Change in Sight: Students Still Marching For Free and Accessible Education
This week, thousands of students marched through central London calling for an education system free and accessible to all, as part of a national demonstration called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. One of the key aims of this protest was to harness and build upon the momentum that has been growing behind the free education movement in recent times.
Over the last year, the national debate around tuition fees has been catapulted into mainstream politics and media. Just over two years ago, in 2015, the government were laying their plans for the on going marketisation of higher education, including further fee rises, that would later be enshrined in the Higher Education and Research Act. Meanwhile, the policy of the opposition at the time was to support a reduction in fees to £6000 a year plus the introduction of a graduate tax. Just over two years ago, free education seemed like little more than a distant dream.
Fast forward two years, and the political landscape has shifted dramatically. The current leader of the Labour party is a lifelong supporter of free education, and one of the central Labour policies that defined the 2017 general election campaign was a promise to scrap tuition fees. This pledge was not only popular amongst students, but also across wider society, with many being convinced by arguments that education is a social good and should be funded through progressive taxation. This public platform for free education policy has sparked widespread criticism of the current fee regime. The government appears to be in disarray over higher education policy, with the universities minister and the prime minister having made several conflicting public statements. After months of rumours about possible government action, the government has now announced that there will be a freeze on tuition fees at the level of £9250 a year for at least a year. Unsurprisingly, this "compromise" has not won the hearts and minds of students.
Under the current system, students are burdened by more debt than in any other higher education system in the developed world. This sharp increase in student debt has been shown to correlate with the growing mental health crisis that is sweeping across campuses. On top of this, students are having to grapple with a cost of living crisis and rocketing rents, as the agenda of marketisation drives universities to operate like businesses which seek to generate as much money as possible out of students. We've seen ideological attacks on working class and disabled students through cuts to maintenance grants and Disabled Students' Allowance respectively, and university applications amongst part-time and mature students have absolutely plummeted, primarily due to financial barriers.
Despite the government trying desperately to convince students otherwise, it doesn't have to be this way. Free education exists in many other countries of the world, as it did here just 20 years ago. The cuts we've seen in higher education are political choices, not necessities. When a state invests in higher education, it is investing in the whole of society - in teachers, doctors, engineers; in jobs which serve a public good. And this investment does not have to come at the expense of investment in other areas of education, or even in the public sector as a whole, as was demonstrated by the Labour manifesto earlier this year.
The student movement recognises that free education can be won, but that an integral part of achieving it will be maintaining and developing grassroots pressure from the bottom up. Wednesday's national demonstration was a vibrant and energetic milestone in this strategy, which will hopefully be a springboard for further action and mobilisation in support of free education over the coming months.