Jeremy Corbyn's Radical National Education Service Would Give Millions Of Students A Debt-Free Start To Life

18/08/2016 10:18 | Updated 18 August 2016

It's astonishing how quickly tuition fees became a fact of life. Thirteen years ago, George Osborne was wrote an angry letter to the press about Labour's £3,000 fees, calling them "a tax on learning."

Today - or until last year, at least - the idea of debt-free degrees could not be further from the political mainstream. An undergraduate starting this year will complete their degree with as much as £53,000 of debt. The burden of debt will be highest for students from the poorest backgrounds, who will rely on additional loans to support themselves through university, thanks to the government's scrapping of maintenance grants.

Fees crept up on us, starting with a modest £1000 and then rising with subsequent governments. At first they were advertised as a way of widening access by funding more university places, then proclaimed as a necessary austerity measure ("There was no money around," claimed Nick Clegg in his infamous apology video after shattering the hopes of millions of voters). Now the Tories are more blatant than ever in their intention to destroy what's left of public universities and turn education into a commodity - no different from a car or a gym membership.

The recent Higher Education White Paper set out a bold vision of a market where universities compete for students-consumers, who in turn agree to pay higher fees in return for a promise of a higher graduate salary. Struggling institutions are allowed to fail, and for-profit providers are encouraged to take their place. In the White Paper, neoliberal utopia is packaged in words like freedom and opportunity. The word "choice" appears on average twice a page - but students were never asked to choose if they wanted increased debt and backdoor privatisation in the first place.

Spiralling debt, private providers and endless buzzwords and branding exercises: are we heading towards a system modelled on America - a place where, long before Trump ran for President, he was permitted to set up a profit-making university and run the curriculum?

That result would be more than the logical conclusion of the present situation in higher education; it is an active government policy. The new system forces universities to operate more and more like private companies, seeking to increase profits and reduce costs at the expense of students and staff. As their income grows, the proportion spent on teaching is declining while institutions prefer to invest in shiny buildings and overblown marketing departments. Vice-Chancellors salaries compete with those of corporate executives. Less profitable courses, often in arts and humanities, face closure.

It is remarkable how quickly these things have become normal - but it is also remarkable how quickly they have become challenged. Despite a burgeoning student anti-fees movement, the established left was lukewarm in its response to the crisis. Ed Miliband's 2015 election pledge to cut fees from £9,000 to £6,000 was neither bold enough to challenge the marketisation agenda nor convincing enough to speak to a generation that had been betrayed before. There was no alternative vision, no argument about whom and what purpose education was meant to serve.

Now, all of that has changed. Since last year, Jeremy Corbyn has elevated the cause of free education to the highest political level. This week, he is laying detailed policies that together will create a National Education Service - a much more ambitious plan for a comprehensive service which is free and accessible to everyone.

It has become normal to regard free education as a "radical" idea in Britain recently - but free tertiary education is the norm in many European countries. If accompanied by adequate maintenance support, it would give millions of young people a debt-free start in life.

What is genuinely radical is the scale of Corbyn's plan. The National Education Service includes a policy of free universal childcare, removing barriers to participation that fall disproportionately on women, and an integrated system which breaks down the barriers between vocational and traditional education, and opening access to the system to learners throughout their lives.

It took us less than a generation to get used to university education being a business and an expensive luxury. It's time to consider the idea that it should be a right.