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A mortgage for a degree

Introducing a free market in tuition fees that universities in England can charge students, together with the coalition’s planned spending cuts, will undermine the last vestiges of state-funded higher education.

Students will in future leave university in debt to the tune of around £50,000, if proposals announced today go through. The average degree would actually represent a mortgage rather than the result of three years studying at a place of learning.

Not that Lord Browne, who drafted the report on funding for the Lib-Con government, would understand financial pain. The former chief executive of the BP oil corporation left in 2007 with a £5.3 million pay-off and a £21.7 million pension pot, as well as millions of pounds in shares.

His recommendation that the existing cap on tuition fees of £3,290 a year be scrapped and universities be allowed to charge what they want, imposes market conditions that convert higher education into a commodity to be bought and sold like any other good. Universities in England will then leap to the top of the league table of countries where it is the most expensive to study.

At the same time, government funding seems certain to be directed away from arts and humanities courses as part of spending cuts to be announced next week. Together with the fees rise, access to university education is certain to become more unequal than ever before.

The University and College Union, which represents lecturers, criticised Browne’s proposals. Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary, said they “represent the final nail in the coffin for affordable higher education” and would “price the next generation out of education”.

But, of course, all this began with New Labour. The Blair government was the first to introduce tuition fees and business (that’s what higher education is considered to be) spokesman, John Denham, did not oppose the Browne report outright, merely saying: “It is right that students make some contribution towards the cost of their higher education.” The system had to be “fair, progressive, sustainable” – whatever that means.

So any notion that a Miliband government would save the day should the coalition collapse over the issue of a free market in fees (most unlikely), is pure fantasy. The truth is that massive spending cuts and increases in charges across the board are on their way, no matter who is in power.

What the Browne report does confirm is that the capitalist state is now setting about in earnest the wrecking the remaining parts of the post-1945 political compromise that was the basis for free education, the National Health Service and social support of different kinds.

Against the background of a deepening financial crisis, the state intends to wash its hands of social responsibility through a combination of contracting out, market forces and the “Big Society” project. What New Labour began, the coalition intends to complete.

The question then arises: what is the purpose and usefulness of a state that cannot provide for its citizens? What is the point in carrying on with a state that is beholden to corporate power and financial markets? What is the point in persisting with the fraud that is known as Parliamentary democracy when it produces a savage assault on the electorate?

To ask these questions is to answer them. We live in a state that has failed, one that is propping up an unsustainable and unstable economic system. Opposing the break-up of higher education and the cuts programme has to go hand in hand with a strategy for creating a real democracy based on the actual origins of the concept – people power.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
12 October 2010

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