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From The Socialist newspaper, 8 November 2007

Education for the rich

Education for business

Education for profit?

TONY BLAIR'S rallying cry of the 1997 general election was for "education, education, education", a call that chimed with the aspirations of ordinary people to have the opportunity to learn, develop ideas and understanding of the world and participate in society.

What came after did not, however, satisfy the hope that this would mean high quality education for all. In fact, within months the New Labour government announced the introduction of university tuition fees of a £1,000 a year.

In 2006 university freshers had to present proof they had paid the £3,000 a year top-up fees or had a loan to do so. In 2007 plans are afoot to raise the amount universities can charge with many vice-chancellors calling for charges of up to £10,000 a year.

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge looks at how, as a result of this and other policies which transfer the cost of education to individuals, education has become even more divided in the ten years since New Labour came to power.

THE GOVERNMENT'S headlines have highlighted their target of getting 50% of young people into university. In the detail and the experience of students lie the fact that the education experience varies enormously, based mainly on social class and the fact that the government's policies are making things worse.

A report by the Sutton Trust showed that just one hundred schools, four-fifths from the private sector, account for nearly a third of all UK undergraduates starting at Oxford or Cambridge universities each year.

Britain is a divided country. While the wealth of the richest one thousand people increased by 20% in the year ending April 2007 to £360 billion, the share of disposal income held by the poorest 10% has fallen by a third since 1979.

Britain, amongst 'advanced' capitalist countries, comes second only to the US in terms of inequality. The main reason for this is that the UK government, like that of the US, has taken the neo-liberal method to heart and is privatising public services and cutting taxes for the richest. Public spending, at 41% of GDP, is very low when compared to other European countries, especially France where it is 53%.

Reports and studies back up what everyone knows – there is a two-tier education system in Britain. Research for the Campaign to End Child Poverty says young people from poor homes are as much as two years behind their peers in educational achievement by age 14.

Lack of investment

A survey by the OECD (organisation for economic co-operation and development) ranked Britain among the lowest when it comes to teenage aspiration to attend university. The results of a survey of 3,000 A-level students published last June found that 29% are less likely to go to university because of tuition fees - a 2% increase on the previous year's figures.

Almost two-thirds (64%) say they will get a part-time job while at university and 26% say they will live with their parents or guardians while studying. In making subject choices 20% said that potential job opportunities are the most important factor.

Fees and particularly the lack of a living grant mean that more and more students are forced to undertake paid work. A report from the Higher Education Policy Institute found that students who spend the most time on paid work during term time are more likely to express dissatisfaction, a finding which chimes with other research showing that too much paid work has a deleterious effect on academic success.

The report compared higher education in Britain with that in other European countries and one conclusion was that in England, students are often working up to 20 hours a week but are still getting their degrees in three years. Students who work also have less time to participate in the other aspects of student life, something that future employers take into account.

The effect continues beyond graduation. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report in 2005 found that students from poor backgrounds are more likely to get into debt and take non-graduate jobs than their middle-class counterparts.

The study surveyed 250 students from some of the poorest areas of the country, concluding that they made slow progress in the job market. One year after leaving university, just four out of ten had found graduate-level work. A report from the Higher Education Statistics agency shows that the pay gap means female graduates earn less than men from the start.

The idea that education is a right has been eroded and the government has campaigned on the idea that everyone should pay for the benefit they will personally get from university. But a well and widely educated population creates benefits beyond increased earnings for the individual.

However, on the basis of this approach, public funding of education, as of all public services, is decreasing. Spending on higher education in Britain is lower than the OECD average despite Britain being the fifth richest country on the planet and having had fifteen years of economic growth.

Last summer the financial crisis in one hundred universities, mainly ex-polytechnics, hit the news. As we have seen in the health service there has already been a salami tactic with the closure of courses and departments on the basis of financial deficits.

Chemistry departments have been shut down and we are told that they weren't financially viable. However, where the needs of big business are not met a different approach is taken and £75 million was put into science, mainly physics, to meet the demand for skilled workers in this field.

Increasingly education is viewed as part of the market economy rather than as part of public services. A report from the British Council showed that education is worth more to British exports than either financial services or the car industry. In 2003-4 £28 billion was earned from overseas students.

Instead of properly funding education New Labour are looking at 'new' ways of financing it which include further fees, privatisation and appeals to wealthy philanthropists. Of course there is nothing new about this and in fact it is another example of the clock being turned back on public provision of vital services.

