Free Education: The Foundation of a Better Society
I am passionate about education. I believe that it has the power to transform individuals, communities and society for the better. As such, I think education should be free. And that means free education throughout life, not just primary and secondary schooling. As Rector of the University of Aberdeen and a member of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, I am proud to have learnt from and stood with so many students who are also committed to free education for all.
The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) has just published a report showing that fewer than two in five students in the UK think they are getting value for money. At the same time, levels of student wellbeing continue to fall. One interesting aspect of these results is the difference in satisfaction between the four nations of the UK: 60% of students in Scotland, where Scottish students do not pay tuition fees, felt they were getting good value, compared with 48% in Wales, 36% in Northern Ireland, and 35% in England.
It is tempting to conclude that the absence of fees in Scotland – something for which I have campaigned and continue to support – is the main reason for the marked geographical variation. It does, I am sure, play a part. But I think the report, and indeed the whole approach to assessing student satisfaction on the basis of value for money, require deeper exploration and challenge.
Education must not just be seen as the means of churning out economically viable and valuable cogs (students) for the labour market. There are innumerable studies that highlight the non-economic benefits of education. This is especially true of the education of women and girls. Education makes us more fulfilled and compassionate people, builds more equal and resilient communities and creates healthier and happier societies.
We must, I believe, resist the marketisation and commodification of education. We know that market forces do not – cannot – value what really matters. We know that tuition fees and inadequate financial support to live leads to debt. And we also know that the student debt repayment system is just a nonsense, being very complex and inefficient. But more than this, we know that debt is a way of disciplining workers: of forcing people to pursue market-valued careers that do not sustain human life, rather than the creative and caring careers that provide solace for the soul or care for our communities. People are driven out of and away from careers that are socially helpful, like nursing, teaching, caring, creating, just to repay debt. And they are forced to be compliant workers: profit maximisers in the neoliberal economic machine, not complaining, not causing a fuss.
And we know that debt is not only bad for the economy, it is bad for all of our mental health. Financial pressures are a major source of anxiety, depression and other ill-health for students and young people. The Hepi research finding that student wellbeing is decreasing should cause alarm bells to ring for all of us. Why support a system that we know makes us ill?
The Westminster government has created an environment in which public spending reduces year-on-year; where cuts have become a normalised part of service provision. And I profoundly reject this ideology.
I want a society that values education as a universal good; a society that gives people the chance to learn about music, the arts, philosophy (subjects facing cuts at every level of education) as well as science and technology; a society that seeks to support the creation of well-rounded, creative and caring people, not just atomised labour market fodder.
And so we should build an economic system with this at its heart: one where universal goods are provided by a healthy public sector that is supported by redistributive taxation and where the wealth of society is used to create health, happiness and better lives for everyone.