Beyond Tuition Fees #11- Much to Learn, More to Do
It is a time of extraordinary potential for change in UK Higher Education. Labour’s promise to end tuition fees has defied the critics and united many behind Corbyn’s political project. In this series, the Norwich Radical and Bright Green have brought together perspectives from across the sector to explore the possibilities of post-fees HE. In the final instalment, the series editors summarise the visions for the next chapter of UK HE that the series has laid out.
There is more energy, debate and innovation on the left now than there has been for decades. Capitalism’s multiple crises, and the inability of its defenders to respond to them, are beginning to translate into tangible political opportunity. This series sought to capture the essence of some of this historical moment and direct it towards thinking about what we want our university campuses to look like, beyond the staple progressive policy of scrapping tuition fees. A project in unashamedly utopian thinking, it recognised the very real possibility that free tuition might be a reality in the near future, and sought to explore how this requires the left to think practically about what comes after and where our energy should be focused next.
The contributors to this series have certainly risen to the challenge. Across 10 articles, we’ve seen how the claws of marketisation have gotten far deeper into campus life than just piling debt onto students: they’ve warped Students’ Unions and hampered their ability to challenge universities and governments, they’ve exploited international and postgraduate students, and they’ve allowed profit to trump student welfare and learning. Other issues, such as a more timid National Union of Students failing to properly lead the student movement, the lack of equal opportunities to access HE for older students and the failure to consider higher education’s fully emancipatory potential beyond its existence as a commodity, are also resulting in the exploitation of students and the distortion of learning.
We’ve been reminded that alternatives to neoliberal higher education, that challenge the global juggernaut in more ways than just free tuition, already exist and in places flourish. We should not restrict ourselves by thinking only through the frameworks of mainstream institutions: “While we need not be wholly without the university in order to fight for higher education for all, by learning how not to be wholly within actually-existing university institutions we can begin to breathe other possibilities.” Alongside this we’ve had some deep discussion about what higher education is for; after all, how can we draw a roadmap for the future of education without asking what its true purpose and essence should be? Indeed, many of the problems higher education suffers from stem from answering this question incorrectly – or not even asking it at all.
This series has also begun to sketch out the changes we should be mobilising for as staff, students, activists and union members: supporting the idea of more cooperative, as opposed to corporate, profit-driven, models for housing and food; reclaiming the idea of ‘community’ from marketing and senior managers; challenging the exploitation of associate lecturers and international students; protesting the closure of courses for profit-based reasons; and fighting for more student and staff representation in decision making.
Last but not least, this series has identified many of the key strategic battles that will need to be fought in order to reach these goals. Activists within the NUS must work to return the union to a tradition of radical, grassroots campaigning. Students, staff and unions on campus must get stuck into the crucial work of “linking disparate groups of campus workers” in solidarity against marketisation. All students have a role to play in democratising our Students’ Unions, through advocating for more cooperative models of organising than the union-as-charity system allows, electing progressive trustees, ensuring that major decisions are made by representative bodies of students meeting physically, and reducing the control universities have over SU revenue streams.
The higher education sector is one of the clearest showcases of the neoliberal mentality in the UK: government power is being used to deliberately craft a market system and a consumer mentality amongst its users, where such forces did not previously exist. This has transformed the higher education sector much for the worse, over the last 8 years in particular. Yet globally, neoliberalism is on the ropes, if not yet in the minds of the elites then certainly in the hearts of the masses. In the UK, we might see success for Labour and the end of tuition fees in the very near future. Yet just as this series has highlighted the need to think beyond this policy, it should also serve to highlight the need to think before it too: instead of just waiting for that next, elusive general election, how can we be building and changing non-commodified higher education now, today? We cannot wait on a more benign government to simply impose change from above: national legislation will be an important and necessary part of transforming education, but we must remember that top-down, elite-driven processes are also part of the problem. If we are to truly transform higher education, it needs to come from below.
Tuition fees have greatly accelerated the project of marketising higher education, but the process began before and will last after them. Above are some of the long-term goals we should be aiming for and some strategies for achieving them. The ideas and perspectives put forward in this series are not exhaustive; nor can they be. Any act that advances collective solidarity and undermines market, profit-driven processes is a blow to the neoliberal project. Wherever we refuse to approach an issue as an individual and instead mobilise as a collective, whenever we demand that values other than profit or self-advancement are prioritised, we are carving a path for a better sort of higher education. With this in mind, the possibilities for creative resistance are limitless.