Why say “Free education for all”

In the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) campaign against the Cuts and Fees being introduced by the UK government they have decided to take a principled stance on the position of education. They aren’t just protesting against the Cuts and Fees, they are demanding free education for all. To find out why they have chosen this position, and to see what they mean by ‘free education’ we have reproduced a their text Why say “Free education for all”, in which they answer 10 questions about free education.

The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts is a group of activists from universities, colleges and schools across the country that co-ordinate action against tuition fees and education funding cuts. Check out their website & facebook

The leaders of NUS (Main Stream Student Union in the UK) support a graduate tax; the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) opposes this policy and demands free education for all. We have produced this briefing to help activists win the arguments for free education, and counter the lies told by the bosses and their government about the “need” for cuts in public services.

  1. What do you mean by free education?
  2. Given the huge cuts about to be made, isn’t that unrealistic?
  3. But the money isn’t there!
  4. What’s your alternative?
  5. Okay, so there’s a lot of money in society, but are university students really the most deserving? What about other services?
  6. How can we demand no fees when teaching budgets are being cut?
  7. But why should so many people go to university?
  8. Given we’re threatened by unlimited fees, shouldn’t we limit our ambitions?
  9. But the government was elected. It has a mandate.
  10. Can we win?

What do you mean by free education?

In this society, obviously, no service is literally “free”. The question is: who pays? We want the abolition of all fees, so that further and higher education are provided as a public service free to those who use them. That means no form of student payment before or after graduation; tuition should be funded out of general taxation and every student should be provided with a grant that is enough to live on.

Given the huge cuts about to be made, isn’t that unrealistic?

We are not arguing for free education to be funded by cuts in other services. We oppose all the Coalition’s cuts to public services (bar its very slight, cosmetic cut backs in senior public sector managers and so on); in fact we want more, not less, money for education and other public services.

But the money isn’t there!

Isn’t where? According to the Sunday Times ‘Rich List’, in 2009-10 the 1,000 richest individuals and families in Britain increased their wealth by £77 billion to a staggering £335 billion. Similarly, FTSE 100 directors’ pay has increased by 55% in the last year. And those two groups are very far from all the rich people in Britain! In the last three decades, the proportion of national income going to the rich has increased systematically. In 1976, the bottom 50% of the UK population had 12% of the liquid wealth in the UK; by 2003, only 1%. In the same period, the richest 0.01% have seen their income rise by 500%. Individuals in the top 1% possess average household wealth of £2.6 million; individuals in the poorest 10%, £8,800.

It would be easy to fill pages and pages with figures like these. The reason is that since 1979 we have had right-wing Tory governments dedicated to beating down the working class and poor for the benefit of the rich — and a New Labour government which did nothing to reverse these trends. Now it’s once again the majority, and most of all the worst off, who are being made to pay through cuts — and higher fees. When the rich and the governments that serve them say “we” can’t afford something, they really mean they can’t afford it if they are going to keep their profit margins up.

What’s your alternative?

If we had a government which really wanted to solve the crisis in a way that was “fair”, it would — at the very least — increase taxes on the enormous wealth of the rich, big business and the banks. (In 1979, the top rate of income tax was 83% and corporation tax was 52%; today those figures are 50% and 28%, with the latter due to be cut again.) It would scrap Trident and slash military spending, pay outs to public sector bosses, money-wasting Private Finance schemes and cash-guzzling management consultants — not jobs and services.

It comes down to which you think are important: profits and the wealth of the rich, or the services and jobs the rest of us need. The Lib Dem-Tory coalition does not want to do the sort of things we advocate because it is a government of the rich, for the rich.

Okay, so there’s a lot of money in society, but are university students really the most deserving? What about other services?

That’s the argument New Labour used to justify the introduction of fees in the first place, back in 1998. It’s a slippery slope that has no bottom. Let’s say that further education is more important than higher education. But what about secondary education? And primary? And isn’t the NHS more important than schools? What about pensioners? Should the government introduce fees — perhaps repayable later on, like the graduate tax NUS advocates — for those who use hospitals, or the fire service? Or at least fees for secondary school — after all, these do exist in many countries!

Some Tories might like to do this, but they know they can’t get away with it (yet). What the government wants to do is cut all services, but they are beginning with the ones that they think have least public support. Let’s not make it easier for them!

If you accept this kind of divide-and-rule — if one group of service users or workers accepts cuts — it will weaken, not strengthen everyone else’s campaigns, and mean cuts all round in the longer term. The alternative is to demand and fight for the resources necessary for all the services we need — resources which, as we’ve explained, exist in abundance, but are owned and controlled by the wrong people.

How can we demand no fees when teaching budgets are being cut?

The Browne Review proposes both the lifting of the cap on fees and a huge — 80%! — cut to teaching budgets. This is no coincidence! Higher education budgets have come under greater and greater pressure during the period since the introduction of, and increase in, fees — unsurprisingly, since one of the aims of first introducing fees was to begin the privatisation of Britain’s university system.

The only way to break out of this destructive logic is to demand the abolition of fees and the making available of public money to run higher education as a public service. The same goes for fees in further education.

But why should so many people go to university?

Why shouldn’t they? University has traditionally been for the children of the rich. One of the few good things New Labour did was a big expansion of higher education: unfortunately, they did it on the cheap, with underfunding, fees, a two-tier university system and privatisation. But why should only an elite get to benefit from higher education? Is the right to learn about the world and expand your mind, and enjoy yourself with others doing the same thing, too good for most people?

Advocates of fees also contradict themselves. They argue that there are too many students to have free education, but also that free education would mean the working class paying for the children of the “middle class” (this term is thrown around pretty loosely — let’s assume they mean the rich) to study. Anyone who was serious about this concern would advocate taxing the rich so that they can pay for everyone who wants to go to university to do so!

Given we’re threatened by unlimited fees, shouldn’t we limit our ambitions?

That’s the same approach which led to the introduction of fees in 1998 and their increase in 2004. If NUS had listened to the Campaign for Free Education which then existed, stuck to its demand for free education, and mobilised a big campaign around it, the government would not have been able to head down the road it did. Very likely fees would never have been introduced; at least, we would not be facing the huge threat that Browne poses.

Of course the immediate priority is stop the implementation of the Browne Review and the lifting of the cap. But if we accept the lesser evil, and narrow our goals right down to a bare minimum, we will never be able to stop the slide toward a free market education system.

But the government was elected. It has a mandate.

Actually the government’s electoral mandate is pretty dubious — particularly in this case, since the Lib Dems said they would oppose fees (winning hundreds of thousands of student votes as a result) before ratting on their promise. And it’s not as though the option of a government which really serves the majority and defends public services was available in the election! In any case, democracy is not about electing a dictatorship which can then do whatever it wants. We have every right to fight to defend our education, services and jobs and that’s exactly what we should do.

Can we win?

The only thing that will make governments shift course is fear. Before the election, Nick Clegg expressed his fear of “Greek-style unrest” in Britain. And now we have a better model of student and worker “unrest”: the huge strikes and protests against cuts in France. We need a militant fightback here too — and that fight back is beginning, among workers and among students, as the NUS demo on 10 November shows. Get involved and help make it stronger!

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