University fees: Higher education to become a commodity

FRFI 177 February / March 2004

The argument over university top-up fees that fizzled out in another gutless climb-down by so-called Labour rebels was irrelevant to most of the British working class. Education in Britain has always been elitist. It is one of the means by which the upper middle class maintains its ascendancy and through which the lower middle class and the more affluent aspiring minority of the working class hope to improve their lot.

University degrees were once reserved for children of the ruling class. By 1965 only around 8% of the relevant age group received higher education. The first massive expansion of university education came after the 1963 Robbins Report called for modernisation of the higher education sector.

Little gain for the working class
As the British economy was restructured over the past two decades, higher education expanded rapidly to meet the new labour force requirements and save industry the considerable costs of retraining. Today 43% of 19-year-olds in England and Wales are in full-time education.

The government wants the percentage of people attending university to rise to around 50%. So the argument is now about how the estimated annual £2.6bn bill for university teaching necessary for such an expansion will be funded. The government has proposed that annual tuition fees should rise to a maximum of £3,000 from the current £1,100, with universities choosing the level of their fees for different courses. Already the elite universities have made it clear that they want to be able to charge much higher ‘variable fees’ for ‘expensive’ courses.

The chief beneficiaries of this expansion have been and will continue to be the middle class. Over 60% of students at the top universities – the ones that count most for privilege and influence – come from private and selective schools. The advantages of an elite university place are enormous. Not only is the learning environment superior but each college provides its own network of contacts and influences that still dominate the elite in the armed forces, the judiciary, political parties and the media. Any increase in the number of working class university entrants has overwhelmingly been to the less prestigious universities. For instance, at the University of East London over 40% of students have their fees waived due to low family incomes, compared with 10% at Oxford and Cambridge.

In reality only a small minority of the poor working class is involved. For most the chance of ever receiving higher education is a world away. The bulk of working class young people with few or no qualifications have no more opportunities today than they did 30 years ago. They are still destined for the most menial and low-paid work.

Gutless rebels, gutless arguments
So for the Labour left to complain that university top-up fees are elitist and put working class students at a disadvantage is totally dishonest and hypocritical. The working class has been disadvantaged by an elitist education system for over a hundred years. The Labour Party continues to support selective schools, private education and the right of mobile middle class families to seek out and monopolise the ‘best’ state schools. Indeed, many Labour MPs, from Tony Blair to Dianne Abbott take advantage of these for their own children. Educational inequality is rooted in a host of class differences such as poverty, poor housing, racism, cultural deprivation. It will take a lot more than concessions on variable fees and student bursaries to eliminate it.

Higher education – extending the market
The main purpose of university top-up fees is to extend market forces in that sector. Higher education is to become a commodity with the student as consumer checking out the market. Now that payment has been established as a principle, the market between universities, colleges and courses can accelerate with the wealthiest institutions charging top prices for their superior products. The government’s justification for higher fees is that payment is an individual investment in future earning power; that since graduates benefit from education they should pay.

In the same way individual families will increasingly be expected to pay not only for superior education but also for quality health care and improved public services. Blunkett, Straw, Blair and cronies have set out to dismantle the welfare state with its notions of redistributive tax and universal provision, and replace it with the mantra that there are no rights without personal responsibility. As Blair said, ‘I passionately believe [that] you can expand public services and protect quality but that you can only do this in the modern world if people see a fair way of paying for these services.’

With the increase in university graduates, a degree has become a minimum precondition for middle class youngsters to pursue a well-paid future. Large numbers of them are now aghast that one of the main props of their privilege might become beyond their means.

Most Labour MPs benefited from free university education and an important section of their electorate are among the middle class being threatened. That is why the university top-up fees created such parliamentary opposition. It has little to do with concern for poor working class students and everything to do with naked self-interest.

A socialist alternative
Late degenerate capitalism wants to see all life packaged for profit; everything is to have a price. The only conceivable relationship is that between producer and consumer; the only incentive individual material gain. As socialists we know there is another way. We believe education shouldbe provided for the benefit ofall, free of charge, funded from taxation. Education is a fundamental requirement of human dignity; for cultural enlightenment, understanding and participation in the tasks of society – not for the mean purpose of treading over a fellow human to gain the next rung of the career ladder.

In Cuba, which is trying to build a socialist society without class distinctions, university education is entirely free. The Battle of Ideas, as the Cubans call it, aims to raise the educational level of everyone, throughout their lives, as a right and as a necessity for creating a cultured population capable of understanding and tackling the problems of the world.

Jim Craven and Susan Davidson


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