The universities minister David Willetts suggested today that poorer students could have their fees covered for the first year of university by the government. The announcement was immediately denounced by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts as ‘appeasement politics’. Education activists maintain that the proposals still base university opportunity on parental wealth. Ed Miliband calls the bill an ‘assault on social mobility’ and strongly opposes the government’s plans.
While these criticisms are valid, I think the move should be partially welcomed. It is a concession that has only happened in the light of the recent student protests. But it is only that – a concession – and the fees package should be rejected by all those who campaign for free, universal education. The ability for universities to effectively set the rates of fees on courses, up to £9,000, creates a market in HE, forcing the notion of profit into education, and opening up the possibility of departments, universities and whole courses being abandoned merely because of competition or low take-up.
One problem that hasn’t yet been fully explored is that of antipathy. With the present £3k cap, everyone pays the same amount. And while this is not preferable to free education, it does establish a sense of unity and cohesion between students. With variable fees, antipathy could grow between those on lower incomes who may not have to pay for their first year (under today’s announcement) and those paying the highest rate. Thus the level of social division and inequality actually increases.
Universality is what makes public institutions, such as the NHS, last – shared identity, common interest. The rise in fees and the subsequent privatisation of higher education removes this fundamental premise and could be incredibly disruptive for students who currently share classes with people from all economic backgrounds.
The protest on the 9th will go ahead as planned. The coalition’s aim to increase fees and cut funding to HE should be resisted by all students, regardless of little sweeteners such as the one announced today.