We can win free education!

Submitted by Matthew on 12 November, 2014 - 11:58 Author: Tom Harris

The British student movement should take its lead from its counterparts in Germany, Chile and other countries, which succeeded in overturning the introduction of a shambolic, transparently unfair system of tuition fees.

And it must go further, and demand that the debt hanging over millions of students who have already left study is abolished.

On the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, many predicted that the change would further entrench university education as the preserve of those wealthy enough to pay.

It was predicted that the loan system would saddle millions of students with debt that would take decades for them to pay off. It was predicted that once individual fees, rather than public funding, had been established as the means by which education was funded, its inexorable logic would lead to students paying higher and higher sums in order to keep the system going.

16 years later, those predictions have been vindicated. An undergraduate course will now cost a British or EU student £9,000 a year — three times as much as it did five years ago, nine times as much as it did in 1998.

The principle of education as a universal right and a public good has been deeply undermined, and the higher education sector is now rife with privatisation.

Under the current fees regime, students will have an automatic debt of £27,000 from three years of undergraduate study.

In reality, debt accrued through the cost of living over that period of time is often over £50,000.

It is much worse for postgraduate and international students — many have to resort to commercial loans to support them in their studies.

For some students, concerns about the cost of living during their studies are at least limited by the knowledge that their parents will stump up some cash if things get too grim.

But hundreds of thousands of students from poorer backgrounds are less able to rely on family support when money is tight. Instead, more and more are pushed into working long hours to keep themselves afloat, work that takes place during what are supposed to be full-time degrees.

The problems don’t end with graduation. When the government moved to treble fees in 2010, ministers brushed aside concerns about the burden of debt, claiming that since a university degree enables students to enter well-paid professions, the debt could be relatively painlessly paid off.

Unfortunately, this argument rests on the idea that a degree more or less guarantees access to a high-paying job. In fact young workers are often employed in badly paid and precarious jobs.

The government is starting to get a bit panicky about the prospects of ever getting the money back. According to the Daily Mail, the government has recently begun looking into hiring overseas bailiffs to try and track down students who have moved abroad without alerting the Student Loan Company.

Before that, they considered selling off £12 billion worth of loan debt into private hands. That plan was abandoned in the face of a combination of student protest and coalition in-fighting. It is likely the government will continue to devise ways of raking back the debt, which is predicted to amount to £330 billion by 2044.

Considering the stated motivation for trebling fees was to help reduce public debt and make higher education less expensive to the taxpayer, it would seem the policy has failed on its own terms. The system seems unworkable and shoddily executed.

But in a sense, the introduction and rapid increase of tuition fees has worked very well for the Tories, the neo-liberals in the Labour Party and the ruling class they represent.

The restructuring of education funding has shifted much of the responsibility for funding education away from collective public funding based on taxation and towards contributions from private individuals.

It has opened an enormous gateway for private companies to enter the higher education sector and run it for profit.

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