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We Want Free Higher Education: What Our Parents Had

Today, on Wednesday, 19 November, a coalition of student groups will demonstrate in London to advocate for free education. The event is timed to encourage politicians to address issues relating to university policy ahead of the 2015 elections. As Andrew McGettigan has so effectively described, since 2011, the government has cut direct teaching grants to universities, trebled student top-up fees to £9000, and revised the student-loan regime. Protesters demand: ‘no cuts’, ‘no fees’, ‘no debt’. They declare: ‘the money is there, in the soaring profits of business and the wealth of the rich. It should be taxed and used for the benefit of everyone’.

The demonstration connects soaring inequality to the conversion of the UK tertiary education sector from a publicly-funded European-style university system to a privatized system along American lines. As the graph below shows, this transformation occurred very rapidly, within 15 years.

Figure 1 – Share of public expenditure in funding of tertiary education (%)

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Source: OECD, Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators, 2012 <http://www.oecd.org/edu/eag2012.htm>. Table B3.2b

As an American expat, who was educated within the absurd higher education system the UK now emulates, I sympathize with the protesters’ complaints. Since the 1980s, the share of student loans within the $364 billion annual investment in American higher education has grown 2.5 times as much as funding from public and private grants (see Figure 2 below). The American system prioritizes the consumer needs of students, but has not led to higher quality education for the vast majority. Instead, universities invest in the expansion of wasteful services, including elaborate student centres, marketing departments, student affairs officers and a parasitic administrative class (see Figure 3).

Figure 2 – US financial aid by category in constant dollars, 1980 to 2009

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Source: Geiger and Heller 2011

Figure 3 – Change in per-student expenditures and revenues in constant dollars,

FY1990 to FY 2008

Source: OECD, Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators, 2012 . Table B3.2b

Source: Geiger and Heller 2011

The net result is not a more educated population, but, rather, an indentured generation of young people who leave college with an average debt of $25,250. The aggregate has reached more than $1 trillion, more than the total debt carried on consumer credit cards. As a victim of this regime, I encourage the UK protest against higher education funded by privatised student loans. University education should be free for qualified students, and the UK government is making entirely wrong decisions.

However, critics of the system fall into the same trap the governments have set for themselves. For universities are not social equality machines. For well over 70 years, national governments have adjusted and re-adjusted education policy to change and equalize the class structure of modern society. It has never worked. Insofar as the economy is organized around a different logic to that of education, this makes sense. The problems relating to class in the UK are severe, but these can only be addressed through financial, industrial and tax policy.

The result is a contradiction between the democratic and egalitarian ideals we learn in school and the allocative role education has in distributing graduates’ position in modern society. For educators must ultimately decide who lands where. In a complex and unequal society organized around specialized knowledge, a student’s grades can affect life chances and occupational advantages. Now, inequalities of income and social position map more or less directly onto university degrees, which stimulates policies encouraging further enrollment of students. Those students, who, a generation earlier, would have been employed after sixth form, are reconceived as the new disadvantaged ‘working class’ of a post-industrial society.

Further extending higher education enrollment only postpones entry into the workforce until bachelor’s degrees become a baseline currency; a meaningless piece of paper for everyone except those who do not have one. Delaying the hard decision of getting a job until after university means specialization must now occur in the quaternary (postgraduate) phase, which will, in turn, have to become free in a generation lest it be deemed similarly ‘unfair’.

Protesters note that working class student take-up of university has declined since the introduction of fees. Yet this does not appear to be true. Critics further note that ‘millions’ will never pay back the money. True. In fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that three-quarters of graduates will not earn enough in their lifetimes to pay back their loans in full, and an average of £30,000 per student will be written off. Thus, the loan repayment schedule is structured so that the greatest burden of the new regime falls squarely on the middle of the middle class.

Of course, the wealthiest children will pay their tuition either before or after they graduate. But, the poorest (those making less than £21,000) will not pay back anything. Surprisingly, the protestors have not noticed the ‘patriarchal’ nature of this particular provision – for the policy is structured so that degreed, middle-class women can confidently withdraw from the workforce and raise children without suffering repayment schedules. The loan regime incentivises this decision. This means that active members of the workforce, male or female, earning over £21,000 are effectively taxed an additional 9 per cent for 25 years. In practice, the policy works as a graduate tax on the future middle class.

This draws attention to the actual exploitative relationship at work: between the old and young fractions of the middle class. The old middle class was born into a welfare state that expanded primary and secondary education on a scale unprecedented in human history. Having extracted the fruits of the generous system their parents fought for, the baby-boomer generation now retires. We are expected to foot our own bill in addition to fulfilling ‘promises made’ to them. This is the root of the injustice: that future generations have to pay individually for a collective good that prior, though still living, generations dismantled.


Eric Royal Lybeck is an historical sociologist and theorist from the University of Cambridge. His dissertation research covered the history of universities, law and social science since 1800 in Germany and America. While he is now working at Exeter University, he tweets at @EricRoyalLybeck..