How we continue to penalise young people for daring to attempt to better themselves, and by proxy wider society, is baffling. It is all too easy to consider this a ship long since sailed, but the fact that, amongst many other countries, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and now Germany offer free university education is encouragement enough not to give up campaigning for free education in the rest of the UK (rUK). In the space of 16 years, UK tuition fees have risen from non-existence to £9,000 a year. Conservative MP David Willetts has even made deplorable calls for some UK universities to begin charging £16,000 a year for undergraduate study.
There is no convincing evidence that in the years since our tuition fees tripled the quality of resources and education have proportionally improved. Indeed, government cuts to higher education coming in tandem with contemptible slashing of arts funding and “an immigration policy that is preventing and deterring international student recruitment” (Professor Bryan MacGregor, University of Aberdeen) have only resulted in seriously endangering the future of UK higher education. Although complaints are often silenced with insistence that because we pay back our loans in such small instalments we will never even notice the money going, the fact remains that in the course of our working lives the average rUK student studying at Edinburgh University stands to lose roughly £50,000 when considering both the tuition and maintenance loan.
Although it may feel like it at times, the campaign for free education for UK students is not falling on deaf ears. The fact that the Green Party promises to scrap tuition fees, that the future of education funding was so central to the September referendum and that Douglas Alexander MP has pledged that a Labour government would reduce tuition fees to £6,000 per annum is proof that our calls for a public conversation on the cost of education is having a resounding impact on the political landscape. That an atrocious education policy coupled with reprehensible ‘austerity’ measures continue to be met with vociferous condemnation is an affirmation that this is not, as our detractors would have, just a conversation being had by self-interested students.
The ideological motivation for raising fees is one predicated on an idea of the ‘self-made’ citizen, where each person is expected to pay their way in the world. There is then a dark irony to the fact that the politicians defending tuition fees often tend to be born into privilege the majority of us cannot even comprehend. It is nothing short of arrogance for the government of a Bullingdon-affiliated, Oxford graduate, Etonian hereditary millionaire to first slash the Educational Maintenance Allowance, endanger the Disabled Student Allowance, scrap free school meals from sixth form colleges and then burden students with debts of £9,000.
In reality, none of us are ‘self-made’; our lot in life is largely dependent on the privileges we are afforded through accident of birth. Education should be a leveller, something which allows us to overcome our birth and reject the inheritance of hardship and disadvantage. It is bad enough that our sex, ethnicity and class continue to arbitrarily hamstring progress towards equality without student debt on top. If it is the role of the state to nurture and empower its citizens in the pursuit of happiness, then it is the role of the state to provide free education to enable this. We should be following the example set by our European neighbours, whether German, Czech, Greek, Norwegian or Swedish, and continue to pressure Westminster for the right to free education for all throughout the establishment.