YES

James Elliott

The current model of higher education funding has demonstrably failed. Privatisation, fees, cuts and debt over the last four years have all resulted in a 17% drop in the number of undergraduates, the closure of arts and humanities courses, and a collapse in the number of mature and part-time students attending university.

What’s more, this isn’t a financially sustainable system. An estimate of
the portion of student loans that will never be repaid has risen to 45%; this
statistic explains £2.5bn black hole in the universities budget. Clearly, the
system has to change, but on who’s terms? Will it be those of students,
workers, academics and society? Or will it be those of private finance? 

There are two distinct visions of higher education that we must choose between. The first is the vision of the Coalition, and their wealthy backers such as Pearson, a private education company, who are seeking to roll back the public provision of education.

They envision an American-style education system. In the USA a higher proportion of university funds are spent on marketing than on teaching, and working-class, black and disabled students in particular are locked out of higher education. 

The current system is bad enough to resemble that. Tuition fees are ‘a bonanza for the 1%’, as a Professor of Geography here in Oxford, Danny Dorling, referred to them. The fees system allows the wealthy to pay their £27,000 up front, while working-class students pay far more because of interest on their debt. 

The second vision is that of the NUS: Education that is free, well-funded, universally accessible and with high living grants and loans to end student poverty. This is to be paid for by getting the government to clamp down on tax avoidance, rather than taxing the poorest in society, which is in fact what fees themselves are. Money for quality teaching, welfare provision, enough cash to live off and expensive access schemes to help the
poorest.

Everything that students need at university, which they are currently being deprived of, can be paid for by closing in on the £120bn that is avoided in tax each year.

My chief opponents in this debate seem to be the ex-OUCA President,
Jack Matthews, and the Vice-President of OUSU, James Blythe. James
made the objection in OUSU Council last week that, “free education will
never happen”, forgetting that Germany abolished fees just a month
ago, and even cash-strapped Greece provides higher education for free.

Just what are the objections to takingmoney that is avoided in tax andthen ploughing it back into education?

I can’t see any, unless you’re a tax avoider ripping off the public. The essential question remains: What is education for? Or in this case, what are universities for? Education, for me, is a tool of human emancipation. It’s a social good, and a human right. It’s not a commodity to be sold, or a service to be run for profit.If our education system continues down its current path, then profit wins, but students, workers and communities lose.

We need to embrace that holistic view for what education should be like, then mobilise and campaign to win that system. Students, when they fight collectively, have won huge gains in Germany, Chile, Quebec and elsewhere in the last few years.

It’s time this country’s students followed this example. Let’s drop the toxic notion that education and politics are things that happen to us, and let’s retake the agency in this situation, and set out to win the free, public
education system that we know is best for all.

 

NO

James Blythe

In common rooms all over Oxford this week, students will be voting
on how to mandate their representatives at OUSU Council on the issue of making OUSU education funding policy ‘free education’. Free education seems like a noble and important principle. I wish I could support it — but I can’t.

It’s my job, as your Vice-President (Access & Academic Affairs), alongside
the other officers of OUSU, to represent the students of Oxford to the University, and in particular to lobby for a continuation of the generous
and sector-leading package of bursaries that are targeted at the students
in most need of support.

Those bursaries are having a real and crucial impact. They target support
at the students who really need it, and they are thought about carefully
on an annual basis, looking at the actual evidence of what works.
The bursary package is key in making sure that access to Oxford is not hindered by £9k fees.

Not only do I believe that it is vital that I am taken seriously in negotiations
about something as important as bursaries, but also that if I am not, that will have direct and immediate impact on my ability to fight for improvements
to that package. Tying OUSU to fighting for free higher education,
is a policy that is, in my view, utterly unfeasible in the financial situation in which the UK currently finds itself and for the foreseeable future would leave student representatives unable to fight for real spending and tangible changes that could make an actual difference to students.

I am all for taking important principled stances and I will join James Elliott
on any picket line he can find for us in anger at the chronic underinvestment
in higher education by theUK government. It is appalling andn staggering that we spend below the OECD average on higher education. In fact, I believe that is a picket line at which the Vice-Chancellor, who recently condemned the low spending on higher education by the UK government in his beginning of year
Oration, could join James and me.

I’m not in favour of taking positions just because the Vice-Chancellor
agrees — far from it. When he called for £16k undergraduate fees,
I worked, as the then Brasenose JCR President, with OUSU and other JCR
Presidents and we wrote a letter condemning it as well as bringing
motions in JCRs and OUSU Council. My record is clear — when necessary,
I will stand up to the University and challenge them.

I do, though, believe that we have to pick our battles and pick winnable
ones. It’s also a fact that if we can work with the University and bring
them with us, we will achieve change for students much more easily.

The way forward for the student movement is to embrace realistic goals in order to be taken seriously at the policy-making table both nationally and here in Oxford. I would be proud of a student union and a movement that fought for an increase in public spending, a commitment to no further increase in tuition fees, and real improvements in the visa policy for international students – again something the Vice-Chancellor has called for.

All of these things are achievable – if we focus on free education, a battle
the student movement, if we’re honest, lost 16 years ago, we will, in my
view, look fiscally reckless and unaware of the political reality.

More importantly, we’ll compromise our ability to achieve genuine
change for students. When voting in common rooms this weekend and
when the issue is brought to OUSU Council, take a stand for pragmatism and for principle: vote down the objective of free education.