Last week, the National Union of Students had its national conference in Liverpool where students from across the country came together to decide its policy for the next 12 months. Compared to last year's romp for the centre ground, some very progressive policy was passed, including that of new policy in favour of free education. This is the first time NUS has actually had such policy for around 10 years - this opens a window of opportunity to push this argument further up the political agenda. However, this is just a stepping stone at the beginning of our campaign; to win free education a long and difficult fight will have to take place across the country, on campuses and against the seats of power.
You'd be forgiven for wondering why NUS voting in favour of free education gained such a rapturous celebration - surely any national union would back the principle of free education, right? Not only is free education the norm across many parts of Europe, but it is certainly the norm for it to be on the policy books of its unions - in France, there are two national unions for students, one of the left and one of the right; both have policy for free education. Yet, in the UK, it is a different story: For the last decade the NUS leadership (usually controlled by the Labour Students) has either backed fees, or the idea of a 'graduate tax'.
I support the idea of free education because I believe education is a public good that benefits society and it can liberate both the individual and society. Imagine a society without doctors, nurses, linguists, mathematicians and architects. Imagine a world without musicians, people who analyse ancient texts, current literature, politics or the arts in general. The Nationalist right love boasting that Britain brought the world Shakespeare, but they seemingly don't want fund people to study his work or fund the next generation to appreciate or emulate him. As soon as we put a price-tag on education, it stops becoming a public good and becomes a private commodity.
Society benefits from education so society should fund education, with those who can, paying the most. This also goes for primary education - this needs to be funded properly so people can get to university in the first place instead of leaving only small numbers of working class students getting into university either via grammar schools or by chance, all whilst letting the 8% of children in this country who are privately educated take up the majority of places in 'top' universities.
The fact is that there is definitely enough in money society to fund free education, the money is just in the wrong hands - a small rise in corporate tax, the cutting of trident, a 'Robin Hood' tax or the closing of tax loopholes could all easily fund living grants and the abolition of tuition fees overnight, however our arguments must go beyond that. The reason myself and groups like the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts argue for free education, despite it having little public and political support, is because it fits into a wider picture of how society should be run. Our vision for free education not only fits into a view of co-operatively run universities, but that of a co-operatively run society; one with a focus on social justice, and a sustainable and green economy. The Tories, in my view, have a clear vision for society: one of cut-throat markets, no welfare state, heavy privatisation and race-to-the-top for some which actually leads the majority into a race-to-the-bottom. A movement for free education gives us room to articulate a vision of our own, which transcends the realm of education into society.
Tuitions fees in higher education are an experiment that have clearly failed - recently, the media widely publicised the admission that the £9k fee system will cost almost the same as the £3,000 system that preceded it because so many graduates won't ever earn enough to pay their loans back. When access to higher education grows for one group, it often drops for another, exemplified by the recent boast from the Coalition Government that more students from poorer backgrounds are now entering higher education, a claim which omits the fact that part-time study (usually undertaken by poorer or mature students) has plummeted by 46%. In America, student debt is one of the biggest causes of bankruptcy alongside healthcare and mortgages - with the bubble of student debt being bought up by private providers, the future looks bleak here unless we take action.
All I'll say about the graduate tax is that it's a gross re-writing of how taxation works: you wouldn't ask an NHS patient to pay an additional tax on their earnings for surviving an operation, though this concept could become feasible if we implemented the logic of a graduate tax. Not only that, but it is a still a student debt which eats away at the idea of education as a public good and creates a barrier to education now, for those less-fortunate individuals who see the long-term financial implications of a graduate tax as a burden they won't be able to overcome.
We won't win free education overnight; it will take long years of debate, proving the public value of higher education to the public and we will need to tackle the issue of access to education, so a mature student from Tower Hamlets has the same chance of getting into UCL as their 18 year-old counterpart from Richmond. However, NUS' new policy offers a chance to make these arguments and paint a picture of how society could look so very different; a chance we should grab with both hands.