31/10/2014 07:15 GMT | Updated 30/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Why We All Need Free Education


Not many people of my age take student protesters all that seriously. We might look on them as young, middle class and idealistic, or perhaps even remember with a little nostalgia our own days of standing outside the university refectory with a homemade placard. So the space-filler article in yesterday's Evening Standard about the planned march for free education on November 19th organised by student campaigners will have passed most people by on the evening commute. It's just another student protest, they'll say. In fact, it's about so much more and on free education, the students are right.

Plenty of politicians and journalists have been keen to frame this as a discussion about tuition fees alone. If we do that, firstly we ignore the millions of students in further education. We also lose ourselves in a debate around whether student fees should be £3k or £9k or a graduate tax or fully-funded, and whether graduates should be made to pay for the advantages of their education. (They do already through tax.) In the context of a cash-strapped nation who have been told by the Tories that we can't afford inner-city surgeries, let alone university libraries, it's understandable that some people are putting students further down the priority list.

What's crucial to remember is that education should be for all. When the student movement calls for free education, it's calling for learning to be open to everyone. A few years ago, a mere 5% was the highest number of students formerly on free school meals at any Russell Group university, and more students from the London Borough of Richmond received places at Oxford than the whole of Scotland. That isn't right- regardless of background, income or age, we should all have the opportunity to educate ourselves to whatever standard we wish. That's what an aspirational society means.

As Mayor of Tower Hamlets, I live in and serve a borough with half of its children living below the poverty line. I have always seen education as central to solving this. When educated, not only are we more likely to get a better job, we are also more empowered with the tools to recognise and fight social injustice. That's why I've done all I can to support our teachers, parents and children in creating Britain's most improved urban schools. Politicians thought they could handle education by making it compulsory for young people to stay in education until 18 whilst scrapping their Education Maintenance Allowance. In response to that blunt force approach which showed no regard for the hundreds and thousands of teenagers living in poverty, we became the country's only authority to reinstate EMA. We provide bursaries for students from Tower Hamlets who get university places, and that incentive pays off. This year we were the only inner-London borough in the top ten boroughs for getting students into Russell Group universities.

I am proud to have done what we have, but helping people in full-time education to survive should be the job of the nation, not something left to local councils. It is shocking that even the maximum student finance grant-and-loan combination for even the poorest students amounts to much less than the minimum wage. The underlying assumption that all students can or will just find employment alongside their studies, be funded by their parents (or borrow even more on top of tuition fee debts) locks out many mature students, many students with disabilities or students from insecure homes. Even for those from wealthier homes, university is still a serious investment- and for those from poorer backgrounds, the fees alone are a sufficient deterrent to any academic aspirations. There is little evidence to suggest that tuition fees are economically beneficial, and plenty to suggest that they are divisive and harmful to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Germany have abolished tuition fees, along with Scotland.

Of course, university isn't for everyone and should not be seen as the be all and end all. However, it can be a route out of poverty and a facilitator of social change. It got me, as an East End boy from an immigrant community, into a career in law and politics. I believe that people like me have a duty to preserve the opportunities we had for future generations. So I'll be supporting the students' 19th November demonstration, and hope that people from our community come out to voice their desire for a fairer education and a better future.