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Student debt: selling out the next generation

With student debt spiralling and higher education being reduced to a commodity, Laurie Penny calls for a change of course

February 12, 2008
9 min read


Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


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University used to be about getting yourself educated. Now, if you’re lucky, it’s about getting in, grabbing the biggest, most career-oriented degree you can lay hands on, and getting out again – hopefully with your sanity intact and a few weeks’ holiday before you don a suit and start paying back your loan. Macro-capitalism has sold us out, turning education into a consumable – a privilege to be bought rather than a right to be aspired to.

Discussion of macro-capitalist policy making has to involve a considered look at where the money is and where it’s going, so let’s start there. Gordon Brown’s cabinet has recently, amid much public fanfare, pledged an extra £14 billion to be spent on primary and secondary education over the next three years, bringing the total education budget to £74 billion by 2010. This represents an annual increase of 2.5 per cent in real terms, compared with 4.4 per cent in recent years. Yes, that’s right – despite all the fuss, the rate of increased spending on education is actually slowing.

Moreover, it must be understood that £14 billion over three years, while it might sound like incredible riches, is in fact a paltry sum. Compare it to, say, the arbitrary figure of £28 billion conjured out of thin air to float Northern Rock last November. Next to this, or to the £128 billion (US$255 billion) made annually in legal tax evasion by the world’s super-rich, £14 billion is peanuts. And yet, how is this paltry sum being afforded?

It’s being afforded at the expense of a higher education system that is now almost entirely funded by its students, via top-up fees and, most recently, by Brown’s auction of the student loans book. That’s right, £6 billion – one third of the total owed by students and graduates – is to be sold to private investors. The NUS has been assured that the sale of the loans ‘should not affect’ the low interest rate currently set on graduate repayments; however, the government has provided no details of what subsidies it has planned to counter commercial rates of interest. Students have every reason to worry.

As such, not only do all but the very poorest have to personally finance their higher education but the ‘effectively interest-free’ loans that brought this about are now in jeopardy. All so that Brown can move some money around the already under-funded education budget rather than actually implementing any radical changes in public spending. And let’s not forget: students starting university this year are set to graduate with an average of over £15,000 worth of debt, and in some cases much more – not all of which is borrowed from the Student Loans company. To finance the increasing costs of higher education, students are becoming beholden to parents, banks and private loan providers, and working themselves into the ground outside of university hours merely to stay afloat. The net effect of this is that education has now become a commodity, and students have been transformed into consumers, entrenching social division and negating aspiration.

Recent efforts to redress the balance have been too little, too late.

‘Stagnation, stagnation, stagnation’

Blair’s much-hyped goal of ’50 per cent in higher education’ is now near to realisation. It has consistently been mistaken for a step towards higher aspirations for all; in fact, the way it has been managed makes it precisely the opposite, entrenching the stagnation of social mobility since 1970, as was recently reported by the Sutton Tust. Quite simply, the socio-economic goalposts have been moved for a generation of young people entering the workplace.

Over the past 15 years, a higher degree has become more than just a useful qualification. In the words of that noted socio-political analyst, Joe Strummer, one can no longer expect even to make tea at the BBC without a BA. A degree is increasingly a necessary entrance ticket to a certain level of employment and fiscal stability, effectively extending the mandatory education period for a large and specifically privileged social demographic: the middle classes.

After 10 years of Labour government, there is still only a 20 per cent likelihood of bright children from the poorest quarter of families going to university, a figure that rises to 80 per cent among the middle and upper-middle classes. Recent efforts to redress the balance have fallen pitifully short. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), the new initiative to provide limited grants of up to £2,800 per year to the very poorest students will benefit very few of those actually in need. Only the very poorest are eligible, and for those that do make it to university from households with an income under £17,500, the money is usually insufficient.

In what was billed as an effort to increase social mobility, New Labour has in fact managed to entrench the social stagnation of the Thatcher years by creating a system of mandatory, effectively self-funded higher education as an entry requirement for the middle classes. Well-meant fob-off politics – such as this year’s limited grant-scheme – have been too little, too late.

Education as a consumable

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the escalating loans system of financing higher education is the fact that university education is seen as something that should, first and foremost, provide ‘value for money’. As Albert Einstein noted in his 1949 treatise ‘On Education’, an erosion of personhood and negation of rounded education occurs when ‘an exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career. There is only one way to eliminate these grave evils … namely, a socially-funded educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.’

Students are now aware, from the moment they enter university, that they will have to earn money to pay back their borrowings for the very education that will finance those borrowings. As such, education becomes judged purely in terms of the monetary rewards it will eventually deliver. Even official press releases and loans company documents refer to a student’s degree as little more than an exciting form of ISA – an investment purely in one’s financial future, rather than in one’s personal or social future.

This, in fact, is the root of the problem. Education is not a product. It’s a process. You can pay people to teach you, yes, but you cannot pop down to your local high street and buy yourself an education. Fifty years ago, Einstein recognised that an acquisitional, fiscally-minded higher education system was a contributing factor to ‘the crippling of individuals, [which] I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil’. Students in the 21st century are increasingly treated as consumers, buying on credit their ticket into a system that will, if they’re lucky, squeeze them out the other end as products themselves, boxed up with identical gleaming CVs and desperate smiles: tagged, bagged and shipped out from the warehouse onto the screeching shop-floor of life.

Sold out by student politicians?

What’s worrying is that our own official representatives are more interested in playing the system than in challenging it. The NUS, a deeply divided but influential union, has allowed the government cumulatively to chip away at the rights of students for one reason only – namely, that the union has, for the past decade, been run by Labour-affiliated students with one eye constantly on their own futures in government. As such, the main NUS delegates have been reluctant to make waves to secure the educational rights of the next generation of British citizens. The 2006 NUS conference, for example, responding to the controversial introduction of top-up-fees, concluded that a small increase in means-tested grants would solve the problem – but this has already proven to be vastly insufficient.

There remains, however, a dedicated radical faction amongst student representatives who have continued to contest the increasing shift of higher education towards the status of an unequal service industry. One such sub-group is the student organisation Education Not for Sale (ENS).

ENS, like many on the student left, has come to the conclusion that a fully subsidised higher education system, with living grants available to all, is the only way to turn around the social stagnation brought about by the financial and schematic management of the UK university system. Sophie Buckland, ENS women’s officer and a spokesperson for the organisation, tells us: ‘[Our organisation] fights for a grant high enough to live on for all students in post-16 education as part of a fully free education system – at least £120 a week. Even a minimal increase in taxation of the rich and of business would create enough funds to make this possible.’

Radical change is needed

Brown’s government has an opportunity to make university a plane of true social levelling and real educational and personal endeavour. But only if the prime minister has the courage to radically re-think his policy on education spending right across the board. Robbing University Peter to pay Primary Paul is a pitiful attempt at instigating the sort of systemic change needed.

Brown could provide the kind of higher education every young person has a right to quite easily, but only by rolling back the tax windfalls Labour has given the rich will enough public funds be generated to do so. He must invest not only in the country’s financial future, but in the social and educational legacies his government will leave to the next generation. Only radical, systemic change of the UK’s attitude towards education spending will give my young sisters’ generation the choices, in learning and in life, that every youth facing an uncertain 21st-century future deserves.

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Laurie PennyLaurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.


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