Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Education is a right, not a privilege

I received a free university education, as did most of the politicians now pulling up the drawbridge behind them as they look for more ways to turn education into a privilege and not a right. For myself, and millions of others, a university education was made possible by a society that valued higher and continuing education, and was willing to invest in it.

Increasingly education is treated as little more than a commodity; to be snapped up by those most able to pay. Bit by bit, the principle of free education has been replaced by the notion that students are ‘consumers’ who should pay for the benefit they get from studying.

The new ConDem government is now considering plans for a graduate tax. It is being sold on the basis that the graduate nurse or care worker should not be expected to pay the same as a graduate city banker. But that is something that could, and should, be achieved through the tax system generally. The better off should pay proportionally more of their income in tax, and those tax receipts should be used to finance a world-class system of higher education.

Instead, the new government is effectively scrapping the target that 50% of 18-30 year olds should be educated to degree level, and seeking to shift the financial burden more and more towards individual students.  It is a lowering of ambition that will not even pay its way economically.

Before tuition fees were introduced in 1998 the UK was among OECD countries for the level participation in higher education. It has now dropped to 15th. This is not the way to develop an economy based on high-technology sectors; one that demands a high education and skills base.

Increasing investment in free higher education would be good for students, the economy, and for society as a whole. Shifting the financial burden to individual students will reduce participation in education, widen the gap between rich and poor, and do nothing to rebuild our economy.

For a long period now, higher education policy has just had the result of steadily increasing the cost of going to university. It is time to put that process into reverse and make a university education affordable for all.