on the exploitative nature of tuition fees and student loans in England and Wales, which naturally take a heavier toll on students on working class incomes. The report does identify several other factors impeding working class students’ progress in further education, such as cultural prejudices held against the working class within an academic environment and the elitist affectations displayed by these institutions (the report actually makes a point of highlighting the use of Latin in the mottos of many universities).
The evidence is damning but not exactly earth-shattering. An education system controlled by the ruling class is designed to reinforce the subjugation of the working class, reproduce the inequality that is the foundation of the capitalist system, and produce enough workers to keep the machine running. So the report’s finding that there are barriers to working class students in the education system shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
The failure of this report lies in its refusal to go beyond describing the problem to looking for its root cause. The fact that it does not deal with or explain the marketisation of education as the inevitable result of free market logic is the report’s biggest limitation.
There also remains the question of what substantive action the NUS plans to take in light of its findings. The concluding chapter of the report lists a set of proposals for the Westminster government to take on board. There is a proposal for a minimum student income to be established, improvements to the welfare state to provide greater provisions for students, and a greater degree of transparency with respect to the issue of class in education.
Unfortunately, what seems to have been overlooked is that the NUS asking a Tory government to overhaul the welfare state in the interests of the working class is about as sensible as your primary school class rep demanding the abolition of homework. The NUS shouldn’t be giving advice to the Tories – it should be campaigning to kick them out of government.
Among the suggestions the NUS makes is the continued campaigning for affordable transport at local government level, which contains no mention of nationalisation, and greater emphasis on class in activities/discussions within student unions. This serves to highlight how a lack of ideological clarity, and an inability to identify the root cause of the problem, restricts the report’s conclusions to uninspiring demands and empty platitudes, which cannot be realised through the reform of a system with which they are fundamentally incompatible in the long run.
While the Poverty Commission is noble in its intentions, it seeks only to work within the parameters of capitalism. An education system that is controlled by the ruling class will always remain at the mercy of the profit-motive of the free market.
This report won’t do much to bolster the rather fragile reputation the NUS has among students at the moment. It describes a very real problem but offers nothing by way of action to resolve it. We need to campaign to turn the NUS into an institution will serve as a vehicle for a meaningful change in the circumstances of working class students.
by Thomas Dunbar, Glasgow Marxists