We want free higher education: what our parents had

Eric Lybeck
November 19, 2014

Today, on Wednesday, 19 November, a coalition of student groups will demonstrate in London to advocate for free education. The event is timed to encourage politicians to address issues relating to university policy ahead of the 2015 elections. As Andrew McGettigan  has so effectively described, since 2011, the government has cut direct  teaching grants to universities, trebled student top-up fees to £9000,  and revised the student-loan regime. Protesters demand: ‘no cuts’, ‘no  fees’, ‘no debt’. They declare: ‘the money is there, in the soaring  profits of business and the wealth of the rich. It should be taxed and  used for the benefit of everyone’.

The demonstration connects soaring inequality to the conversion of  the UK tertiary education sector from a publicly-funded European-style  university system to a privatized system along American lines. As the  graph below shows, this transformation occurred very rapidly, within 15  years.

As an American expat, who was educated within the absurd higher education system the UK now emulates, I sympathize with the protesters’  complaints. Since the 1980s, the share of student loans within the $364  billion annual investment in American higher education has grown 2.5  times as much as funding from public and private grants (see Figure 2  below). The American system prioritizes the consumer needs of students,  but has not led to higher quality education for the vast majority.  Instead, universities invest in the expansion of wasteful services,  including elaborate student centres, marketing departments, student  affairs officers and a parasitic administrative class.

The net result is not a more educated population, but, rather, an indentured generation  of young people who leave college with an average debt of $25,250. The  aggregate has reached more than $1 trillion, more than the total debt  carried on consumer credit cards. As a victim of this regime, I  encourage the UK protest against higher education funded by privatised  student loans. University education should be free for qualified  students, and the UK government is making entirely wrong decisions.

However, critics of the system fall into the same trap the  governments have set for themselves. For universities are not social  equality machines. For well over 70 years, national governments have  adjusted and re-adjusted education policy to change and equalize the  class structure of modern society. It has never worked. Insofar as the  economy is organized around a different logic to that of education, this  makes sense. The problems relating to class in the UK are severe, but  these can only be addressed through financial, industrial and tax  policy.

The result is a contradiction between the democratic and egalitarian  ideals we learn in school and the allocative role education has in  distributing graduates’ position in modern society. For educators must  ultimately decide who lands where. In a complex and unequal society  organized around specialized knowledge, a student’s grades can affect  life chances and occupational advantages. Now, inequalities of income  and social position map more or less directly onto university degrees,  which stimulates policies encouraging further enrollment of students.  Those students, who, a generation earlier, would have been employed  after sixth form, are reconceived as the new disadvantaged ‘working  class’ of a post-industrial society.

Further extending higher education enrollment only postpones entry  into the workforce until bachelor’s degrees become a baseline currency; a  meaningless piece of paper for everyone except those who do not have  one. Delaying the hard decision of getting a job until after university  means specialization must now occur in the quaternary (postgraduate)  phase, which will, in turn, have to become free in a generation lest it  be deemed similarly ‘unfair’.

Protesters note that working class student take-up of university has declined since the introduction of fees. Yet this does not appear to be true. Critics further note that ‘millions’ will never pay back the money. True. In fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies  estimates that three-quarters of graduates will not earn enough in  their lifetimes to pay back their loans in full, and an average of  £30,000 per student will be written off. Thus, the loan repayment  schedule is structured so that the greatest burden of the new regime  falls squarely on the middle of the middle class.

Of course, the wealthiest children will pay their tuition either  before or after they graduate. But, the poorest (those making less than  £21,000) will not pay back anything. Surprisingly, the protestors have  not noticed the ‘patriarchal’ nature of this particular provision – for  the policy is structured so that degreed, middle-class women can  confidently withdraw from the workforce and raise children without  suffering repayment schedules. The loan regime incentivises this  decision. This means that active members of the workforce, male or  female, earning over £21,000 are effectively taxed an additional 9 per  cent for 25 years. In practice, the policy works as a graduate tax on  the future middle class.

This draws attention to the actual exploitative relationship  at work: between the old and young fractions of the middle class. The  old middle class was born into a welfare state that expanded primary and  secondary education on a scale unprecedented in human history. Having  extracted the fruits of the generous system their parents fought for,  the baby-boomer generation now retires. We are expected to foot our own  bill in addition to fulfilling ‘promises made’ to them. This is the root  of the injustice: that future generations have to pay individually for a  collective good that prior, though still living, generations  dismantled.


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Eric Lybeck