Last semester, the students of the University of Liverpool voted clearly that they want the Guild to support a boycott of the NSS. The main message from the campaigning team was that taking part in the NSS could lead to increased tuition fees. Since the result, I’ve ended up having the old debate of whether university should be free with several people and so I thought I’d write my thoughts down.
Since fees for higher education (HE) were introduced in 1998, the temperature of the debate has risen in line with the fees: from £1,000 to £3,000, then to £3,225 and on to the much-protested £9,000. From September 2017, students will potentially see a further increase in fees to £9,250, some of whom are mid-course and were told they would only be charged £9,000 when they began. But why is there a debate? Surely if you’re being provided with a world-class education then you should have to pay for it?
I hate to break it to you: it’s not all about you. Educating students is far less about the individual than it is about a society. The value of education for that individual is nothing compared to the invaluable societal investment of educating a generation. But, for those of you who think I’m a typical leftie who doesn’t want to pay their way, let me point you to some examples of free education. Our neighbours in Norway, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Finland and France can all access free university education and their economies are flourishing! In the UK in 2015, around half of a million people entered HE. Let’s be generous and round their year’s fees up to say their total tuition fee bill for first year students was five billion pounds. In the same year, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, eBay and Google avoided a whopping £1billion in tax.
Economically, the governments since 2010, who have overseen the increasing fees to and above £9,000, have simply offset the costs of tuition fees. The Financial Times predict that two-thirds of students will never pay off their debt. That money is going to have to come from somewhere; this means that recent governments have passed the debt on to future governments. Financial hardship has also been passed on to universities. Since the fee has been capped at £9,000 for five years, universities will have lost out due to inflation: £9,000 in 2012 would have been worth £9,586 in 2015. The bill for this real-term loss of £586 per student per year has been footed by universities. Of course, the real group wronged by the government’s fiscal offsetting are the indebted graduates.
So, there you have a couple of brief financial arguments – but let me now get on to the real reason why education should be free. Working in a Students’ Union and with a University, there are three words that crop up fairly often and never fail to make my stomach turn: “value for money”. The introduction and raising of fees has become divisive in the relationship between students and their institutions. Universities feel compelled to act as commercial service providers and students are increasingly seeing themselves as consumers. It is not wrong of students to expect a high-quality education from their universities. However, the rhetoric I hear – ‘I’m paying nine grand for this…’ – demonstrates a shift towards the belief that education is a product that can somehow be bought.
I had the privilege of sitting through some of the University of Liverpool’s December graduation ceremonies. This was a privilege, firstly as I was able to share the joy of the students who had worked tremendously hard to complete their degrees but secondly, because I heard two Honorary Graduates speak: Pete Cresswell and Phil Scraton. Both speeches referred to the insult that the University’s graduates have been rewarded with debt. Professor Scraton specified that introducing tuition fees for HE ‘is an abdication of social responsibility’. This phrase perfectly summarises the reason education should be free.
Education is a fundamental human right. As humans, we have the right to develop to the most of our potential during our short time in existence. This development is not quantifiable in a package with a price label; it is an experience that is produced so that the student and, more importantly, society is advanced. It is perhaps easier to see this benefit when looking at more vocational degree subjects. It is clear, for instance, that educating medics is of more benefit to humanity than to the individual graduates. Subjects with a less obviously designed career paths, on the other hand, may be more readily dismissed. This is wrong. The time spent on developing the brains of citizens is an investment: having critical thinkers and imaginative innovators can only be of benefit to the future of civilisation.
There needs to be a shift from seeing students as consumers and education as a product, to seeing society as the consumer and students as the products. Tuition fees are taxing graduates who are already contributing to society. Universities are not just there to provide for students but, rather more importantly, to provide society with graduates. The bill for this service ought to be paid not by the products who catalyse our progression but by the major beneficiary – society.