Higher Education Green Paper: The Government’s War on Students
As UK students we are studying in the most expensive publicly funded higher education system in the world. We pay £9000 a year in tuition fees and graduate with around £50,000 of debt, which we are committed to paying off for the next thirty years of our lives. We pay extortionate amounts in rent that our maintenance loans barely cover and it’s likely we’ll soon see the maintenance grants received by the poorest students replaced with yet more debt. But for the Conservatives, and particularly Universities Minister Jo Johnson, we haven’t suffered quite enough; on November 6th they released a green paper which sets out their vision for a fully marketised higher education system, completing the work began with the reforms of 2010. We face the biggest threat to higher education since tuition fees were initially implemented in the 1990s.
As if to add insult to injury, these proposals are being released at a moment when the Free Education movement is making its message heard louder and clearer than ever before. Across the world students are demanding their right to a free education; in South Africa months of student strikes have halted the decision to raise tuition fees in 2016, in the US the Million Student March called for tuition-free public colleges, whilst in the UK thousands of students joined the #GrantsNotDebt march through London this month. In fact, the release of the green paper came just two days after the London demo, which itself was faced with a disproportionately large and violent police presence. With such impeccable timing it’s hard not see the green paper as a virtual declaration of war on the student movement.
But what is it about this paper that’s so awful? Well, it proposes to allow “good” universities to increase their tuition fees beyond £9000. Even more worryingly it gives the Secretary of State the power to raise fees in line with inflation without having to consult the House of Commons – democracy it seems has gone out the window. Each year fees would rise, making every generation of students more indebted than that which preceded it. And in order to decide exactly which were “good” a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) would be introduced. Universities would be deemed functional if they met the needs of the economy and produced the graduates employers wanted. So it wouldn’t matter if that History or Sociology degree had really developed your perspective of the world if businesses didn’t want to employ anymore historians or sociologists right now. According to Jo Johnson universities are just factories for employees, producing ‘the pipeline of graduates we need for a 21st century economy’. Your years of study weren’t for your benefit, they were for the economy’s.
Essentially the green paper proposes to fix the broken fee system that was created by the 2010 tuition fee rise. But instead of choosing the path of creating a free education system which would benefit students and staff alike – and which with appropriate business taxes is entirely viable – the government has proposed a scheme that would further decimate higher education. Students would be in even more debt and universities would be even more focused on their business interests than they are now. The only benefactors would be businesses. In the wake of these proposals there has been uproar from both students and staff, with the National Coalition Against Cuts and Fees describing them as an ‘attack on education as a public service’ and the University and College Union warning the government to ‘step back’ from the plans. But will the Tories really care? For the past five years students have not been quiet about our disdain for debt and the government has not listened. We marched for the abolition of tuition fees and they suggested they should instead be raised. I hope that the success of the student and Free Education movements in the rest of the world can keep us buoyant here in the UK, because it seems we have quite the fight on our hands if we want to make sure our education remains accessible and in our hands.