This was Rida Vaquas’ speech at the opening plenary of the Labour Campaign for Free Education Conference 2015.
What do we mean by free education? At first this seems obvious, no fees. Then when we think about the day-to-day living costs students face, which shuts out so many people from education, we extend this to cover living grants for all. But when we think about the commoditisation of our education system that tuition fees is a part of, we need to understand that free education is a stand against the zero hours contracts that put many workers in constant financial insecurity, it is a stand against the universities who don’t pay workers a Living Wage whilst VCs pocket hundreds of thousands and take pay rises. A system which makes education a commodity necessitates the intensified exploitation of those who work within it. Why so? It is all to do with how the nature of the commodity transforms social relations between people into relations between things. The social relations at our sites of education are between students and all the workers who make education possible. This relation is then mystified by turning the student into a client, a purchaser of the commodity of ‘knowledge’ and the university management being the seller. This relationship lays the basis of exploiting university workers, when education is commodified, it then logically follows that the bosses aim to create more ‘value’ by repressing wages – whilst university lecturers and other workers are suffering from a real terms wages fall, Vice-Chancellor pay has increased by nearly by 60% in the last 2 decades. It is no coincidence that this astronomical increase has coincided with the rise of tuition fees. When we remove our fees from the equation, we’re saying no to lining the bosses’ pockets whilst funding for our courses is cut. Our universities are a site of struggle. My point in short: free education is not just a student campaign, it’s a campaign of the entire labour movement.
It’s important, however, to think of free education comprehensively , not just in higher education but as in education as a whole. There was an excellent article written by Shelly Asquith a while back which stated “Free education should mean freedom from poverty, not just tuition fees” and this must be at all levels of education. There are 3.5mn children who live in poverty today, and this is set to rise to 4.7mn by 2020. These are not just statistics. These are young human beings who are struggling to survive under the sharp heel of poverty, poverty that they absolutely shouldn’t have to face. Educational inequality is inseparably linked to wider economic inequality. We should be outraged that there is an attainment gap of 26.7 points between pupils who are not on free school meals and those who are in terms of GCSE grades at A* – C. It’s a lot easier to access education when you don’t have to worry about whether there’s food on the table or a roof over your head, when you don’t have to struggle to meet the hundreds of hidden costs of education, such as calculators, uniforms, stationery and more. We can only make the education fair and free for every pupil when every job has a decent wage, when 31% of people aren’t struck by unaffordable rent or mortgage costs, when welfare provides human dignity. In other words, we need to completely restructure the economy. In the short term, we need to fight for the reinstatement of EMA, against the academisation of our schools and against the planned cuts of 24% to the Further Education budget.
Free education, to me, also means freedom from anxiety and support for all mental illnesses. This is partly done by reducing the financial stresses on student and ensuring the shortest possible period for university counselling services with quick referrals to NHS Mental Health Services if needed, meaning we have to fight for proper funding for Mental Health Services, rather than the 8% cut over recent years. At the same time, we have to look at how the education system is structured. 20% of university students consider themselves as having mental health issues. This isn’t a system functioning healthily. Our education system is competitive, our learning is in a high pressure environment. Mental illness limits the ability of students to access education at any level and we are failing every student unless the very best support is provided.
Selma James once said at a talk “You can do two things with an education: a lifetime of poverty and insecurity or abolish poverty and insecurity”. We’ve all come today to discuss how we do the latter, to fight against the latter, to end neo-liberal capitalism in our education as a step to the end of neo-liberal capitalism everywhere.
Free education, in the abolition of tuition frees and livable living grants, will only be won as part of the confrontation of the capitalist system by labour. But then it is our duty to go beyond that, to build a new society, in which education can truly be free.