Friday 20 February saw a debate between the NUS Higher Education Officer, Aaron Porter and USSU Education Officer, Adam Farrell on ‘fairer funding’ versus ‘free education’ in the run up to the free education demo in London last Wednesday. The NUS voted last year to drop its commitment to free education and adopt a more moderate stance of ‘fairer funding’, accepting that students should now have to pay for their education. This debate comes at a topical time as the cap on top up fees has been shelved until after the next government election, indicating that tuition fees could rise to as much as £6,000 per year.
The first to speak, Aaron Porter commented that 2004 saw an increase in fees from £1,000 to £1,300 and the introduction of £3,000 top up fees to come into effect in 2006, won only with a mere five votes in the Government favour and the closest to a defeat since labour had come into power in 1997. Porter comments that he accepts the current higher education system is ‘seriously problematic’ but at the same time put forward NUS’s position to keep fees, as an NUS campaign for a return to free education would ‘see us sidelined’.
He comments that, on average, £8,500 is spent on each higher education student, with students contributing £3,145 to the total cost. The government works on political priorities including the health system, police, transport and primary and secondary education, and comments that ‘higher education doesn’t even feature in the top ten.’ Instead of free education, which will never be free as ‘someone has to pay for it’, Porter wants to see a ‘progressive taxation system based on graduate earning afterwards’ – the more you earn after your degree, the more you pay back.
This notion is in direct contrast to the USSU Education Officer, Adam Farrell, who believes ‘society as a whole should pay.’ Farrell comments that higher education should be a place that enables social mobility – a ‘vision’ that is nowhere near to being achieved. He states that ‘class inequality is still rife’ and ‘the only reason I am sitting here now is fundamentally down to the privilege I have had in every stage of my education’. Society should pay to educate itself, he asks the question ‘why should the bin man pay for the doctor?’, and then answers ‘because the bin man may use the NHS service and the doctor’. Free education is a ‘political standpoint’, ‘recognising the equality prevalent in society’ and this is the role of the educational institution which the NUS are letting down.
Farrell further comments that the NUS ‘facilitates the exacerbation of education marketisation.’ Farrell attributes these problems to debt and the commodity that is created out of higher education. He feels the amount of debt accumulated by graduates is ‘a ridiculous amount of debt to attribute to an individual’ and is ‘literally staggering’, condemning the notion that one must ‘pay for aspiration’. Farrell argued that Higher Education Institutions are now landlords that have gyms and supermarkets for a ‘modern student experience’ and that students are now being sold a lifestyle and student experience rather than just education. This is all part of what he calls the commodification of higher education: ‘Universities compete to provide a modern, internationally competitive student experience’, he asks ‘is this in the genuine interest of the students attending these institutions?’
Aaron Porter agreed that Higher Education ‘should be an opportunity for everyone’ and shouldn’t be dictated by the needs of the economy, and again highlighted that the current funding system is problematic. He comments that a return to free education would mean the education system would not remain world class, and compares this to Scotland, which has seen a drop in the qualities of teaching and resources in universities, because they are not well-resourced and funded, with an ‘exodus of 10% of the academic staff to the English system.’
Tom Wills, who won the majority votes for the president in the recent sabbatical elections, comments that fairer funding is not part of the solution, it is instead ‘letting the government off the hook’, and students’ ‘official representation is actually arguing against us’. He further comments that it will not be in the Government top ten priorities unless ‘we make it’ and the NUS ‘cosying up the government’, is not, he adds ‘a recipe for success.’