In March of this year when Gordon Brown was still chancellor he announced plans to sell off the student loans company. In November 2006 Kaplan International, a US education company bid to establish the first for-profit university in the UK.

However, within universities private companies are busy taking over the provision of all sorts of services from photocopying, to canteens, to halls of residence. Research by market researchers AMA, entitled 'Education Construction Market UK 2007' says that the higher education sector in England has an annual turnover of £15 billion. It goes on to say that "the student accommodation sector remains a lucrative market" and that "the total value of student accommodation was estimated to be worth around £17 billion in 2006".

A socialist approach

We are celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution this year and can learn a lot from the approach of the first Soviet government prior to the period of Stalinist degeneration. Within days of the revolution the introduction of free, compulsory education was announced. Open access to all universities was decreed and schools run by school boards which included pupils taking a real part in the decision making – not the tokenism of many school councils in Britain today.

Karl Marx commented that education should "combine productive labour with instruction and gymnastics, not only as methods of adding to the efficiency of production, but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings".

New Labour ministers talk a lot about skilling students for work, but work, and especially low-paid, low-skilled, temporary work, is not the only reason for education. Far from it.

Writing in 1924 Leon Trotsky criticised the way that "capitalism puts mental and physical labour in the greatest contradiction…[transforming] physical labour into repellent, automatic labour, and raises mental labour, at the highest level of generalisation, into idealistic abstraction and mystical scholasticism".

Today, education for many young people is increasingly designed to suit the low-skilled service sector. Hylton Red House school in Sunderland has linked up with EDF energy to provide half a GCSE in call-centre work. The plan to raise the school-leaving age to 18 is likely to involve more training for low-skilled, low-paid employment, designed for the needs of bosses not students.

The question of who is involved in the running of our schools, colleges and universities is a vital one in the question of ending the two-tier system. Why should millionaire Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, sit as a co-chancellor at Manchester University?

The government's Education and Inspection Act of 2005 spelt out a new role for local education authorities – as bodies that commission services from the private sector. In August the CBI, the bosses' organisation complained in the Financial Times that local authorities still play too much of a role in education despite the already sizeable growth of private sector involvement.

Starbucks has been running a 'WorkWise' scheme with a City Academy in Bristol as part of an effort to build up employability of 14- to 15- year-olds. The company has developed a new qualification designed to equip young people with skills to work in retail.

Education is being handed on a plate to big business. The fat cats are rubbing their hands with glee. They make a fortune out of the PFI schemes for building and maintaining schools and universities. And then the public purse pays for students to be trained specifically to work for them.

While private profit is a motivating factor in our education there can only be a two-tier or multi-tier system. What students learn will be increasingly limited to the needs of business. Socialists stand for publicly funded, free, high quality education for all.

Unfortunately the National Union of Students (NUS), which has the resources to organise the many students who oppose privatisation and commercialisation, is politically tied to New Labour and has not led a fight back.

Socialist Students has launched the Campaign to Defeat Fees, calling on all who stand for free education to unite and fight fees, cuts, closures and privatisation.

One of the biggest obstacles to the fight for free education is the absence of a political party that stands for this. New Labour have been able to get away with a lot because they are unopposed by either of the other main parties.

Socialists must call for and help students to build a mass campaign against the attacks on education and to link up with the wider working class to fight for free education and the building of a new mass workers' party.

"I decided to go university to further my knowledge. I planned to work part time to finance myself and the only debt I would have owed to the university would have been the tuition fee which I oppose. I wish New Labour hadn't introduced them.

I found it easy to apply for my loan. I'm sure it was easy because the loan company know that if they invest in me, in the end I will be probably be paying double the amount I borrowed.

I left my course firstly as it didn't give the motivation I was looking for. Plus in the back of my head I kept on thinking about the amount of debt I would face when I leave."

Anthony, South London

"I've seen lots of research showing there is a two-tier system but I don't think the problem is quite as bad in Scotland as it is in England. Not having top-up fees it makes it a lot more accessible for working-class young people.

But the cost of living is really bad. They've just built new student halls of residence and they're privately owned. They cost £3,500 for 37 weeks but you only get £4,500 maximum if you get the full loan. There's no option other than getting a job and I'd say 80% of students I know have to work. You can't really do that and do a full time course. I've been told I should be doing 40 hours study a week just to get a decent mark. I saw a report saying the average is 20 hours. When are you meant to have a life outside of that?"

Leah, Dundee University

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